Politics under the radar screen

Thank you to the more than 1500 who responded to our action-alert opposing the appointment of Rachelle Chong to the California Public Utlilities Commission which is the agency that is responsible for setting regulations and overseeing California’s public utilities -(the electricity and telecommunications industries). The response to the governor’s attempt to put an industry representative on the important regulatory agency designed to watchdog these huge industries was fantastic! The groundswell created forced the State Senate to openly acknowledge the governor’s commitment to allowing industry to essentially regulate itself. Although hard-ball politics intervened and forced the approval of this appointee, the Governor and Senate now know that we will continue to watch and object as this administration tries to dismantle important consumer protections designed to protect the public against corporate over-reaching and greed.
We asked Lenny Goldberg, a longtime and committed progressive expert and lobbyist in Sacramento to give Speak Out California his comments on the process. Here is his response:

Senate remiss in failing to reject anti-consumer commissioner
The approval of Rachelle Chong as PUC commissioner gives us perhaps the worst example of what the “post-partisan” era is going to mean.
As the legislative advocate for the consumer group TURN, The Utility Reform Network, it was easy to demonstrate that every position she had taken on the commission was anti-consumer. As Commissioner Geoff Brown (whose term is now expiring) said, “I have never seen her take a single position, however small, adverse to the large incumbent telecommunication carriers.”
But confirmations take place as well on the basis of personal qualities. And in this case, after using highly questionable tactics at the PUC on behalf of ATT, she misled the Senate about what she had done. That in itself should have been sufficient to reject her. It’s very clear that the pressure of the Governor’s office, combined with behind-the-scenes lobbying by virtually every major utility, was more than enough to get the job done.
The substance of her positions have been anti-consumer from day one. She was part of the process which repealed the telecommunications bill of rights, which would have provided such things as the right of recission of a cellphone contract if the phone doesn’t work at your home; the requirement for clear disclosures of terms and conditions, including in other languages; the ability to cancel a contract if the cellphone company changes the terms, and other basic protections. Instead, she wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking them to pre-empt California on cellphone regulation (which would apply federal law that doesn’t carry these protections).
She then pushed through major telecommunications de-regulation, rejecting all claims that the major carriers still have monopoly power. Consumers have already received notices that charges for virtually all services will go up unless they buy more expensive bundles. Only the cost of basic wire-line service is protected for two years, and that is only because TURN got a rate freeze in the cable franchise bill in the Legislature. Not only are ATT and Verizon de-regulated, they no longer even have to provide information to the commission about the results of this wholesale deregulation.
On the cable franchise issue, which allow for statewide franchises under jurisdiction of the PUC, the Legislature required a variety of anti-discrimination and public access provisions. But her order at the Commission grants the franchises to the telecommunications companies first and asks questions later, if at all. It is highly questionable whether build-out requirements, which require equal access to new networks in low-income areas, will ever be enforced.
The most egregious incident stemmed from the fact that she added last-minute language, which had not been reviewed, to the telephone deregulation decision which eliminated marketing restrictions that were required of ATT because of a long historical pattern of marketing abuses. When challenged on this act, she claimed that the language was inadvertent, but faced with the opportunity twice to reject ATT’s claims that they were now free of the restrictions, she failed to reverse the action. She then told the Senate that she had not intended to provide ATT relief, then said that ATT was not given relief, and then said that she “misspoke.” But she still has not reversed the actions which allow ATT to continue their aggressive and abusive marketing practices.
As Geoff Brown said, “Her advocacy has been so extreme at points that it has overwhelmed fact, law and common sense…She should not be confirmed because she is by temperament and commitment unwilling to see her role on the commission as that of a disinterested judge or juror.”
On behalf of TURN, we extend our thanks to Speakout California members who wrote against her confirmation. Unfortunately, the combined power of the special interests and the Governor’s office strong-arming, kept any real Senate opposition at bay.
Interestingly, the same day Republicans in the Senate rejected the confirmation of Joe Nunez of the CTA to the State Board of Education, on the grounds of “conflict of interest”. We hear that the next appointment to the PUC, to replace the pro-consumer Brown, will be an ATT executive. Will the Senate Democrats consider that a conflict of interest and vote down that nomination? Stay tuned. And please, stay active. Consumer activists have an incredible amount of power that must be exercised against the powerful special interests arrayed against us. We must remember that we only have strength when citizens speak out.
Lenny Goldberg lobbies for progressive non-profit and consumer organizations in Sacramento.