Commission created when Hiram Johnson was governor needs to be brought into the new century

By Kish Rajan, Special to CalMatters

What do Uber, mobile homes and sewers have in common?

That’s not the first line of a bad joke. It’s a serious question we Californians should be asking ourselves, because the answer is that all three are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The list of items under CPUC purview is long and varied, and frankly, somewhat random. In addition to the above, the Public Utilities Commission regulates natural gas pipelines, telecommunications, and broadband and emergency reporting.

But wait, as late-night TV commercials beckon, there’s more. 

Last year, the Public Utilities Commission stepped in to intervene in wildfire prevention, high-speed rail, the electrification of transportation lines, the electric grid, battery storage on that grid, emergency preparedness, clean energy for disadvantaged communities, broadband access for rural communities and water on the Monterey Peninsula. 

Given that laundry list of responsibilities, it is difficult to fathom that the Public Utilities Commission unsurprisingly started simply when it was created by voters in 1911 as a way to check the power of railroad monopolies.  

Over time–thanks particularly to decades of our elected officials passing off politically tricky issues–the Public Utilities Commission has grown into a catchall for the state’s thorniest problems. 

With an annual budget of $1.6 billion, the commission employs more than 1,300 people and continues to grow each year. It has become the largest and most powerful regulating agency in the state, bar none.

That’s not good, not for the Public Utilities Commission, the entities it regulates, and most importantly not for the people of California. Instead of focusing on core issues and overseeing them well, the agency has been inefficient in handling its broad spectrum of responsibilities.

On top of that, there has been plenty of discussion about whether the Public Utilities Commission is too cozy with those it regulates. For example, the agency has faced stiff criticism for failing to enforce electric companies’ wildfire prevention plans. Other critics says its outdated licensing processes aren’t up to managing the pace of innovation.

The truth is it’s simply not possible for one agency to be an expert in such a smorgasbord of areas. That’s why the Public Utilities Commission should focus on public utilities and threats to public safety. Period.

Relieving the California Public Utilities Commission of some of its extraneous duties fits nicely with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stated mantra of streamlining government. Earlier this spring, he floated the idea of overhauling the agency from the top down. That’s a wise idea that Gov. Newsom’s predecessors have toyed with but not followed through on.

Now is the perfect time for Gov. Newsom and the Legislature to follow up on this concept, given the retirement of former president, Michael Picker, last month. The governor’s newly appointed President Marybel Batjer, who has a well-earned reputation as a bureaucratic “fixer,” is in a prime position to refocus the agency on what should be its top priorities, while allowing other things to fall away. 

A reorganized and refocused Public Utilities Commission will allow the commission to return to its stated mission of empowering California through access to safe, clean, and affordable utility services and infrastructure.

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Kish Rajan is Chief Evangelist of CALinnovates, a nonpartisan coalition of tech companies and nonprofits, some of which engage in issues before the California Public Utilities Commission, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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