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THE ENERGY CRISIS

Plan Uses Public in Refund Demand

Legislature: Democrats' proposal to pressure 'greedy' firms is attacked by GOP as political ploy.

July 13, 2001|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Democratic-led state Senate intends to fill constituent mailboxes with a taxpayer-financed appeal urging Californians to demand nearly $9 billion in energy price refunds from "greedy out-of-state power generators."

Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) said the mailers will ask Californians to join the Senate and Gov. Gray Davis in insisting that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order the refunds of alleged overcharges.

Senate Democrats set the high target despite a federal mediator's ruling against Davis earlier this week. The mediator said California would be entitled to only about $1 billion in generator overcharges, not the $8.9 billion that Davis has fought for.

Senate officers said the cost of the mail campaign will be paid from the budgets of senators, at taxpayer expense, as part of the Legislature's constituent service mail program.

But Republicans attacked the mailer as political propaganda that may violate state law and Senate policy barring issuance of "partisan" documents at public expense.

Sketchy details of the quietly developed project surfaced on the Senate floor Thursday. Staffers who worked on it said it was virtually impossible to calculate the program's cost.

But they indicated that if all 26 Democrats agreed to send up to 30,000 mailers each to constituents, the postage alone would cost $140,400.

If each mass mailing exceeded 30,000 pieces, a higher postage rate would apply, raising the cost, officials said.

In the mailer, constituents are asked to return an attached card to their state senator, urging "full refunds of the outrageous prices charged by the greedy out-of-state power generators."

Cynthia Lavagetto, manager of the Senate mail program, said each member will decide what do do with the returned cards, including simply filing them or sending them on to FERC.

Lavagetto said a prototype mailer was prepared with the help of the Select Committee on Citizen Participation, a panel that has no chairman or members, since it has not been activated this year. But it does maintain an office and has three staffers on the Senate payroll.

Burton dismissed the Republican charges of partisanship as baseless. "We do this all the time on a variety of issues," he said. "We're saying, 'Stop stealing California's money.' "

But Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine, the Senate's senior Republican, denounced the mailing as clearly partisan. He said it appeared to reflect a developing 2002 election strategy of Davis and Democrats to blame the FERC and out-of-state generators for California's energy mess.

"I seriously question the appropriateness of using taxpayer money to get people to lobby [for the refunds]," Johnson said.

Johnson and Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) suggested that Democrats turn their criticism to municipal utilities, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Some utilities charged the state even higher prices last winter than did private generators.

"Why are they not attacking the DWP?" Johnson asked.

He noted that S. David Freeman was running the DWP at the time some of its highest prices were charged to the state, which is buying power for California's financially crippled utilities. Later, Davis hired Freeman as his top energy price negotiator.

"Doesn't David Freeman more properly belong in that same jail cell as the guy called Spike than he does in the governor's office?" Johnson asked.

"Spike" has become a character in the California energy debate, thanks to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who is investigating whether power sellers engaged in price-gouging and antitrust behavior.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in May, Lockyer said he would "love to personally escort [Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth] Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi. My name is Spike, honey.' "

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