On Tuesday by voting "No" on Proposition 16, California voters stood up and told Pacific Gas & Electric that they can't buy the California Constitution.
In yesterday's California Primary, among a number of Ballot Measures, citizens voted on Proposition 16, a proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent any local government from establishing any community choice programs (CCPs) or public power programs without first gaining the support of the public in the form of a 2/3 majority vote. At first blush this measure appeared to be about how communities purchase electricity, but it went much deeper than that, hitting the core of our democratic values.
What elevated Prop 16 above the merits of its contents to a referendum on corporate power was the fact that this proposed Constitutional amendment protecting PG&E's monopoly in CA energy market, was conceived, proposed and solely funded by PG&E. PG&E is the largest electricity provider in California and they stand to loose customers to Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) programs like the one that went live last month in Marin County. They've spent considerable time and energy opposing the Marin County project and others that stand to cut into their customer base. Rather than fighting these battles over and over with each county or municipality that explores alternatives to their monopoly, they decided to consolidate their efforts in a single Constitutional amendment.
In an address to PG&E shareholders on March 1st of this year, the company's CEO, Peter Darbee, explained that it was more cost effective to make the implementation of a CCA much harder, than to spend millions of dollars fighting each community that tries to break from PG&E :
"So it was really a decision about could we greatly diminish this kind of activity for all going forward rather than spending $10 to $15 million a year of your money to invest in this. The answer was yes! The June time frame looked ideal and in the context of what everything that is happening with government today -- the dysfunctionality of it -- we concluded that it was a very ideal time!"
At a time when public confidence in government is at an all time low, PG&E positioned themselves very cleverly. The core this initiative is about preventing competition and limiting choice for consumers, however, PG&E was able to frame the issue around voter rights. The way they structured the initiative, they aligned "voter's rights" with a method of systematically protecting their own profits. The proposition was actually originally titled the "Taxpayer's Right to Vote Act," until the CA Attorney General found this title to be misleading, and renamed the measure to the "New Two-thirds Requirement for Local Public Electricity Providers." They still argued that Prop 16 was about empowering citizens to have a say in how their tax dollars are being spent. Taking this position, they forced opponents into the difficult position of having to explain to voters why they shouldn't have the the right to vote on the such issues. On top of this, opponents were only able to raise about $100,000 for the "Vote No" campaign, which was dwarfed by the $46 million dollars PG&E put into the "Yes on 16" campaign.
The California Ballot Initiative system was intended to give more power to the people through a more direct democracy, however, with such gross imbalances in funding many feared that it was becoming (if it wasn't already) a pay to play system that would allow large corporations to buy whatever policies they wanted. Ultimately the people prevailed and Prop 16 failed, however, it's disturbing how close the vote was: 52% to 48%. It's stories like this, and the recent Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that remind me of something FDR said:
“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it comes stronger than their democratic state itself."