As Fires Ravaged California, Utilities Lobbied Lawmakers for Protection

As Fires Ravaged California, Utilities Lobbied Lawmakers for Protection

PG&E stepped up its lobbying effort, too — spending $8.4 million in just the first nine months of 2018, compared with $1.6 million in all of 2017 and $1.1 million in 2016. The company’s spending in the first three quarters exceeded 2017’s top spender, Chevron, which spent $8.2 million that year, according to Consumer Watchdog.

“Money talks in Sacramento, and big money talks loud enough to buy a big bailout,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “There is no legislator of either party, even those who don’t take money from the utilities, who doesn’t worry about bucking the utilities.”

Consumer groups say the efforts to protect utilities are particularly galling because Californians already pay more for power than people in other Western states. The state’s residential electricity prices are between 19 percent and 40 percent higher than in neighboring Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.

Events like the Maui conference have provided fodder for the industry’s critics.

The annual event is organized by the California Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit in San Diego that was co-founded by a former state senator and says it informs the public about policy issues. The event brings together legislators and executives from several industries, who pay $8,000 a head to attend. Legislators sometimes pay their own way or receive compensation if they speak.

PG&E canceled its presence at the event as fires began raging in Northern California but did not seek a refund of its sponsorship, which the company said covered the entry fees for its officials. Executives of the two other investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, still attended.

Also at the event were 10 members of the State Assembly and two state senators who sit on committees dealing with the state budget, appropriations, energy, public safety and insurance. The dozen lawmakers are among the biggest beneficiaries of campaign contributions from the three utilities, receiving more than $600,000 since 2011, according to Consumer Watchdog.

Discussions at the conference covered many topics, including the wildfires, said Dylan Gray, chief of staff for Assemblyman Heath Flora, a Republican from the Central Valley who attended.

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