Posts tagged ‘Public Utilities Commission’

San Francisco: Progressive Paradise or Bankrupt Banana Republic?

Great article in the SF Weekly on San Francisco:  The Worst Run Big City in the US.  The article is lengthy and packed full of government fail.  Just one example:

You can't get San Francisco running efficiently, because that would require large numbers of unionized city workers to willingly admit their redundancy and wastefulness. Inefficiency pays their salaries. "It's been going on for decades," Peskin says.

This problem comes up almost every time the city negotiates labor contracts, which is part of the reason San Francisco is constantly on the brink of fiscal ruin. Politically powerful unions "” the progressives are beholden to the service unions; moderates cater to police, firefighters, and building trades; and Republicans ... what's a Republican? "” negotiate contracts the city knows it can't afford. Politicians approve them, despite needing to balance the budget every year, because the budget impact of proposed contracts is examined by the Board of Supervisors only for the following year, no matter how long contracts run. According to former city controller Ed Harrington, it has become common practice not to schedule any raises for the first year of a contract, but to provide extensive raises in later years.

The result is a contract that looks affordable one year out, then blows up in the city's face. City employees receive up to 90 percent of their already generous salaries in pensions and many also receive lifetime health care "” meaning that as they retire, labor costs soar.

Sounds like the health care bill in Congress, no?  The bit near the beginning on the problem in the parks department - overstaffing, no one showing up for work, lost money, poor controls, no process - particularly resonate with me.  My business is the privatization of public parks.  I can't tell you how many public parks agencies I know to be providing terrible service (service levels that I would be ashamed of) with grossly inflated budgets tell me face-to-face that they can't privatize because that would jeopardize the quality of the parks.  Well, that and the fact that the public employees unions would not allow it.

I always laugh when folks tell me that government intervention is needed because private industry is too short term oriented.  But no one is more short term oriented than politicians looking to the next election or closing this year's budget hole.  In particular, capital maintenance is always ignored until infrastructure is literally falling apart.   We see it in parks, transit systems, roads, schools, etc.  It is the same phenomenon that causes third world state-run oil companies to have their production fall off - instead of reinvesting their profits into upgrades and maintenace of their fields and infrastructure (as those short-term focused American oil companies do) they transfer the money into social giveaways that cement their political power.  Here is a great example from San Francisco:

In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the city had, for decades, been siphoning nearly $700 million from its Hetch Hetchy water system into the San Francisco General Fund instead of maintaining the aging aqueduct. Several mayors and boards of supervisors used that money to fund pet causes, and the Public Utilities Commission didn't say no. Unfortunately, spending maintenance money elsewhere doesn't diminish the need for maintenance. By 2002, the water system was in such desperate condition that voters were asked to pass a $3.6 billion bond measure to make overdue fixes. Obligingly, they did "” who doesn't like water? Since then, the projected costs have swelled by $1 billion. So far.

My favorite line:

"San Francisco is Disneyland for adults, or a place people go until they grow up."

San Francisco City Government Outspends Exxon on Climate Advocacy

A bunch of media outlets credulously ran a Greenpeace press release as a news story last year, hammering on Exxon for donating a cumulative $2 million dollars to "skeptical" climate researchers.  Never mind that no one could explain what was so ominous about an American company exercising its free speech rights.  I and other pointed out that this $2 million was a trivial amount of spending compared to the billions that had been routed to global warming activists. 

This week, we get a great example.  While over a period of a decade, the great Satan ExxonMobil spent $2 million on climate issues, it turns out one city government, in San Francisco, spends this much each year on global warming activism:

In his quest to make San Francisco the greenest city in the nation,
Mayor Gavin Newsom recently created a $160,000-a-year job for a senior
aide and gave him the ambitious-sounding title of director of climate
protection initiatives.
But officials in the Newsom administration say that even 25 people working on climate issues is not enough and that having a director in the mayor's inner circle is necessary to coordinate all the city's climate initiatives."

there are 25 people working on climate protection issues for the city,
that's a good start," Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said. "Ten years
ago [when the "globe" was still "warming"], there probably weren't any.
It's smart policy to have one point person at the highest level of city
government to coordinate all 25 of them."

The city has a climate
action plan, issued by Newsom after he took office in 2004, that aims
to cut the city's greenhouse emissions by 2012 to 20 percent below
1990's level.

In addition to the director of climate protection
initiatives in Newsom's office, San Francisco has an Energy and Climate
Program team of eight people in the Department of the Environment, who
combined earn more than $800,000 a year in salary and benefits,
including a "climate action coordinator." At least 12 San Francisco
Public Utilities Commission staff members work on climate issues
related to water and energy, including a $146,000-a-year "projects
manager for the climate action plan."

