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California and the West | Capitol Journal

A Clear Voice Cuts Through All the Energy Crisis Static

February 08, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — At last, someone is talking about this energy mess in plain English. Not in government-speak. Not in academese. Not with acronyms. But in words that make sense.

"I give you a dollar, you give me a hot dog."

Now we can relate.

Veteran Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco)--who often cannot be quoted directly in a family newspaper because his language is all too common--was explaining that if the public bails out the private utilities, it should get something in return.

"Both utilities want dough. . . . Very few members of the Legislature are interested in just a flat out, 'Here's a buck, don't give me a hot dog.' "

The hot dog that has Burton salivating is the private utilities' 60% share of California's 26,000-mile network of electricity transmission lines. The other 40% is owned by the municipal utilities and the Feds.

"It's like owning the highway system," Burton noted Tuesday at a news conference. "The power moves on the highways and if you own the system, you have better control over it."

Pretty simple.

The liberal lawmaker--now in his fifth decade as either a state legislator or congressman--

talked about bottlenecks. Power plants currently being built in the southern San Joaquin Valley will generate electricity that must travel north over the infamous "Path 15," a 90-mile stretch between Coalinga and Los Banos.

"It's like a two-lane country road," Burton continued. "You could have all the power in the world--all the goods in the world--and if it can't travel the highway to get to where the customers are, it doesn't do anybody any good.

"That's basically what we're talking about: expanding that two-lane highway, that country road, into at least a freeway."

And also widening several other country roads. Makes sense. And so does his plan.

*

Edison and PG&E need a bailout to avoid bankruptcy. "Bailout--a term they do not like," Burton noted. "So call it an infusion of money."

The electricity highway is old, neglected and overworked. Electricity usage has grown twice as fast as transmission capacity in the last decade. It was a major cause of the January rolling blackouts. The utilities have no money for upgrading.

So, under Burton's bill, the state would buy the power lines, expand them and largely control the system. The purchase and improvements would be financed by revenue bonds, repaid with transmission charges. Burton likens that to highway toll gates.

No purchase price has been offered. But a ballpark range of $4 billion to $8 billion has been bandied.

The private utilities would use the money to square themselves with the gouging power generators. The utilities say they're $12 billion in debt because the Public Utilities Commission has not allowed them to charge customers enough to pay the generators for their soaring wholesale price of electricity. Gov. Gray Davis and most legislators are skeptical, saying the actual net debt is maybe only half what the utilities claim.

Moreover, the utilities have parent companies they've been supporting handsomely in recent years. It's now time for these folks to practice some self-responsibility, some family values. Parents should help their children in need--not just turn them out to survive off government welfare.

*

What if the utilities won't sell? "We do have the ability under the governor's emergency act to commandeer this property," Burton points out.

Well, not we, but the governor. And that may be a little too adventurous for Davis.

Even if they could agree on a price, what are the Burton plan's prospects? Davis reportedly is open to the idea, but would prefer that ratepayers be given stock options in exchange for a bailout.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) is said to have thrown up his hands, having first proposed buying out the utilities' hydroelectric plants, then suggesting stock options. Neither plan clicked.

Assembly Republican Leader Bill Campbell of Villa Park immediately attacked Burton's proposal. "I'm very suspicious of any plan that presumes the same government that brought us the DMV will provide California with rapid, efficient energy," Campbell said. "If this crisis teaches us anything, it teaches us that government has no experience in the power business and even less expertise."

Last time I checked, it cost only $15 to renew a driver's license from the DMV. And the L.A. Department of Water and Power was doing just fine. As were most public utilities.

Burton is onto something, I suspect. The public wants clear language. No murky, shifty-eyed, finger-pointing spin. People want reliable, affordable power--and don't really care who delivers it.

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