Under the Radar: How a Multinational Corporation Quietly Bought a County-Wide Election
by: Thurston Public Power Initiative, John D. Pearce Posted on: April 07, 2013
Editor’s Note: Citizens in Thurston County, WA put an initiative on the ballot to make its electricity publically owned. Puget Sound Energy (PSE), a foreign corporation, defeated the initiative after quintupling Thurston’s previous record for spending on a county-wide election. Does Thurston’s right to democratically make decisions about its electricity conflict with PSE’s rights as a corporate person? Hear the story from John D. Pearce, a resident of Thurston County and former Chair of Thurston Public Power Initiative.
By John D. Pearce, Former Chair of Thurston Public Power Initiative
Photo: Robert F.W. Whitlock
The Commons is a simple phrase for the things owned by “We the People”—most lakes, streams, and rivers; the air; government buildings and lands; parks; schools; roads and highways. In many areas of the country The Commons includes the generation, transmission, and/or distribution of electricity—also known as public power.
There is only one set of wires going into a home, a business or a factory, so electricity is a natural monopoly. Public power means “We the People” own the monopoly, rather than a for-profit corporation.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE), a foreign-owned privately-held corporation with over 1.1 million customers throughout Western Washington, currently provides over 99% of Thurston County’s electricity. PSE charges its ratepayers more than any other electric utility in the state. They annually suck between $17-25 million in profits out of the 118,000 homes and businesses in Thurston and send it to their Australian and Canadian owners. Over the past ten years PSE has drastically reduced its Thurston-based union workforce, replacing them with a private contractor based two counties and an hour away. Public power in Thurston County would mean local control, a return of many local jobs, and lower electrical rates.
In late October 2011, eleven locals gathered in a West Olympia, Washington pizza parlor to discuss the possibility of bringing public power to Thurston County. At their second meeting a few weeks later, the locals formed Thurston Public Power Initiative. Within a very short time they recruited over 100 volunteers solely by word of mouth. These volunteers gathered more than 15,000 signatures—the largest number ever collected on a county-wide petition—and got Proposition 1 on the November 2012 ballot: “Shall Public Utility District No. 1 of Thurston County construct or acquire electric facilities for the generation, transmission or distribution of electric power? Yes () No ().”
After gathering less than 4,000 of the 10,734 required signatures in four of the six months allotted for signature gathering, the Initiative leaders thought they would fail to gather enough signatures. They did nothing to plan a campaign. After an incredible last-minute push by volunteers that put them 2,000 signatures over the top, there was no campaign structure or fundraising organization.
Puget Sound Energy, the backers of the anti-public power campaign, had only two things on their side—seemingly unlimited funds and a strong aversion to the truth. It was all they needed. Their political expenditures bought them the expertise of a Seattle public relations firm and a fake grassroots political action committee (PAC) that put out at least seven county-wide mailers staggered over a four month period along with hundreds of roadside campaign signs. PSE’s non-political spending in the county spiked during the political campaign—billboards touting their “community partnership,” full-page ads in the local daily newspaper, and light bulb and energy-efficient refrigerator giveaways that were unavailable in any of their other service areas.
Along with the sudden rise in local spending, three former “name” politicians with long-time ties to PSE gave a public face to the fake grassroots PAC (that never received a single donation from a human person). The local daily newspaper ran over a dozen editorials repeating the utility’s talking points virtually verbatim and published personal attacks on the leaders of the Initiative. Local voters also received push-poll phone calls from PSE’s call center in Everett, Washington, almost 100 miles and three counties away.
Only 41% of the voters said “Yes” to public power. Why? The simple answer is that they were either misinformed or uninformed. The lack of organization and the dearth of funding limited the Initiative’s message mostly to local free publications, in-kind donations of advertising time by a local radio station, and public forums sponsored by community organizations. Financial contributions were used for print advertisements, t-shirts, and the purchase of radio advertising close to Election Day.
