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With openings on PUC, CEC, Brown may sharply shape policy

As the transition to Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s new administration gathers momentum, a key policy area is capturing deep interest in the Capitol — energy.

Brown, a Democrat, has an unprecedented chance to appoint the majorities on both the state Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission, two of the state’s most important regulatory bodies.

“What we’re told is that this would be the first time that an incoming governor will be able to appoint a majority of both the CEC and the PUC,” said Bill Magavern of Sierra Club California. “I think that Brown is having a unified energy policy across his administration.”

“There have been issues about differences of jurisdiction and recently the agencies have made a real effort to work together, the governor elect will want to make sure that all the agencies are following the agenda he laid out in the campaign,” Magavern added.

The CEC licenses power plants, including the new generation of solar plants destined for the Southern California deserts. The commission also sets energy-efficiency standards for appliances, such as the recent, first-in-the-nation rules governing big-screen televisions.

The PUC regulates California’s privately owned utilities – including Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. – and huge telecommunications, rail and transportation networks, among other duties. The PUC, with its rate-setting powers, has an enormous impact on the wallets of Californians and on the bottom lines of major corporations.

The five-member commissions are among the most powerful regulatory bodies in the state. Their composition is a critical issue for Brown, who campaigned on green jobs and green energy, and who has been identified for nearly four decades as a proponent of alternative energy development.

At least two – and perhaps as many as four – positions on the five-member PUC may change hands within weeks with the arrival of Brown’s  administration.

The terms of two commissioners Dian Grueneich and John Bohn, expire in January.

Capitol insiders believe the most powerful member of the commission, PUC President Michael Peevey, is on the short list as the next top executive of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Peevey’s term expires in 2014, and it is unlikely that he would leave the PUC unless Brown appoints a new PUC president. Peevey, who was traveling, said through a PUC spokeswoman that he was unaware of the rumor and that he had not been contacted by the DWP.

All were appointed or reappointed to staggered, six-year terms by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

One person mentioned as a new PUC commissioner is John Geesman, a fomer executive officer and member of the California Energy Commission. Another is Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.

Commissioner Nancy Ryan, a former chief of staff to Peevey, is up for confirmation in the Senate. She was appointed in January and must be confirmed within a year. If she is confirmed, her term will expire in 2014.

If Bohn, Grueneich and Peevey leave the PUC, and if Ryan is not confirmed, four of the seats on the five-member commission will be vacant and up to Brown to fill with his own appointees.

At the California Energy Commission, changes loom also.

Commissioner Jeffrey Byron’s term expires in January, and each year after that another commissioner’s term expires, giving Brown the opportunity to appoint a total of four CEC commissioners.

In addition, Brown reportedly is interested in streamlining energy regulation and eliminating duplication, although few details were available.

But given the state’s enormous budget problems – the latest estimate is $25.4 billion from the Office of the Legislative Analyst – he is likely to find a support in the Legislature for downsizing the bureaucracy and combining state functions.

Brown is no stranger to dealing with the CEC. The commission started up operation in January 1975 as Brown began serving his first term, and he appointed its original members 35 years ago.

The changes give Brown, a Democrat, an unusual opportunity to dramatically shape the PUC with his own appointees.

Contact John Howard at
john.howard@capitolweekly.net

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