San Diego Business Journal

Are the citizens of California rising in revolt over the costs of voltage?

Maybe. Maybe not.

When Gov. Gray Davis spoke before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in San Diego on Nov. 14, he warned if ratepayers didn't get satisfaction soon, furor over "unjust and unreasonable" rates over electricity would spark a ratepayer revolt.

The revolt, Davis said, could be similar to the outrage over property taxes that led to the passage of Proposition 13 in the 1970s.

At the time, the governor was careful to state he didn't necessarily support such a ballot initiative and wasn't aware of one before the voters.

Now the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based watchdog group, may have exactly such a ballot initiative in mind.

The group is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to protect the interests of consumers and taxpayers. It embraces a wide variety of issues, including insurance reform, protection against utility rates, patient rights under managed care and protection against overbilling by credit card companies, hospitals, banks and utility services.

Planning Stages

Harvey Rosenfield, president and founder of the foundation, said efforts to launch the as-yet unnamed initiative would begin only if the Legislature or regulators don't act to protect consumers , and he believes they won't, he said.

"They usually don't, because whenever they have to choose between the utilities and the public interest, they usually choose the utility companies. But we'll give them one chance," said Rosenfield, who authored Proposition 103, the auto insurance initiative approved by voters in 1998.

The initiative, if launched, would aim at preventing Californians from having to pay the high electricity rates San Diegans have seen over the summer, and which the rest of California might experience next summer, Rosenfield said.

The initiative would also re-regulate the utilities and require legislators to take decisive steps to prevent rates from climbing , steps such as expediting approval of new power plants, he said.

The consumer group had previously floated the idea of a ballot initiative.

Proposition 9 Author

Rosenfield was one of the authors of an earlier ballot initiative to rein in the cost of electricity, back when deregulation was just getting off the ground. Proposition 9, which sought to prevent utilities from passing their "stranded costs" onto consumers, was defeated in a landslide in 1998, he said.

Now, however, as people are getting a taste of unregulated electricity, the political climate seems to have shifted in his favor. Rosenfield predicts his new initiative would have a very good chance of passing.

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network, was aware of Rosenfield's pledge to file a ballot initiative if the state didn't act. He wasn't surprised, he said.

"It would be expected that someone would pursue an initiative on this point if the state took no action and if rates went up. So even if Harvey didn't so act, I'm fairly confident that someone would," he said.

Although UCAN doesn't usually support the initiative process to create changes, he might be open to the idea if that's what it takes to stop energy-rate gouging, Shames said.

The first step to qualify an initiative for the ballot , before circulating petitions to collect signatures , is to submit the initiative to the state attorney general's office for a circulating title and summary description.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said neither Rosenfield's initiative nor any others on power rates had come to the attorney general's office.