Puget Sound Energy’s funding turned the public power question into the most expensive county-wide political campaign ever conducted in Thurston County. Their total spending reached over $656,000—or $9.36 per vote received. In contrast, the Thurston Public Power Initiative raised and spent just under $34,000, or 71 cents per vote received. The previous record amount spent on a county-wide campaign was $112,000.
The message of the anti-public power campaign can be summed up in one word: Fear! For example, one of PSE’s four main lies was that everyone’s taxes would increase greatly if the PUD provided electricity. The PUD tax rate for 2013 is 0.0000105, or $1.05 per $100,000. By law, the PUD can only raise its tax 1% unless the voters approve a larger increase. The most the PUD could raise its tax without separate voter approval is one cent per $100,000 assessed value—or a dime per million dollars. This is hardly an increase of concern to any reasonable person, especially since the PUD commissioners had already unanimously passed a resolution NOT to raise taxes to pay for any of the costs associated with electricity. The other three lies behind their campaign were just as easily debunked. Unfortunately, PSE once again proved that if a lie is told often enough, people will start to believe it.
Despite the loss at the polls and the fact that it was one of the first times a corporation purchased a local election since the 2010 Citizens United decision; this is seen as the first encounter in a longer encounter. Whether it is private utilities lying to defeat public power initiatives; or miles-long trains passing through our communities spewing lung-clogging trails of coal dust; or gas companies pumping unknown poisons into the ground that leach into our water supplies; corporations are turning us into the frog in the slowly heating pot of water.
In Thurston County citizens now know public power is possible. PSE is finally paying attention to the long neglected electrical infrastructure in Thurston County. They have replaced and upgraded equipment and lines that were previously only replaced when they failed and were virtually never upgraded.
Thurston residents also have the options of municipalization and cooperatives. These options are less than county-wide and could be done without a vote of the people. Another county-wide ballot measure is a possibility. Once it passes, the PUD commissioners have a 10-year window to begin operation as an electric utility. For this scenario to have a chance, two of the three commissioners must at least be open to the possibility of public power. The PUD commissioner elected in 2012 claimed that she was neutral on the question of public power until shortly before the election. She filed a false financial disclosure report with the State in July, hiding the fact that she had taken financial support from a PSE lobbyist. This support went undisclosed for almost three months, until October 16th—less than three weeks before the election. On October 30th, one week before the election, she accepted campaign donations from the CEO, seven Vice Presidents, and a Director of Puget Sound Energy. She will obviously oppose any efforts to make the PUD an electric utility.
Shortly after the election, another PUD commissioner resigned and a replacement commissioner was appointed. Because of the resignation, two of the three commissioners are up for election in 2014. Without two public power-friendly commissioners, there is little reason to open the 10-year window, so the efforts of the pro-public power group will most likely focus on the upcoming commissioner races.
Congress has never passed and no president has ever signed a law declaring a corporation a person. That gift is solely a creation of the Supreme Court, nine justices appointed for life who, for more than 75 years have interpreted “persons” to mean both human and corporate. In Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there are no limits to the amount that corporations can spend on an election. That means that “rights” are now proportional to the dollars one can spend. Because of this, the Australian/Canadian-owned Puget Sound Energy—and every corporation—has more rights than its ratepayers or customers. They can pour endless amounts of cash taken from customers to influence campaigns, initiatives, and political races. Not one dollar was contributed to the anti-public power campaign by a human person. Without Citizens United and the like, there would have been little opposition to authorizing the PUD to become an electric utility.
Our Constitution and our government were designed to protect “We the People”. That protection is slowly and steadily disappearing. Past threats by the oil, railroad, and robber barons to control our country were defeated. We now face even greater threats posed by the too-big-to-fail banks, corporate money buying political influence, and the disappearance of the American middle class.
For-profit corporations exist to maximize profit for shareholders. Any monopoly essential to our way of life should be part of The Commons, not a corporate asset. We need to turn off the stove while we still have some access to the controls.
© 2013 John D. Pearce, All Rights Reserved
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