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Lawmaker Seeks To Dissolve California Utilities Regulator

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The California Public Utilities Commission headquarters in San Francisco is pictured in this undated photo.

Lawmaker Seeks To Dissolve California Utilities Regulator

GUEST:

Jeff McDonald, reporter, The San Diego Union Tribune

A Southern California lawmaker said Wednesday that he will seek to bypass Gov. Jerry Brown and ask voters to break apart California's utilities regulator following allegations of wrongdoing.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, said the California Public Utilities Commission as it is currently known would cease to exist in 2018 if voters approve his plan.

The PUC has been a profound disappointment to residents and lawmakers in recent years, said Gatto, chairman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee.

"In recent history the PUC has been riddled with questions about the commission's ability to regulate with the people's best interest in mind," Assemblyman Marc Levine, a San Rafael Democrat and joint author of the measure, said at a news conference. "The public sentiment is that the PUC works for big-money interests."

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The proposal is the latest response to allegations that the commission is too cozy with the companies it regulates. It has also been accused of being slow to respond to a massive gas leak at Porter Ranch in Southern California this year.

The commission declined to comment on Gatto's proposal.

"We're already doing lots of things to modernize the CPUC," Constance Gordon, a spokeswoman for the commission, said Wednesday evening.

Gordon pointed to reforms highlighted in the agency's annual report released Monday, including an effort to track commissioners' meetings with utility providers, simplify the agency's website and centralize its data. In 2015, the PUC hired an internal auditor who reports to the agency's president, Michael Picker, and Commissioner Mike Florio.

Gatto said the agency has become too big to succeed.

If his proposal is approved by the Legislature and then voters, it would strip the commission of its constitutional protections and reallocate certain regulatory duties to other agencies such as the Department of Transportation or California Highway Patrol.

One agency would continue to oversee electricity and gas, but with new transparency requirements, he said. "We would not stop regulating any different utilities. But it would be spread out and probably renamed and reconstituted," Gatto said.

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has repeatedly raised concerns about the PUC, said the proposed legislation would shift control to departments that are more influenced by politics. "While the PUC's not working, it would a lot better with some simple reforms," he said.

Gatto's proposal would require approval from two-thirds of lawmakers, but not the governor's signature, to appear on the 2016 ballot. Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, also signed on as a joint author.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in October vetoed six separate bills from members of his own party that sought reforms to the agency.

Brown acknowledged in veto messages that some of the reforms he rejected are needed, including publishing more information online and holding commission meetings outside San Francisco. He asked for assurance that adequate funding exists to make those changes.

The governor was also concerned that lawmakers proposed too many revisions at once last year. "Some prudent prioritization is needed," Brown wrote.

The Senate last week approved two bills that would limit commissioners' private communications with utility officials and attempt to increase public participation.

Gatto did not release the text of his proposal Wednesday. It allows the 2017-2018 California Legislature to decide how to dismantle the PUC, he said.

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