Public ownership of electric power is an idea whose time has come – at least in San Francisco, Las Vegas and in the Big Sky state of Montana. Voters in these western locales have a chance to vote Nov. 5 for ballot questions that open the way for city or state takeover or buyout of private utility companies.

Advocates in the region say support for public ownership is fueled by backlash against Enron’s gaming of the deregulated energy market in California. It created a fake crisis and drove up electricity rates by 400 percent or more in the space of a few months. The ripple effect from that crisis has spread throughout the West in sharply higher costs for electricity. It contradicted all the propaganda claims by Enron, George W. Bush and the ultra-right for the past 20 years that deregulation and privatization would deliver higher quality goods and services at lower cost to consumers.

Madalyn Tafruny, a spokesperson for the American Public Power Association (APPA) in Washington told the World that APPA’s polite term for Enron-style deregulation is “a dysfunctional electric energy market.” It produces, she said, less reliable, more polluting and far more expensive electricity. APPA points out that across the nation, 2,009 utilities are publicly owned, charging on average 16 percent lower rates than the 240 privately owned utilities. Another 894 are rural electric cooperatives that also tend to provide cheaper electricity.

“As deregulation moved forward and rates have climbed higher, people have become more interested in taking control of their own electricity,” Tafruny said. “Simply put, public power is cheaper because it is not for profit. This is a service that is so crucial to their lives and livelihood that the people can see clearly the advantages of public ownership.”

San Francisco’s Prop. D: ‘Power to the people’

In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to place on the November ballot Prop. D, drafted by Supervisor Tom Ammiano. It would amend the City Charter to create a Public Utility Commission with authority to take over the electric power plants, hydroelectric dams and transmission lines of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the largest private electric utility in California.

Dana Long, director of organizing for The Utility Reform Network (TURN) in San Francisco, told the World, “We’ve garnered very important endorsements for Prop. D including the AFL-CIO, which is heavily involved in turning out a big vote Nov. 5.” A similar ballot measure lost by a very narrow margin in San Francisco last year, she said. “PG&E is in bankruptcy yet they boast that they will have a $4.2 billion surplus next year based on their excessive rates. I have never seen a bankrupt corporation that is so flush with cash.”

Throughout the 2001 energy crisis PG&E was pouring millions into its Maryland-based holding company, she charged. None of this money was carried on PG&E’s balance sheets when the firm filed for bankruptcy, another example of Enron-style cooking the books.

“There is an issue of racial justice involved, “ she said. “Prop. D would mandate the closing of PG&E’s Hunters Point power plant that pours pollution into a predominantly African-American community. Prop. D also authorizes the construction of a new, far cleaner plant to replace the power that will be lost when Hunters Point closes.”

Juan Lopez, chair of the Communist Party of Northern California, told the World, “Voter sentiment for public ownership is strong and getting stronger. We are paying outragous rates, three times the national average. The people are fully aware of Enron’s role in gaming the California electricity market while Bush and Cheney looked the other way. We want to help build the momentum for a statewide or even national public takeover of electric power under democratic control.”

The San Francisco Bay Guardian, a weekly newspaper, produced a study revealing that PG&E overcharges “took as much as $620 million out of the San Francisco economy, worsening the impact of the recession. … Replacing PG&E with public power could potentially pump $550 million into the economy.”

A Guardian reporter interviewed Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) while he was visiting the Bay Area speaking on a national health care plan and against Bush’s war on Iraq. Kucinich recalled his role in blocking privatization of Muny Light, Cleveland’s publicly owned utility with rates 25 percent lower than privately owned Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. “Just as people have a right to public schools, to waterworks, sewers, parks, people have a right to own their electric system,” Kucinich said.

In Big Sky country the demand is ‘dam cheap power’

In Montana, a group known by its website, “Dam Cheap Power” (www.damcheap, has won ballot status for I-145, the Montana Hydroelectric Security Act, sponsored by progressive Helena legislator Ken Toole. It would mandate public buyout of 13 hydroelectric dams on the Missouri and Clark Fork Rivers.

For nearly a century, Montana Power Company (MPC), a private corporation, “virtually owned the state,” said Paul Edwards, president of Dam Cheap Power. MPC was regulated by a state public utility commission. Only five other states charged lower electric rates than Montana.

Then-Gov. Marc Racicot, a George W. Bush Republican, ramrodded deregulation through the GOP majority Montana legislature in 1997. Virtually overnight, Edwards said, MPC sold off its hydro-dams to Pennsylvania Power & Light (PP&L). PP&L has jacked electric rates by a combined $55 million for hard-pressed Montana consumers. Stripped of its profitable electric generating business, MPC ventured into fiber optics through a subsidiary, Touch America. Their stock has plunged from $65 a share to 52 cents a share as the high-tech bubble economy exploded.

Hundreds of MPC workers across job-starved Montana lost their jobs in the sellout to PP&L. These workers lost their health insurance, pensions and 401(k) accounts. “Those workers have lost everything in the collapse of MPC,” said John Smart, a photographer active in Dam Cheap Power. “It was a mini-Enron here in Montana. They took a perfectly good power company that was making reasonable profits and wrecked it.”

