Governor Newsom’s recent appointee to lead the California Public Utilities Commission, Marybel Batjer, has been described by her colleagues as an unrivaled fixer and a “Jedi Knight when it comes to slashing bureaucratic red tape.” She led the Governor’s strike force to modernize and reinvent the DMV. Batjer is the perfect pick to take on an even bigger challenge: reforming the state’s most overburdened and over-extended agency.
For those unfamiliar with the PUC, it’s an agency that regulates a million different things – things like major electric utilities, PG&E and SoCal Edison, as well as the state’s gas utilities which includes pipelines, gas storage facilities and gas systems at over 2,800 mobile home parks. It oversees a host of transportation companies, include rideshare providers like Uber and Lyft, airport shuttles, limousine rentals, scheduled bus operators like Greyhound and Megabus, charter bus rentals, and freight, passenger and commuter railroads. It also handles telecommunications – landline telephone companies. Ever been on the ferries crossing San Francisco Bay or to Catalina Island? Those boats are regulated by the PUC. So vast and tangled is the portfolio of the PUC that a recent investigative article by Capitol Public Radio in Sacramento tried to compile a list of everything the commission regulates – and was unable to do so.
The PUC clearly has a lot to cover, but its responsibilities are worsened by its antiquated, 19th-century legal process which has slowed the commission’s decision-making to a glacial pace; complicated PUC decisions can now take as long as a decade to complete. One timely example should be noted: twelve years after starting its analysis, the PUC has yet to finalize its fire safety rules for the state.
Batjer will be inheriting an agency that’s struggling to address the state’s crucial public safety and environmental challenges – while using a bureaucratic process from the 19th century.
One would think that the PUC would be reluctant to add more things to its already crowded regulatory agenda, but the Commission now claims it is prepared to regulate Internet and digital technologies – an area that lawmakers in the State Legislature have traditionally overseen.
The PUC’s recent attempts to address digital issues have been less than successful, including a suggestion to tax text messages which drew howls of rage from consumers and a flurry of negative national media coverage. And twelve years after the introduction of the iPhone, the PUC still hasn’t updated its subsidy programs to help hearing- and vision-impaired consumers get access to smart phones.
An effective, well-functioning PUC has an important regulatory role to play in preventing disastrous wildfires and protecting consumers. But to do so, it needs to recruit scientists and public safety experts who can quickly, decisively and successfully handle these problems. It especially needs to change its slow, plodding decision-making process and find a way to quickly respond to immediate challenges.
Above all, the PUC needs to focus on its core mission and start delivering results for the people of California. Even though the PUC wants more to do, it shouldn’t. It already has more than enough on its plate.
William R. Manis, President and CEO of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership
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