Measure would mandate a two-thirds voter approval to expand public power

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

The California Farm Bureau Federation and several irrigation districts oppose a measure that would make it more difficult for public utilities to enter, or expand services in, electricity retail.

Proposition 16, on California's June primary ballot, would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds vote of residents in an affected area before a local government can expand or create electricity services.

The California Chamber of Commerce and California Taxpayers' Association support the measure, saying the two-thirds vote can prevent "costly and risky government schemes to take over local electric service."

Opponents say the initiative would discourage competition in the market, which is dominated in California by three private companies. One of them, north-state utility PG&E, is Prop. 16's sole sponsor, having reportedly spent $34.5 million to persuade voters.

"The big issue is that this will basically eliminate any competition for PG&E in the marketplace," said Renata Brillinger, spokeswoman for the campaign against the measure.

The campaign claims support from a long list of local governments, public utilities and business organizations. Among them are the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association, Modesto Irrigation District, San Joaquin Valley Power Authority and South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

Several water and irrigation districts in the state have plans to create or expand electricity-retail service.

Karen Mills, director of the public utilities department of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the measure creates an "unnecessary impediment" by requiring a two-thirds vote, instead of the majority vote currently required.

Furthermore, the initiative is too vague, Mills said. Its language contains uncertainty over what circumstances should trigger an election, and it "could lead to further uncertainty about who should be providing electric service in areas served by public power," she said.

Supporters of the measure have also said Prop. 16 could prevent local governments from trying to patch up faltering public finances by raising utility rates, essentially increasing taxes.

But Brillinger says rules prevent that from happening, and local governments that run utilities have yet to resort to rate hikes to shore up general funds, she said.

"It's not as though this is the first fiscal crisis that those districts have faced," she said. "They have survived the worst without anything like that having happened."

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