Tying a Yellow Ribbon Around SoCal Edison

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While the California Legislature’s Southern California Edison rescue bill goes to conference committee where details may be worked out by the end of session Sept. 14, lawmakers who have been pushing the bailout are skeptical that any compromise will actually restore the utility to creditworthiness, even if the state Senate approves it. Whatever might be worked out by elected representatives is guaranteed to find a serious voter challenge by highly motivated consumer activists.

The last time consumers challenged deregulation in California was Proposition 9 in 1998. That voter move would have reined in much of the state’s deregulation law. It failed miserably. Utilities and business spent over $40 million to defeat the measure. Consumer groups only raised $1 million to try to pass it.

This time around is far different. Back then, consumers could hardly be bothered to vote for Prop. 9. There were no blackouts, so the major media had no interest in covering deregulation. This time around the state has a well-informed voting public due to a barrage of taxpayer-funded energy advertising and constant media attention — not to mention the monthly pain of paying bills running about one-third higher than pre-deregulation.

Lawmakers got a taste of consumer backlash to come in the last two weeks when the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights enlisted a cadre of citizen lobbyists to try to leverage consumer concerns against the Edison bill, officially SB2x-78. If it weren’t for the yellow armbands, their low-key dress style would have targeted them as tourists.

But tourists they were not. Unlike the standard Sacramento Capitol tourist, the yellow armband folks attended committee hearings. They visited lawmakers. They made themselves pests to the point of being harassed by Capitol police for turning video cams on the lobbyists in the hall outside the Assembly floor — known as the shark pit.

Led by activist Harvey Rosenfield, the yellow armband people promise to repeal any bailout at the ballot box. “We are in the final stages of preparing for the ‘Mother of All Ballot Wars,'” declared Rosenfield.

If recent activism against the World Trade Organization and other economic globalization efforts is any indication, Rosenfield might be right about California. His yellow-armband minions are mostly fresh-faced and eager. While violence isn’t in the cards, street theater is everywhere. Yellow-armbanders serenaded the Capitol with “Christmas in August” carols, including, to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”: “. . . Don’t force us into a bailout or will vote you right out.” Greenpeace is also in the skit action, while more traditional consumer groups like The Utility Reform Network still do their own dark-suit lobbying.

Perhaps that’s why Edison is expressing little glee in its partial success. “I have learned to take a fairly flat-line view of it,” said Edison International chief financial officer Ted Craver. “There’s a lot more steps to take.”

One of those steps is more opportunity to lobby state senators this week. “There will be a massive assault by the special interest lobbyists,” noted Rosenfield, who says he fears the Edison bill will cost over $1,000 per capita. Rosenfield expects to strike back with his own brand of lobbying, attempting to tie a yellow ribbon around SCE.

Consumer Watchdog
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