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Los Angeles Times

As cash-strapped utilities curtail campaign donations to California lawmakers, privately owned power producers appear ready to pick up at least some of the slack.

Four suppliers to California who have benefited handsomely from a nationwide surge in wholesale electricity and natural gas prices stepped up their giving to lawmakers and political campaigns last year, donating $ 455,000, according to campaign contribution reports.

Calpine Corp. of San Jose doled out just over $ 270,000, up from $ 28,000 in 1999.

“We’re becoming a major player in California,” said Bill Highlander, Calpine’s director of public relations. “This means you get involved in some of these activities of supporting candidates.”

The company gave $ 22,500 last year to Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) and $ 19,000 to Gov. Gray Davis, according to the reports.

Several out-of-state power companies–Dynegy Inc. of Houston, Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C., and Reliant Energy of Houston–each contributed more than $ 50,000 to California campaigns last year, after donating less than $ 10,000 each in 1999.

Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Reliant Energy, said it was only in 1998 that his company bought five power plants in California. And last year was an election year, he said.

“Those contribution plans are laid out well in advance of the summertime,” said Wheatley, whose company donated about $ 53,000 in 2000. “It’s not a situation where the energy crisis would have had one effect or another on what we would have given.”

A Duke Energy official cited similar reasons for his company’s $ 77,000 in donations last year. Company officials spent the year getting to know lawmakers in the communities where they have projects, said spokesman Tom Williams. And they helped fund a November ballot measure that asked residents of Morro Bay if the City Council should support the replacement of an existing power plant owned by Duke.

“We were just kind of finding our bearings in the state,” said Williams.

He said his company’s interests in California have expanded from two power projects worth $ 700 million to three worth $ 1.6 billion.

“What we’re doing is being involved members of the community where we have plants to bring on supplies that the state needs,” Williams said.

Another company with a large stake in the California electricity market, the Houston energy marketer Enron Corp., gave $ 173,000 to California campaigns last year, compared with $ 158,000 in 1999.

Meanwhile, the parent companies of California’s two biggest utilities, which have been prevented by a rate freeze from passing to consumers the soaring wholesale electricity costs, tightened their purse strings last month by suspending political contributions.

Donations by PG&E Corp., the parent company of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., had already declined from roughly $ 1 million in the first half of 2000 to just under $ 300,000 in the latter half.

Edison International, parent of Southern California Edison, gave roughly $ 980,000 to state campaigns, with donations dipping modestly in the second half of the year.

The company spread more than $ 10,000 among three political action committees and more than $ 30,000 among 17 state lawmakers in December. It turned down $ 250,000 in new requests for contributions the same month. Edison officials say the money was committed to the recipients in October and November of last year.

Sempra Energy, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric, gave $ 500,000 to California politicians and campaigns in 2000.

Campaign reform advocate Tony Miller found the contributions unsurprising. He faulted the unrestricted California system that encourages those with something to gain to give money to politicians–if only to gain access to them.

“It’s difficult to expect the lawmakers not to accept them,” Miller said of the gifts. “This is like a thirsty person shown some water. They’re going to drink.”

Jamie Court of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights was less sanguine. He alleged a quid pro quo between the power producers and the lawmakers who approved a $ 10-billion plan Thursday that allows the state to buy power and sell it to customers of Edison and PG&E for up to a decade.

“Basically, the increase in political spending bought the power producers that sweetheart deal,” Court said.

Williams, of Duke Energy, said there was no connection between Thursday’s vote and the contributions made by his company.

“There is no correlation to that at all,” Williams said. “Decisions on contributions were made well before we entered into this crisis situation.”

Consumer Watchdog
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