How to help prevent giant utility rate increases and advance the interests of Asian Americans

Link to Original Article from Asian Journal

SIX million Asian Americans in California are deeply affected by the actions of one of the most powerful California government agencies, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The CPUC influences a broad range of multibillion dollar utility and telecommunications companies. This includes PG&E, SoCalEdison, SoCalGas, SDG&E, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. This powerful five member commission also influences the policies of many other companies such as Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and indirectly influences Apple and Google.

The National Asian American Coalition works closely with most of the five commissioners and often, but not always, supports their actions to promote corporate responsibility.

Commissioner Timothy Simon and President Michael Peevey are the two commissioners with the longest history of advancing economic opportunities for Asian Americans and in protecting Asian American and low income communities. Both have been strong advocates for corporations awarding far more contracts to minority-owned businesses and in hiring and promoting more Asian Americans. They have also helped ensure that low and moderate income families secure discounts on their energy bills (CARE program) and secure free energy conservation resources (ESAP). Partly as a result of Commissioners Simon’s and Peevey’s efforts, all of the major utilities have Asian Americans on their boards of directors; in contrast, the vast majority of Fortune 500 corporations have no Asian Americans on their board.

The CPUC has many unfinished tasks that influence the future success for Asian Americans. One of the most important is whether PG&E, SoCalEdison, SDG&E and SoCalGas will secure $17 billion in rate increases that they have requested during a recession. We have opposed most of the rate increases as unnecessary and have questions whether rate payers should fund extravagant multimillion executive compensation packages proposed by most utilities. We have therefore urged limited or no rate increases so long as California is in a recession and our overall state unemployment rate exceeds six percent.

Another major issue before the CPUC is one where commissioners Simon and Peevey could be especially helpful. Today, the major utilities award $35 billion in contracts annually to businesses. But small Asian American businesses do not receive even one-tenth of one percent (00.1%) of these multibillions of dollars in contracts. These Commissioners have urged greater business opportunities for small Asian American businesses.

One key issue where Commissioner Simon has been particularly helpful involves effective outreach and education on how Asian Americans and others can reduce their bills through discount programs and reduce their energy consumption through various energy efficiency programs paid for by the utilities. And, with Commissioner Simon’s support, we have been advocating for a very substantial increase in funding for low income community education and outreach in all languages, including Tagalog.

Creating Competition and Lower Wireless Costs

Within the next two months, the CPUC will have an opportunity to substantially reduce the cost of wireless services. Presently, costs are often extremely high due to lack of competition. Therefore, the NAAC is urging the CPUC to support the acquisition of Sprint by Softbank (an international telecommunications company) if Softbank designs programs of public benefit to Californians. Softbank’s CEO has already committed to effectively competing with AT&T and Verizon through low-cost products. The CPUC will therefore have the opportunity to substantially reduce phone bills for Asian Americans and all Americans if it approves this merger with appropriate public interest conditions.

What Can Asian Americans Do To Protect Themselves?

Timothy Simon may also be as close as we can get to an Asian American advocate on the Commission since Governor Brown has never, during his three terms as Governor, appointed an Asian American to the Commission.

Commissioner Simon’s term ends at the end of the year. Given Commissioner Simon’s very strong, knowledgeable, and effective voice on behalf of Asian Americans and other minorities, this could endanger the success of many low-income community outreach and minority small business programs.

But, the Asian American community is not powerless. This is why we and many other Asian Americans have already written to Governor Brown to reappoint Commissioner Simon. Please join the NAAC and write to Governor Brown and urge him to nominate Commissioner Simon to a second term.

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Faith Bautista, the President of NAAC, was chosen by the CPUC to be the only minority group to be featured at the CPUC’s 100 anniversary celebration two years ago and was a long-time member of the low income Advisory Board chaired by Commissioner Simon and is presently on the California Utilities Diversity Council.

Shalini Swaroop is the Senior Staff Attorney at the NAAC and is presently handling over a dozen CPUC cases on behalf of Asian Americans, including three major cases opposing billions of dollars in rate increases during the recession and other cases promoting greater opportunities for low income and minority families.

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