The Office of Ratepayer Advocates? influence would be increased and conflict-of-interest rules tightened for California Public Utilities Commission members under bills passed this week by the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. SB 608 by Senator Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), which passed on an 8-2 vote April 5, would give the ORA director say over the agency?s budget and allow her to hire a lawyer to represent the agency. In early March, Dana Appling, ORA director, told legislators that she had no control over the office?s purse strings and that her effectiveness was further undermined because ORA has to share legal staff with the CPUC (<i>Circuit<\/i>, March 4, 2005). ORA, which shares office space and data with the CPUC, would also be renamed the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. Senator Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) threw his support behind the bill but also urged adding a provision that would turn the director?s position into a term appointment of four to six years. It would then be a truly independent office and ?not subject to political shenanigans,? he said. The ORA head is currently appointed by the governor, subject to legislative approval, and serves at the governor?s will. One of the dissenters wants ORA?s budget slashed instead. According to Senator John Campbell (R-Irvine), ORA is ?overfunded? and has more financial support than any similar agency in other states. In flux is whether the legislation will require ORA to hash out its budget with its sister agency or the Department of Finance. Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) said insisting that ORA negotiate with the CPUC could result in ?horse trading.? The committee also approved legislation by Bowen that would apply the California Energy Commission?s more stringent conflict-of-interest rules to the CPUC. SB 204, passed on a 6-3 vote, would exclude from potential appointees those who reaped substantial remuneration from companies or people regulated by the CPUC within two years before or after a commission term. The bill is partly in response to the loophole in the state law that allowed former CPUC member Henry Duque to stay in office although he voted on issues that could have affected his own telecommunications investments. These provisions were included in a bill last year that was vetoed by the governor. The California Chamber of Commerce objected to excluding from consideration those who worked in the industry prior to a possible commission appointment. That would have affected now-CPUC president Mike Peevey and voided the appointment of Steve Poizner. ?You are excluding a large class of people with expertise in the industry,? warned Dominic DiMare, lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce. He also said that it was unfair to exclude only one side of the industry and that if there was an exclusion, it should also apply to ratepayer advocates and all other intervenors. SB 204 is supported by The Utility Reform Network and the California Public Interest Research Group. Other bills passed by the Senate committee this week included ones extending CPUC public review for alternate decisions, expanding net metering, and mapping broadband use across the state. Escutia?s SB 15 is in response to the plethora of commission approvals of alternate decisions, which have a truncated public-review process. ?In virtually every important, highly contested case over the last three years, the decision adopted has been an alternate?usually on a 3-2 vote,? according to the bill analysis. One of those was Pacific Gas & Electric?s bankruptcy reorganization settlement. While the comment period for proposed decisions is 30 days, it is only 10 days for alternates. SB 15, passed on a 9-0 vote, would apply a 30-day public review to proposed alternates. More customers in San Diego using solar power systems and other off-grid systems would be able to receive credits for power pumped back into the grid. SB 816 by Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) would expand net metering from the current 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent of San Diego Gas & Electric?s peak demand. Existing net-metered customers are meeting two-thirds of the existing 0.5 percent cap. Unless the cap is raised, it could soon be reached, shutting out others seeking utility bill credits for sending power to the grid. Tripling the cap is expected to allow ?several years of net-metering expansions,? according to Kehoe. A bill requiring the CPUC to map what areas have access to broadband and what areas lack it also advanced. SB 850 by Escutia would also mandate that the state?s chief information officer develop a broadband strategy for ensuring affordable, universal broadband access.