You’ve Got Power

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Perhaps you have seen some of the recent newspaper articles saying that many California lawmakers and energy companies are so concerned about our ability to challenge the bailout of the utility companies at the ballot box that they are trying to prevent us from doing so. (Cllick here to read the LA Times article and the Wall Street Journal article.

They have pretty good reason to be worried. For one thing, we have a solid track record, beginning with Proposition 103, the 1988 insurance reform initiative which produced $1.2 billion in rate refunds to consumers and, through tough regulation, blocked over $15 billion in rate increases. That initiative has been remarkably impervious to the insurance industry’s over one hundred legal challenges, thanks to the legal teams we have assembled.

And then there are the initiatives that didn’t pass, but changed the framework of the debate. Our 1996 HMO reform initiative was ahead of its time — the HMO disaster had not quite begun yet — and was easily beaten by the managed care insurance industry. But five years later, virtually every provision in the initiative has been enacted in Sacramento, and a few extra to boot, like the HMO liability legislation FTCR pushed through in 1999.

Then there’s Proposition 9. That’s the 1998 measure that would have reversed the first bailout of the utilities that has now cost us over $20 billion. That one the utilities had to spend $40 million to defeat. (Once it was on the ballot, we spent about $300,000 — all we could afford — in support of it). And, since no one understood the havoc deregulation was about to wreak on us, it was defeatable with $40 million. Prop. 9 is one of the reasons why the Legislature is paying serious attention to us now.

But I believe the main reason why we are considered a force to be reckoned with is our unique citizen volunteer project, known as the Oaks Project. The name is a metaphor for the type of person who is willing to commit to the job of rebuilding people power and real democracy. The volunteers, or Oaks as they are known, must be as strong and sturdy, as well rooted and permanent, as the Oak trees that line California. Oaks work closely with FTCR’s staff — experts in community leadership training, as well as some of the nation’s most respected citizen advocates and experts in citizen lobbying, consumer and taxpayer advocacy, and litigation. The Oaks learn how to be real community leaders.

The Oaks Project fulfills mutual needs: the need of citizens to feel that they can make a difference. And our need to be able to engage the broader public in how our democracy is run.

We began the effort quietly in 1995; a few volunteers worked on the HMO initiative. Proposition 9 was our first major test. Oaks got more than 100,000 signatures to help put that measure on the ballot.

By last year, several hundred Oaks decided to sponsor local legislation to protect the public’s money against corruption. The Oaks drafted a “Taxpayer Protection Act” which prohibits local government officials from accepting campaign contributions from people or businesses that to which they award government contracts. Oaks put the TPA on the ballot in five California cities: San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Claremont and Vista. Then the Oaks organized local campaigns to pass the initiatives.

All five passed: three last November, two last week.

Of course, the local politicians opposed the measures. And several of the cities have joined together to block the initiative in the courts. They claim the TPA violates their constitutional right to take money from the people they do business with in our name, using our money! We’re very confident that we’ll prevail in the courts.

The fact that volunteers simultaneously placed five measures on local ballots in California cities is an impressive achievement. If it has ever happened before in California, we can find no record of it. What it means is that there are many citizens who still care enough about our democracy to work hard to improve it.

That is real political power. And it’s why the utilities, energy companies and their political allies are worried about us.

If you’re interested in joining the Oaks Project, visit its page on the web at

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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