Also in the name of
climate control, the Municipal Transportation Agency has a "manager of
emissions reductions and sustainability programs" who works on making
Muni's bus fleet greener, and the San Francisco International Airport
has a "manager of environmental services" who oversees such projects as
the installation of energy-efficient lighting and solar panels.

list doesn't include the scores of staff members who work on broader
environmental policies, like the recently hired $130,700-a-year
"greening director" in Newsom's office, or Jared Blumenfeld, who earns
$207,500 a year in salary and benefits as the head of the city's
Environment Department, which has a staff of 65 and annual budget of
about $14 million.

It borders on journalistic malpractice that nearly every article on skeptics delve into their funding sources but no reporter ever seems to have ever asked climate alarmists about their funding sources nor delved into these funding issues.

Peoples Republic of Hawaii

Well, our most socialist state is attempting to repeal the laws of supply and demand:

Hawaii issued a list of wholesale price caps for gasoline, the
state Public Utilities Commission said, amid this month's
record-breaking run up in retail gas that saw island residents paying
some of the highest prices in the nation.

This marks the first state cap on gasoline prices since the 1970s
energy crisis, when the average inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of
regular unleaded hit $3.

Hawaii's recently enacted gas cap law goes into effect on September 1, with the pre-tax wholesale cap in Honolulu set at $2.1578

Gee, I bet this will work out really well.  Either the price cap will be set high, such that it is meaningless, or it will be set low, such that Hawaii will likely get this:

update:  given the structure of the price caps, the result could actually be higher rather than lower prices at the pump -- see update #2 below.

It's good to know that Hawaii is looking to China for economics ideas.

The Chinese government and its state-owned oil companies are locked
in battle over artificially low gasoline prices at the pump that has
caused a massive shortage in the southern manufacturing province of

The crisis
highlights the persistent problems Beijing faces as the economy is
transformed to a more market-based system but that is often retarded by
authorities who fear loosing political control in the face of
full-fledged capitalist rules.

Beyond the obvious run-up in world-wide oil prices and Hawaii's logistical isolation that raises all of the prices on the island, the article on CNN identified one other possible culprit for high prices: the state government

Higher-than-average taxes on gasoline in Hawaii contribute to those
high prices. The state levies a 16 cent per gallon tax, and various
local authorities add on other taxes.

In Honolulu, for example, total state, federal and local gas taxes
amount to about 53 cents per gallon, one of the highest rates in the
United States. The national average, according to the American
Petroleum Institute, is about 42 cents per gallon

It seems like only a few days ago I was pointing how governments have a hard time resisting meddling in oil markets, and that this meddling never works out well.

Even in the US, which is typically more comfortable with the operation
of the laws of supply and demand than other nations, the government has
been loathe to actually allow these laws to operate on oil.  During the
70's, the government maintained price controls that limited demand side
incentives to conserve, thus creating gas lines like the ones we are
seeing in China today for the same reason.  When these controls were
finally removed, a "windfall profits tax" was put in place to make sure
that producers would get none of the benefit of the price increases,
and therefore would have no financial incentive to seek out new oil
supplies or substitutes.  Within a few years of the repeal of these
dumb laws, oil prices fell back to historical levels and stayed there
for 20 years.

Like the gas rationing and price controls in the 1970's, this occurs in a Republican administration (Hawaiian Governor Lingle).  It continue to be difficult to take the Republican Party's professed support for free markets seriously.

Hawaii's Star Bulletin reported that Governor Linda
Lingle (R) is an opponent of the caps. The newspaper said Lingle
believes it would be better to force oil companies to open their books
and show consumers how much money they make at each stage of business.

If she is so opposed to it, why didn't she veto the bill?  And is having government officials marching into private offices to confiscate accounting data really her preferred "free market" alternative?

Update:  Apparently the cap in Hawaii was passed pre-Lingle, and she fought to reverse it, so I will cut her some slack. Lynne Kiesling has more details on the plan, which includes how the cap will be calculated week to week.  Politicians there are calling it a "market-based price cap".  LOL.  Next we will see freedom-based speech limitations and privacy-based telephone taps.  Note that how the cap is calculated does not change the statement I made before:  Either the price cap will be set high, such that it is meaningless, or
it will be set low, such that Hawaii gets gas lines.

PS- Lynn is the economic goddess of energy markets, so if energy and power markets and regulation interest you, I recommend her blog.

Update #2:  Jane Galt makes the good point that the Hawaiian price caps are on wholesale gasoline prices, so while there may be gas shortages at the wholesale level, retail prices may be able to float higher to close the supply gap.  This would ironically lead to higher, not lower prices at the pump, and large profits for gasoline retailers.  Since wholesale sources of gas tend to be out-of-state corporations, and gasoline retailers tend to be smaller, locally owned businesses, I wonder if this is a case of rent-seeking by gas station owners.