The PP&L privatizers, under investigation in Pennsylvania for price fixing, “now have our water rights, the dams, the generators the power, everything. It is outright highway robbery designed by the Republican Party.”

Racicot was called in by the Bush-Cheney campaign in November 2000 to orchestrate the Republican media blitz during the “battle of Florida.” After helping steal the election for Bush and Cheney, Racicot went to work as an attorney for Enron.

“This was nothing new for Racicot,” Smart said. “He was born in Libby, Montana, where Grace & Co. mined asbestos. The people have been dying of asbestosis in droves. Both as Montana Attorney General and Governor, Racicot didn’t lift a finger to help the people of his home town.”

Dam Cheap Power argues that voter approval of I-145 would provide “a stable and dependable power supply. Just like government-owned TVA, Bonneville Power and the State of Nebraska’s publicly owned power, our power would be dependable once again … With I-145, we can recapture and retain the cheapest – or nearly the cheapest – power in the United States … half of what it is costing us right now.”

Edwards said he and a group of concerned environmentalists and human rights activists are working on a shoestring budget. PP&L has poured in $2 million for TV ads attacking I-145. Yet the most recent poll showed 43 percent of voters favoring I-145 compared to 31 percent who are opposed.

Las Vegas wagers on a big ‘Yes on Question 14’

In Las Vegas, Nev., Question 14 asks voters if they approve a public buyout of the city’s electric utility. It is in effect a referendum on the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s bid to purchase Nevada Power Company from its parent, Sierra Pacific Resources, for $3.2 billion. Question 14 was placed on the ballot by Citizen Alert, a grassroots organization that also spearheaded the movement to block use of Yucca Mountain, sacred to the Western Shoshone Indians, as a dump for nuclear wastes.

Citizen Alert Director, Peggy Johnson, said, “There are some things that should not be for profit,” including power and water.

Even though their profit greed and corporate sleaze is exposed, the energy corporations are pouring in the big bucks to defeat the public power ballot questions. They have removed the words “deregulation” and “privatization” from their political lexicon. But there is no change in their profit-greedy gameplan whatever it is called. On Nov. 5, voters have a chance to smack them down.

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Energy trader admits Enron stole billions from Calif.

WASHINGTON – Former Enron trader, Timothy L. Belden, confessed Oct. 17 that Enron engaged in a criminal conspiracy to swindle California electricity ratepayers of billions of dollars during the 2001 so-called “energy crisis.” Belden admitted that he and other Enron executives fabricated electricity shortages, fraudulent purchases of “out of state” power generated in California and bogus transmission schedules to inflate Enron’s profits.

Belden told Justice Department investigators that the scam began soon after California approved deregulation of the state’s electricity market in 1998. Enron’s electric trading division, West Power, collected $50 million in revenues in 1999. That skyrocketed to $500 million in 2000 and to $800 million in 2001 at the height of the crisis. Belden, himself, was rewarded with $5 million in bonuses in 2001 alone for his role in this heist.

The racket was detailed in Enron memos released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last May. With code names like “Death Star,” “Ricochet” and “Fat Boy,” the memos revealed how Enron, El Paso Natural Gas, Dynegy, Duke Power and Reliant manipulated California’s deregulated market to drive up electric rates by 400 percent and more creating power shortages and rolling blackouts across the state.

Belden, who helped cook up the strategies from his offices at Enron subsidiary, Portland General Electric (PGE), is the first Enron executive to cop a plea, offering to tell what he knows in exchange for leniency. His lawyer told reporters that Belden “did what was expected of him in accordance with Enron’s policy, expectations, and training.” That defense suggested that Belden is prepared to testify against other top ranking Enron executives even including former Enron CEO, Ken Lay, a close crony of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.

Vice President Dick Cheney is still claiming “executive privilege” in refusing to release the records of the White House Energy Task Force, which he chaired, fueling suspicions that a big part of Cheney’s plan was to grant the energy traders free rein to engage in Enron-style thievery.

Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson admitted that “Belden and others conspired to defraud California electricity consumers and customers through a variety of schemes designed to artificially increase payments from the California power manager to Enron.” The lack of a federal watchdog, Thompson conceded, “allowed Enron to exploit and intensify the California energy crisis and prey on energy consumers at their most vulnerable moment.”

Bush and Cheney rejected the appeals of Gov. Gray Davis and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that they order FERC to impose a cap on electric rates and investigate the crisis that some estimate will cost California ratepayers $30 billion in the coming decade.

The Republicans schemed to shift blame for the crisis to Gov. Davis in hopes of defeating him in the Nov. 5 election. But their hopes were dashed by the corporate connections of Republican nominee for Governor, William E. Simon Jr. A jury ordered his company, William E. Simon & Sons, to pay $78 million in damages for “corporate fraud” in swindling P. Edward Hindelang of Santa Barbara, owner of a pay phone company, Pacific Coin. It was just more “business as usual” Republican style.

– Tim Wheeler