SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A proposed state law banning campaign contributions by PG&E and other for-profit utilities will get its first hearing on Wednesday, March 25, in the California Assembly elections and redistricting committee.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, introduced AB 2079 last month, arguing utilities deserve to have additional restrictions placed on their political activity because they enjoy government-protected monopolies. Since introducing the bill, Kiley managed to recruit a Democrat to his cause, Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, to co-sign on to the bill as a coauthor.
AB 2079 would ban donations from investor-owned utilities to any "candidate for elective state office" and ban the candidates from accepting the donations as well. The bill does not apply to donations to other campaigns and causes, nor to federal-level donations, which PG&E has made by using money from its employee-funded PAC.
“This bipartisan bill will loosen PG&E’s grip on our Capitol,” Kiley told ABC10 in an email Friday. “It’s about campaign finance reform, fire safety, and a brighter energy future.”
Chu's office did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
The bill’s introduction followed ABC10’s reporting, which found that Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Democratic and Republican parties, eight out of ten state lawmakers, and a similar share of California’s members of Congress all accepted campaign funds from PG&E despite the fact that the company had been convicted of six federal felonies and was in the middle of serving a five-year sentence of probation.
To be clear, it's not illegal for a convicted felon — whether person or corporation — to donate campaign money. And it's not illegal for the politician to accept it.
PG&E's monopoly brings power to 16 million people, making it the nation’s largest power company. PG&E equipment has been named as the cause of disasters that killed 117 people, including the state’s deadliest-ever wildfire, the 2018 Camp Fire. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to negotiate settlements for the tens of billions of dollars in damages it now owes.
PG&E's rates, already double the national average, are expected to rise as a result of the company's deadly disasters. Anger against PG&E multiplied after widespread blackouts in October 2019 that were intended to prevent more wildfires.
The federal judge supervising PG&E’s criminal probation defended the blackouts, pointing out that while PG&E’s equipment is under investigation in a fire that destroyed homes, no one died in any PG&E-caused wildfires during 2019. Judge William Alsup said PG&E has repeatedly decided to “cheat on maintenance” to maximize profit and has warned state leaders that he worries the company will cause disasters again.
Kiley defended his decision to broaden the focus of his bill to all investor-owned utilities by pointing to the fact that those utilities have special powers, like the ability to seize property through eminent domain and a guaranteed rate of return set by government officials.
"These are very unique entities. In many ways [utilities] behave like arms of the state. They're granted monopolies over whole regions,” Kiley said. "For them to then turn around and spend millions of dollars in campaign contributions to determine who those state officials are doesn't make a lot of sense."
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Editor's Note: This reporting in this article is part of the ABC10 Originals project FIRE - POWER - MONEY, a documentary series that breaks down California’s wildfire crisis into its core elements. In three episodes, we expose the reasons wildfires are deadlier than ever, how PG&E influences our politics despite felony convictions and being blamed for starting fires that killed 107 people, and what it’ll cost to pay for the damage and make California safer from fire.
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