The seemingly solid agreement among a mix of liberal/moderate Democrats and conservative/moderate Republicans on the newly configured five-member appointed California Public Utilities Commission last Thursday was jarred loose and split into a majority of market-based-solution advocates and a minority of command-and-control supporters over the creation of a telecommunications “Consumer Bill of Rights.” The measure was six years in the making and has gone through several iterations in the past 18 months.

Whether the obvious fracture on this issue will spread over to energy issues is unclear, but the newest commissioner made it clear on one solar energy vote that she expects that the CPUC will let the market work, but also closely monitor results so ratepayer-funded incentive programs are a means to an end and not the end in themselves.

CPUC President Michael Peevey was joined by the two newest members, Rachelle Chong and John Bohn, in supporting a modification of previous consumer rights decrees by the regulators. Geoffrey Brown, starting the last year of his six-year term, and another relatively new commissioner, Dian Grueneich, supported alternate provisions with more rules.

“The choice we make today is whether to bring California consumer policies in line with [the telecom industry’s] competitive markets and the resulting realities – as the Peevey decision does – or to extend rules fashioned in the time of monopoly local service to the new and dynamic areas of the telecommunications – as the Grueneich alternate would do,” said Chong, a telecommunications lawyer/consultant and former Federal Communications Commission member.

Grueneich pledged to work with the majority on the divisive issue but said she was “skeptical of the efficacy” of her colleagues’ proposed approach to trying to rein in wireline and wireless carriers. Brown was uncharacteristically more bombastic calling CPUC head Peevey’s plan “a deception, designed to give political cover to an attack on consumer interests.”

While Brown and Grueneich have been more market-solution-oriented on most energy issues and in lock-step with Peevey, this was a major break. Brown called the new CPUC consumer guidelines “an inducement to massive, pervasive and unaccountable fraud.”

In contrast, Chong said the state’s regulators have “lived with the fiction that regulations automatically equal consumer protection. In a competitive world, regulations can simply drive companies out of California. Carefully crafted rules for real problems make more sense, and that is what the Peevey decision adopts. That is why I support it.”

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