Kilowatts convert conservative cowboys to socialism

Expanded from the 2-18-2001 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

Sometimes it's sweet to say I told ya so. But there's no savoring avoidable human suffering.

In 1980, I traveled to Elko to make a presentation before the town fathers. I was soliciting support for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Winnemucca, Elko and everyone living in the northern tier of Nevada.


CP National Corp. wanted to sell its electrical utility system in the region. Sierra Pacific Power wanted to buy it. I had a better mousetrap. At the suggestion of Dr. David S. Schwartz, one of the foremost utility economists in the country, we put together a case for taking the power grid out of the greedy hands of SPP and making it a truly public utility, owned by the ratepayers. (SPP responded by hosting a series of free steak barbecues at ratepayer expense to schmooze the hicks. The meatheads won.)

Dr. Schwartz also proved prescient when it came to Sierra Pacific's Reno-Sparks-Washoe County water service. He foresaw great consumer benefit in having local government assume control. Now, two decades later, it's finally happening at far greater cost.

The consumer contingent in Elko on that long ago evening included myself, my wife, Betty; future State Sen. Randolph Townsend, (D, 1982-85, R thereafter) and Sparks casino dealer Rosalie Beasley, who was raised in northeastern Nevada.

Ms. Beasley had been circulating a petition protesting rate hikes when we asked her to support a statewide initiative forcing the always-retro Nevada Legislature into creating a state consumer advocate's office.

After Ms. Beasley made her presentation to the Elko County Commission, the body refused to support a public takeover. Then-Commissioner John Carpenter knew Ms. Beasley from their school days together. As he walked past us, Carpenter looked at me and said "you're just a socialist." It was not a compliment.

Nowadays, it seems socialism is getting hot in the home of the Sagebrush Rebellion. The cowboy-hatted Carpenter went on to win election to the Nevada State Assembly in 1986, a position he still holds. A couple of years ago, none other than John Carpenter fought the proposed privatization of Elko's hospital because he knew his constituents would be better served if it remained a public, non-profit entity. This column complimented him for his efforts.

Last month, Carpenter and Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, invited Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, to a public meeting at the Elko Convention Center. About 175 people attended, according to the Elko Daily Free Press. Neal has introduced a bill in the Nevada Legislature to repeal deregulation. Also in attendance was current Nevada Consumer Advocate Tim Hay, the third to hold the position created by the 1980 initiative. (Rhoads was one of only four assembly members to vote against the bill during the 1981 legislative session.)

With mining in a slump, Elko is hurting today. Soaring utility rates make new investment less attractive, notwithstanding the fact that some modern monster mines can produce gold for less than $100 an ounce. It takes a lot of expensive electricity to squeeze an ounce from hundreds of tons of rock, even if you can sell your product at almost 200 percent profit.

Carpenter put together the Elko meeting to discuss Coastal Corporation's proposal to build a new gas pipeline through the area to fuel a new electric generating plant.

"Even Sen. Neal, who opposes electric deregulation...said after the forum that he 'would have no problem' with a special arrangement to get the power plant and pipeline into Elko County," the Free Press reported.

Vernon Dalton, president of the Wells Rural Electric Co-op, went on record as not opposing the project.

Ironically, Dr. Schwartz's 1980 proposal involved expanding the Wells co-op to take over CP National. Today, co-op ratepayers are not sweating the problems SPP customers face, as Mr. Dalton reportedly so stated.

Townsend, now powerful chair of the State Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, has maximum clout on utility issues. His fellow lawmakers took him at his word when he pushed through a voluminous deregulation bill at the end of a previous legislative session.

Notwithstanding Townsend's consumer protector image, he quickly became the most pro-big-business member of the senate soon after election in 1982. His future as heir-apparent to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, will rise or fall on how he handles deregulation. He says he still favors it. Townsend's committee begins wide-ranging hearings this week.

As I noted in last week's column, dereg's prime movers are the casino and mining industries who want to make their unjustified big discounts even bigger while sticking small ratepayers with the difference.

If the likes of Rhoads and Carpenter can bury their anti-communist rhetoric and recognize the merits of the consumer standpoint, maybe small ratepayers still have a chance. Nevada can either profit from the California catastrophe or sink into depression alongside the Golden State.

I recommend that you show up at a formative meeting of a new consumer coalition. The Nevada Utility Reform Alliance will convene at the Washoe County Library's main branch at Liberty and Center in downtown Reno this Saturday, Feb 24, at 1:00 p.m. Consumer Advocate Hay is scheduled to attend. For more information, contact Charles Laws at (775) 787-8935

In the meantime, read what the Social Darwinists at the Las Vegas Review-Journal had to say about Sen. Neal's proposal for public takeover of utility service, something Calif. Gov. Gray Davis should consider since he's made taxpayers and ratepayers one and the same.

Be well. Raise hell. | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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copyright © 1982-2004 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 32-year Nevadan and editor of and Sen. Neal's website. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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