Peevey wins Rules Committee approval

Michael Peevey, the president of the state Public Utilities Commission and a former utility company president, was confirmed unanimously Wednesday by the Senate Rules Committee – a sharp departure from the committee’s action on Peevey’s controversial colleague, Rachelle Chong, who was opposed by a number of consumer groups and the Senate leader and denied a hearing.

Peevey, a PUC appointee of two governors to the powerful regulatory panel, was the only PUC appointment under consideration by Rules.

The committee’s approval – and that of the full Senate – is required by the end of the month in order for Peevey to continue his position as head of one of the state’s most powerful regulatory bodies. The full Senate is all but certain to follow the recommendation from the five-member Rules Committee.

“You are a leader,” Steinberg told Peevey prior to the vote.

Peevey, the former president of Edison International, was first appointed to the PUC by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2002 in the wake of California’s electricity crisis. He was reappointed to the panel by Gov. Schwarzenegger. If confirmed by the full Senate, Peevey’s term will run through 2014.

The confirmation of Chong, a Stockton lawyer and a go-to person on the commission for telecommunications issues, was blocked when the Rules Committee declined to schedule her hearing. That decision stemmed in part from consumer complaints that Chong was overly attentive to the telecommunications industry. Chong and her allies rejected that claim.

Steinberg said he opposed Chong because of her lead role in adjusting lifeline rates for low-income and elderly consumers, and for handling of complaints about telecommunications companies. “Thousands of cases were closed without a determination as to their merits,” Steinberg said.

Chong’s tenure on the board will be over at the end of this month — unless the committee decides to take up her appointment.

Chong received strong support from the telecommunications industry, among others, but was opposed by consumer activists. She was first appointed in 2006 to fill out the term of Susan Kennedy, who had been appointed by Davis and who left the PUC to become Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff.

Both Chong and Peevey are considered close to Kennedy, who as chief of staff wields broad authority throughout state government.

Although both members have similar voting records on the commission, but it was Chong’s appointment drew sharp criticism from The Utility Reform Network and others.

PUC commissioners serve staggered, six-year terms. The powerful agency regulates telecommunications, electric and natural gas utilities, railways and other entities.

In confirming Peevey, Steinberg lauded the PUC president for an effort last year to create a university-based climate change institute that would have used some $600 million of ratepayer money over a decade. Peevey ran into public criticism for the idea, but Steinberg said he liked the institute proposal.

He also urged Peevey to develop a program to “invest in career education for high-school students linked to alternative energy and the green economy.”

“I for one have your back all the way,” Steinberg said.

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