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California and the West | THE SPECIAL ELECTION

Initiative on Power Gets in Spotlight

Proposition 80 critics say the largely ignored measure would hinder efforts to ensure state's electricity supply.

November 04, 2005|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The low-key campaign around Proposition 80 -- the ballot initiative that would revamp the state's electricity market -- finally stirred a bit Thursday.

At a sparsely attended news conference, environmentalist opponents complained that the complex measure would interfere with efforts by California energy regulators to ensure that the state has sufficient supplies of electricity, especially clean power from solar, wind and other renewable sources.

It was a rare moment in front of the cameras -- however short -- for Proposition 80, which has been largely ignored in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's special election as voters focus on the high-profile package of initiatives backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Recent polls by the Los Angeles Times and Field Research Corp. show Proposition 80 losing by about a 2-to-1 margin among likely voters, with nearly a third of those asked knowing nothing about the measure. The initiative would remove the last vestiges of the state's disastrous experiment with electricity deregulation by killing a provision of the 1996 law that allowed future large users to buy power in a competitive retail market from non-utility generators.

On Thursday, leading opponent V. John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology griped that Proposition 80's "well-intentioned" backers want to lock the state into an energy procurement system that unfairly favors big utilities like Edison International's Southern California Edison Co. and could inadvertently hamper drives to increase power generation from renewable sources.

"At a time when we are not making good enough progress on buying and investing in the energy we need, enacting a confusing and duplicative initiative will add to the uncertainty and risk when we don't need it," White said.

Proposition 80 does nothing to push the state's three investor-owned utilities -- Edison, PG&E Corp.'s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric Co. -- into signing more long-term contracts to guarantee they will have enough power to meet peak summer demand, White said.

The initiative's backer, the San Francisco consumer group Utility Reform Network -- known as TURN -- counters that passage of Proposition 80 would provide regulatory stability for utilities to enter into contracts with private generating companies to build much-needed, efficient, natural-gas-fired power plants.

Utilities "don't have sufficient certainty" about their customer base as long as large users can switch back and forth between retail providers, said TURN Executive Director Bob Finkelstein.

Finkelstein, who has raised only about $70,000 in cash for his largely word-of-mouth pro-Proposition 80 campaign, acknowledges that he harbors few illusions about winning.

He said his message had been lost in the "inundation" of TV advertisements as Republican Schwarzenegger slugs it out with Democrats, labor unions, nurses and firefighters over a quartet of ballot measures dealing with state budgetary controls, union political activism, teacher tenure and redrawing of congressional and legislative districts. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat an initiative that would force them to sell discounted drugs in California.

For its part, a confident anti-Proposition 80 campaign, fueled by about $2 million in contributions from private energy sellers and generators, has put a sprinkling of 15-second ads on the airwaves in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento over the last 10 days. However, the spots "are being drowned out" in the general din of the battle between Schwarzenegger and his foes, said No on 80 spokesman Dan Pellissier.

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