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CPUC: Californias Corporate Profit Upkeep Commission
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Sylvia Siegel was an amazing woman.

I met her in the 1970s in a four-car garage in an exclusive Granite Bay neighborhood east of Roseville where hundreds of irate PG&E customers turned out to hear her talk. Several years earlier she had founded TURN - The Utility Reform Network - in a bid to make sure the never ending rate increases asked for by PG&E and other public utilities would no longer go unchallenged. She was there to solicit support for TURN and help organize opposition to a massive PG&E rate hike.

It was a surreal gathering. Siegel asked some in attendance to describe their situation as far as PG&E was concerned. Several working class families explained they depended on electricity for everything from drinking water from wells to heating their rural homes. Their energy bills had skyrocketed to $200 a month (Remember this was 35 years ago.) Several seniors on limited income said they were now paying almost a fifth of their income to PG&E.

Back where I was standing two men were bantering back and forth bragging about how they were paying $1,200 and $1,400 a month. They said they had 5,000-square-foot homes complete with large heated swimming pools, spas, and guest housing.

Even though they could well afford their excess and rising power rates they opened their wallets at the end of the night and wrote checks to help support TURN. One of the two men happened to own a fairly good-sized manufacturing firm that was moving from Rocklin to Folsom to take advantage of significantly lower power rates form Sacramento Municipal Utility District in order to stay competitive and keep 100 employees working.

Siegel noted that evening that the California Public Utilities Commission was a lap dog of the state’s public utilities that basically got whatever they wanted.

On her watch TURN exposed $346 million in fuel cost overcharges by PG&E and Southern California Edison in 1974, won a US Supreme Court ruling upholding a CPUC directive forcing Pacific Telephone to refund $341 million to customers in 1979, as well as an assortment of other victories that - coupled with TURN’s work after her departure - arguably has saved California consumers well in excess of $1 billion.

Even Siegel - who passed away in 2007 - would be appalled at the CPUC’s latest shenanigans.

CPUC member and securities lawyer Timothy Simon is pushing to have “partnerships” pay corporate income taxes even though they are exempt from them. If you think that is anti-business, guess again.

The CPUC allows corporate taxes to be collected as part of rate increases to cover the public utility’s tax obligations.

That means partnerships such as Santa Fe Pipeline would collect the taxes from its customers. In Santa Fe’s case that is $11.1 million a year. But as a partnership Santa Fe is exempt from corporate income tax. The end result would be an annual $11.1 million windfall in profits for Santa Fe as they get to pocket whatever money they collect for taxes but aren’t leveled in a given year.

If you don’t think that makes the CPUC cozy consider this: The CPUC president is Mike Peavey who happens to be the former president of Southern California Edison, the Southland’s slightly more reasonable counterpart to PG&E.  In fairness, Edison has much better service records and lower rates. A current key lawyer for the CPUC was one of the former top counsels for PG&E. A former commissioner was a telephone industry lawyer by the name of Rachelle Chong. Do you see a pattern?

It explains why the CPUC is the last to weigh in on major issues involving utilities such as PG&E’s Rancho Cordova explosion two years ago that killed a customer at Christmas and the more recent San Bruno inferno that killed off some more customers and destroyed dozens of customer homes.

PG&E has its largest ever rate increase before the CPUC that they want to go into effect early in 2011 to the tune of $1.01 billion.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District stepped up and was able to secure status as a challenger of the rate hike in question.

They have found a number of interesting things including a PG&E request to charge ratepayers for power pole replacement projects that they had previously secured rate increases to replace but failed to do the job.

What happened to the money? The CPUC apparently could care less. Better yet why isn’t the CPUC staff catching stuff like that instead of the public they’re supposed to protect relying on TURN or agencies such as the SSJID to do work the CPUC should be doing?

The answer is simple. The CPUC in reality is the Corporate Profit Upkeep Commission.