By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
SACRAMENTO -- Gray Davis had a different sort of governorship in mind. He figured he’d raise tremendous amounts of campaign cash, stay out of the way of business, and preside over budget surpluses fattened by the flush new economy. Then he‘d raise tremendous amounts of campaign cash, go to the head of the education-reform parade, raise tremendous amounts of campaign cash, win another landslide victory in 2002, and see what happens in 2004.
He certainly never thought he’d be in the middle of what even some of his own associates describe as problematic negotiations to take over the power grid owned by California‘s reeling private utilities.
Amid the disaster of California’s electric-power deregulation and our sagging new economy, our avowedly middle-of-the-road, don‘t-rock-the-boat governor finds himself in a desperate scramble simply to keep the lights on. Increasingly, he is pushing government directly into the energy business to do so. Right now, he is negotiating for a state takeover of the power grid long owned by Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Pacific Gas & Electric.
After early waffling, Davis has embraced the proposal for a state public power authority offered in January by Treasurer Phil Angelides and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D--San Francisco). After earlier pushing a more innocuous plan for the state to bail out the private utilities in exchange for stock options, Davis has embraced another Burton and Angelides proposal, this one to buy out utility transmission lines, further disrupting their former monopoly power, giving the state some leverage over out-of-state power generators, who oppose the plan, and placing the state in position to upgrade and expand the grid more cheaply than the utilities. The public, of course, will pay for these needed moves whether the grid is owned by the utilities or by the state. Davis was already engaged in a full-court press to buy power instead of the creditless utilities, promote conservation and bring a host of small ”peaker“ plants online to forestall a real meltdown with the coming crunch of summer air conditioning.
What’s brought about the shift in the governor‘s thinking? In short, Davis, who declined to criticize the utilities in his January State of the State address for their central role in the deregulation debacle, has discovered in his own public-opinion research that voters are very open to government involvement in the energy market. ”People want a sense of control, not the chaos which came with deregulation,“ says a Davis adviser.
Needless to say, the Republicans aren’t happy about any of this. At their state convention here last weekend, state Senator Tom McClintock (R--Thousand Oaks), regaled their power-crisis forum with a preferred alternative -- let the market reign and the nuclear plants bloom. But Davis‘ partisan opposition is in serious disarray, with only one statewide elected official and a decided minority in both houses of the Legislature, their fingerprints all over the ideological origins of the deregulation debacle. As they look to challenge Davis in 2002, they do so with fervent dreams of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger as their standard-bearer, a would-be muscleman ex machina. Or of Bill Simon Jr., the ultra-rich son of the former treasury secretary, who spent the weekend skiing rather than meeting his potential followers. Or perhaps just mild daydreams about the only potential candidate actually on the scene, Secretary of State Bill Jones, a long-time party warhorse who to date has raised less money than many candidates for the Los Angeles City Council.
With the debate having moved sharply to the left and the Republicans far less relevant here than in Washington, consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield of the Santa Monica--based Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights has emerged, at least for the moment, as the governor’s principal antagonist.
Rosenfield denounces most every move Davis makes as a bailout, threatening a massive omnibus energy initiative next year. ”John Burton is my hero,“ says Rosenfield. ”He‘s the finger in the dike in Sacramento. Gray Davis is not. He’s something else,“ which Rosenfield balks at specifying.
How Davis found himself being labeled a quasi-socialist by his Republican opponents and a sellout by his principal antagonist is a story in itself. Rosenfield is very critical of the recently announced deal to buy Edison‘s transmission lines. He says that he thinks the utilities should receive only half of book value for the grid, far less than the roughly 2.3 times book value the Davis team negotiated with Edison.
But book value is not market value, as Rosenfield’s hero Burton notes. Unless you think of the grid as being akin to a used car. In essence, book value is the amount invested in physical plant minus depreciation. Yet, quite unlike a used car, the grid is unique.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which most believe must approve a grid takeover, won‘t go along with a buyout that doesn’t represent some semblance of market value. Indeed, its new George Bush--appointed chairman says he finds the proposed grid takeover to have the troubling overtones of socialism.
Not everyone in the consumer alliance agrees with Rosenfield‘s scorched-earth assessment. The Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN) and The Utilities Reform Network (TURN) express real skepticism about aspects of the emerging grid buyout, but laud it as a conceptual breakthrough. And there is some exasperation with Rosenfield. ”I like Harvey,“ says longtime advocate Lenny Goldberg, ”but to him any rational price is a bailout.“