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Prop. 16 fight highlights PG&E's political power

When it comes to political metaphors, “David vs. Goliath” doesn’t really serve to describe the power imbalance in the contest for Prop. 16, the public-energy initiative on the California ballot Tuesday.

Perhaps “David vs. Godzilla” gives a better notion of the dynamic in this faceoff between the giant Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. and a tiny cadre of consumer activists.

Photo by Josh Libatique

At issue is a measure that would discourage California cities from disconnecting from PG&E in favor of city-owned and -operated power services.

Proponents have spent an astonishing $46 million promoting Prop. 16. PG&E’s shareholders are footing the bill for all but $91,000 of the total; that amount came from the state Chamber of Commerce’s PAC.

By contrast, opponents have had only $90,000 to spend. The biggest donors were the state Association of Realtors ($25,000), the San Francisco consumer group The Utility Reform Network ($20,000) and two local Sierra Club chapters ($6,500).

And so, PG&E is spending $511 for every $1 the opponents shell out.

Put another way, the opponents’ entire budget is only slightly more than what PG&E is paying for Yes-on-16 advertisements in Sing Tao Daily, the San Francisco-based edition of the Chinese-language newspaper.

PG&E has been fending off public power initiatives since the cement cured on O’Shaughnessey Dam at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, San Francisco’s source of both water and hydropower since the 1920s.

This time around, the utility got proactive, and sought to head off city officials who, in the name of green energy or CO2 gas reduction, might be considering setting up or expanding municipal power services.

 If Prop. 16 passes, proponents of municipalizing utilities would need a two-thirds vote of the electorate.* As the state Legislature demonstrates every summer at budget time, a two-thirds vote is difficult to achieve.

Prop. 16 would "protect our right to vote," PG&E says in campaign literature.  PG&E CEO Peter Darbee has said the measure allows voters to decide, “Do we think it’s appropriate for the government to take over utilities?” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Opponents contend public power is cheaper; among other things, there’s no need to pay dividends to shareholders or pump up the stock price. Municipal power services also are more responsive to environmental concerns, they say.  They call Prop. 16 "the PG&E power grab."

Here’s a question – how would you run an initiative campaign if you had unlimited resources and no organized opposition?

On Prop. 16, PG&E has opted for TV ads and more TV ads. U.S. International Media Politicals, the company that has booked Prop. 16’s ad blitz, has been paid $22 million, records show.

The blitz has been a bonanza for many California TV stations. In Los Angeles, KABC has been paid $2 million, KNBC has been paid $1.3 million and KCBS has been paid $800,000. In the Bay Area, the campaign spent more than $700,000 each at stations KTVU, KGO and KPIX, and $600,000 at KCRA in Sacramento.

Then there’s the other question: How would you campaign if you were broke? Prop. 16 opponents have paid $30,000 to the Goodwin Simon polling firm, and $6,800 to Capitol Coast, their campaign consultants.

Despite the imbalance, opponents are getting a lot of traction with newspaper editorial pages. An anti-Prop. 16 website cites more than 25 editorials criticizing the measure.

The Modesto Bee had the most vigorous headline:

Prop. 16: No way, never, uh-uh, no

*This update removes a sentence that incorrectly stated that under present law agencies seeking to municipalize utilities are required to put the issue to a majority vote of the electoriate.

Tags: energy, PG&E, Prop. 16

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