Brian Jones
Brian Jones / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Several years ago, California utility regulators created a special charge for “super users” who consume a lot more electricity than average.

Last year, it was super hot across much of San Diego County.

Guess what happened. A lot of people got super high bills.

According to SDG&E, nearly 100,000 customers were hit with the “super user” penalty last summer.

The high bills prompted predictable backlash. Just when people needed energy the most, they were penalized for using it.

“I live in Santee and it’s hot!” Sen. Brian Jones said in a recent installment of his “Are You Kidding Me?” video series.

Jones is among the lawmakers concerned that the penalty, meant to promote energy conservation, is instead hurting customers who are just trying to survive hotter summers.

He represents Ramona, which had an all-time record high temperature of 117 degrees last year.

Late last year, SDG&E asked regulators to change or eliminate the super user penalty, which had since been renamed the “high usage charge,” also known as the “HUC,” pronounced like the Huck in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

In May, the CPUC rejected SDG&E’s request. The regulators concluded that most high bills were the result of using more power, not the penalty itself. It analyzed a typical bill and found scarce savings for typical customers if the penalty were eliminated.

The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group, also broke down SDG&E’s data and argued, yes, the penalty was increasing bills, but so were a bunch of other things. According to the group, the penalty amounted to $22 of the $322 average increase for many households and only $8 of the $191 average increase for low-income customers who received discounted rates.

SDG&E countered that using such averages masked how much the penalty hurt some customers. The company pulled out 13 customer bills that showed just how dramatic the penalty could be. The company compared the customers’ June 2018 bills, before things got too hot, when their July or August bills, when last summer’s heat wave really kicked in. One customer used 500 percent more power but had a 1,100 percent higher bill, which meant a June bill of $68 was followed by a $783 bill a month or two later as the customer tried to cope with the heat.

Now, SDG&E is pursuing some other options to help lower bills, according to a letter the company is disturbing to lawmakers along with information showing how their constituents are affected by the penalty. (Disclosure: The letter was written by Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, who sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.)

Some of the problem may go away automatically, as SDG&E moves customers into another billing plan that doesn’t charge people for high use in the same way and instead charges people depending on what time of day they use power. But these so-called “time of use” plans aren’t for everyone – indeed ratepayer advocates have also criticized these plans – and roughly a third of the company’s residential customers are still using billing plans subject to super user penalty.

Competing Visions Seek to Reform California’s Presidential Primary

A lawsuit filed against California Secretary of State Alex Padilla this week by a San Diego-based group seeks to change the way California conducts its presidential primaries. But Padilla and San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez have their own ideas about how to reform the process.

The lawsuit, filed by the Independent Voter Project, which is being represented by Cory Briggs and elections attorney Chad Peace, asks the court to declare the current process unconstitutional and to compel a truly “open presidential primary.” Though the players are mostly San Diego-based, the lawsuit was filed in San Bernardino Superior Court.

Under the current process, voters who are registered as No Party Preference can vote in the Democratic presidential primary if they request a ballot in advance. The Republican Party, however, doesn’t allow those voters to take part in the Republican presidential primary unless they switch their registration.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is Jeff Marston, a former Republican assemblyman representing San Diego, whom the lawsuit notes “would like the opportunity to vote in the primary election for a presidential candidate other than a Republican without being forced to change his party preference.”

The Independent Voter Project’s preferred solution is to issue No Party Preference voters a ballot that includes all presidential contenders. But because political parties don’t have to allow non-members to vote in their primaries, those parties would be able to choose whether to count those votes.

Meanwhile, Padilla, the defendant in the suit, supports a separate proposed change to the presidential primary system in the form of AB 681, written by Gonzalez (who is herself running for secretary of state when Padilla is termed out in 2022).

The bill would require county elections officials to send two different notices to voters informing them of their current party preference and information on the type of ballot they’ll be allowed to cast in the presidential primary. It would also allow voters to change their party preference without re-registering to vote.

But it stops short of allowing independent voters to vote for any presidential primary candidate, the change being sought by the Independent Voter Project.

Maienschein Leads Fundraising Race So Far

In 2018, Assemblyman Brian Maienschein had a close call thanks to a challenge from Democrat Sunday Gover. Though Gover announced soon after that race that she’d be running again in 2020, there’s now another challenger for Maienschein to worry about.

After Maienschein switched parties to become a Democrat, Republican June Cutter announced she’d be jumping in the race. She’s racked up a bevy of endorsements.

Now we have our first glimpse at how fundraising is going in the race.

Cutter announced she’s raised just over $106,000, while Maienschein posted substantially more: about $175,000. Gover has not yet submitted fundraising numbers.

Fundraising, of course, doesn’t necessarily predict success: Gover in 2018 came close to unseating Maienschein with just a fraction of the cash he had at the time.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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