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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Media Request Details of State Energy Contracts

March 13, 2001|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Pressure is mounting for Gov. Gray Davis to disclose details on the billions of dollars in taxpayer money California is spending to buy electricity, information the Davis administration is keeping confidential.

A coalition of California news organizations, including The Times, requested Monday that Davis formally explain why he believes the price and terms of the state's electricity contracts need to remain secret.

Davis officials declined to comment on the letter, which they did not receive until late Monday.

Meanwhile, a Republican legislator resubmitted a request of his own Monday under the state's public records law and threatened to sue Davis if he does not get the contract information within 10 days.

"This is not Gov. Gray Davis' money," said Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks). "This is the taxpayers' money, and they have a right to know."

Administration officials have rejected media requests for the information under the California Public Records Act, arguing that it should not yet be made public.

Releasing the data now, they say, would jeopardize California's ability to negotiate long-term contracts at lower prices, the goal of the state's emergency entry into the power business. They vow to release details in the future.

"It's pretty simple: What [Strickland] is asking us to do is show our cards to our opponents in the middle of a card game," said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio. "If he wants to put the information on a silver platter for the generators, we would lose, hands down."

But Republican legislators and media covering the energy crisis, from the San Diego Union-Tribune to the San Francisco Chronicle, disagree. They argue that the public has a right to know the terms of those power buys now because taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill.

"We feel it is in the public interest to know the terms of any agreement when it is signed," said the attorney for the newspapers, Guylyn R. Cummins. "The public has to have an opportunity to respond if they do not feel this is a good deal."

Since Davis declared a state of emergency on electricity in January, California has spent more than $3 billion purchasing power for consumers because the state's largest utilities could no longer afford to buy it for them.

The utilities--Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric--are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy after months of buying the electricity on the wholesale power market for far more than they could charge consumers.

As a result, California has had to enter the breach and pick up the tab to keep the lights on. That tab--already about half of the state surplus and growing at a clip of about $45 million a day--will eventually be paid by ratepayers out of their monthly utility bills as part of the plan formulated by Davis and his fellow Democrats, who control the Legislature.

Strickland scheduled a news conference Monday to detail possible legal action against Davis. But the legislator disclosed that he had sent his initial public records request to the wrong place, the state Department of Finance, instead of the agency making the purchases, the Department of Water Resources. He vowed to sue if he did not receive the records in 10 days following his new request.

Maviglio said the Davis administration was on solid legal ground. He noted that New York, which contracts for electricity, also waits months before releasing the information because of fears it would taint negotiations.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Power Points

Background

The state Legislature approved electricity deregulation with a unanimous vote in 1996. The move was expected to lower power bills in California by opening up the energy market to competition. Relatively few companies, however, entered that market to sell electricity, giving each that did considerable influence over the price. Meanwhile, demand has increased in recent years while no major power plants have been built. These factors combined last year to push up the wholesale cost of electricity. But the state's biggest utilities--Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison--are barred from increasing consumer rates. So the utilities have accumulated billions of dollars in debt and, despite help from the state, have struggled to buy enough electricity.

*

Daily Developments

* The University of California and California State University sued to preserve a contract that had guaranteed them fixed, discounted rates for power.

* Mayor Richard Riordan will meet with the governor of Utah today to discuss expanding a coal-fired generating plant to provide more power to L.A.

* A coalition of California news organizations requested that Gov. Gray Davis explain his reasons for refusing to disclose the price and terms of the state's electricity contracts.

*

Verbatim

"We were and are proud of the contract. That's why we're fighting so hard to preserve it."

-- UC spokesman Charles McFadden

Complete package and updates at www.latimes.com/power

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