Gov. Brown Joins Bid to Reform Utilities Regulator

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Major changes to the embattled California Public Utilities Commission are on the horizon as Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers announced a reform package Monday aimed at “bolstering” the regulator’s transparency.
     The commission has been targeted by lawmakers over the last two years for its handling of several high-profile disasters, including the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion and the recent Porter Ranch methane leak. Monday’s sweeping reforms will reduce the commission’s oversight responsibilities and create stricter ex parte and lobbying laws.
     “These reforms will change how this commission does business,” Brown said in a statement. “Public meetings and records will be expanded, new safety and oversight positions will be created and ex parte communication rules will be strengthened.”
     Brown’s abrupt support of the commission reforms comes just months after he vetoed an array of bills aimed at tightening up the beleaguered commission. He vetoed six bills passed by the Legislature last year, calling them “unworkable.”
     The unanimously approved measures sought to increase open meetings and appoint an inspector general from the State Auditor’s Office to oversee the commission.
     Currently, the commission is tasked with overseeing the state’s privately owned electric, natural gas and water utilities as well as transportation companies. Commissioners are appointed by the governor.
     The commission’s handling of the Porter Ranch disaster prompted Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, to propose a bill in February that would disband and remove regulatory control from the commission through voter initiative. Gatto’s bill quickly cleared the Assembly with bipartisan support and was scheduled for a Senate committee vote Monday.
     Gatto thanked Brown and state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, for supporting his reform efforts and for introducing the sweeping changes Monday.
     “These reforms mark a new beginning for the [commission.] The commission will become transparent and accountable to Californians and focused on the safety of our communities,” Gatto said in a statement.
     The deal between Brown and lawmakers forces individuals lobbying the commission to register as lobbyists and prevents former utility executives from serving on the commission for at least two years. It also calls for the commission to relinquish oversight of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to the California State Transportation Agency.
     Federal investigators have scrutinized the commission’s cozy relationship with the state’s largest utility companies, and the California Department of Justice is still looking into the bungled closing of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California.
     Former commission president Michael Peevey stepped down in 2014 after being blasted for his role in negotiating a settlement of San Onofre’s closing costs with Southern California Edison. The settlement, reached in secret meetings in Poland, passed on more than $3 billion in costs to Southern California utility customers. Edison was fined $16 million by the commission last year for its role in the backroom deal.
     Gatto is expected to carry most of the reforms introduced Monday in a new bill.
     “The reforms in this package overhaul the [commission] and subject it to more transparent good-government principles,” Gatto said. “It will now be able to focus on the things that are most important to Californians and our communities — safety, the environment and keeping utility rates low.”

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