Sierra Pacific Powerful — Nevadans facing do or die

Expanded from the 2-24-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

"Stock is high-risk investment. It should not be high-risk to be a public utility's customer." -- Sparks homeowner and businesswoman Kimberley Windisch before a Nevada Public Utilities Commission consumer hearing at Mendive Middle School in Sparks, 2-4-2002

Nevadans are going to die this summer. As always, the dead will come mostly from the weakest and humblest among us -- the old, the sick, the very young, the infirm, the disabled.

Some morally obtuse bastards will say that life's not fair, that's just the way it is.

This is the trite and long-discredited mantra of social Darwinism. It's all a big lie. Just because survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle doesn't mean we have to live by that law. But the law of our land will make it so.

Right now, many Nevadans are being forced to choose between food, heat or medicine. The situation will almost certainly get worse as utility rates continue to skyrocket.

None of it had to happen, but the deck has been stacked against the little guy for decades.

The investor-owned utility business was spawned in the 1920s by the Kenneth Lay of his day, a blackguard named Samuel Insull. He sold power at a loss until he put all his competitors out of business. Insull spent much of his career teaching other utility companies how to create monopolies. (He eventually lost it all and died a penniless fugitive from justice.)

The logical extension of Insull's dream has become reality, not quite yet in electricity or gas, but with cable television. Thanks to the Cable Act of 1996, Charter Communications operates here as a deregulated monopoly. Cable TV prices have risen by many times the rate of inflation since President Clinton signed the act into law. Truckee Meadows subscribers are now experiencing rate hikes of 15 percent on top of huge increases over the past several years.

Despite what Gov. Dudley Do-Right's been telling us, Nevada is now about halfway toward complete electric and gas deregulation. Sierra Pacific Resources currently has rate hikes on the table far exceeding $1 billion statewide. This comes on top of hugh ongoing increases with more to come.

State Consumer Advocate Tim Hay says SPR bought electricity like a drunken sailor last year and their profligacy should not be underwritten by ratepayers. SPR CEO Walter Higgins publicly called Hay a liar and refused to appear with Hay on my TV program which airs today.

Higgins' unprecedented public nastiness underscores what seems to be a real fear — that failing to win a retroactive blank check could bring the company to bankruptcy.

Hay considers bankruptcy "a manageable alternative." Higgins' ego bristles at the thought. In fact, he and his ilk have threatened bankruptcy for several years in order to win favorable legislation and regulation.

Higgins, regulators and government officials are well aware that the public is angry enough to kill over this. A consumer group has sprung up and collected more than 11,000 signatures on protest petitions in just a few weeks.
Public hearings are getting overflow crowds statewide.

I predict that the ratepayers and Mr. Hay will be disappointed. They are playing against a stacked deck.

Here's the statute governing the Public Utility Commission of Nevada: "(P)rovide for the safe, economic, efficient, prudent and reliable operation and service of public utilities; and balance the interests of customers and shareholders of public utilities by providing public utilities with the opportunity to earn a fair return on their investments while providing customers with just and reasonable rates." [Nevada Revised Statutes 704.001(4)] 

I fear that Gov. Guinn's commission will feel compelled to hand a blank check to SPR and let the ratepayers cook to death this summer.

The only answer lies in ratepayer ownership of the company. California and Nevada non-profit, ratepayer-owned utilities suffered from no Enron-spawned phony power shortages in 2000.

Only in bankruptcy can SPR be acquired at a reasonable price.

This will take public pressure on regulators, elected and appointed officials. Sign the petition.

Call or write the Public Utilities Commission. Show up at consumer hearings. The next one will be held at the PUC office in Carson City tomorrow evening. Petitions will be available.

The current round of rate cases represents Nevada's last best chance to escape servitude on the monopoly plantation started by Insull, expanded by Lay and perpetuated by Higgins.

ON THE AIR. Consumer Advocate Tim Hay joins me on the next edition of Deciding Factors today on KRXI TV-11 and KAME TV-21 (Charter cable channel 7). You'll have four opportunities to see it. It opens on KAME at 12 noon today, followed by a re-broadcast on KRXI at 2:30 p.m. KRXI airs it again at 12:30 tomorrow morning, followed by KAME at 1:30 a.m. Watch this space for subsequent broadcasts

ALWAYS WORKING — Not long before his death, Orland Outland, right, confronts Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn at a Washoe Democratic Party meeting.

REMEMBERING THE WISE MEN WHO WENT BEFORE. Today at 10:00 a.m., a tree will be dedicated in Reno's Idlewild Park in memory of Orland T. Outland. The late U.S. Army officer spent his entire retirement fighting to improve the lot of the average Nevada citizen.

When utility rates were skyrocketing in the mid-1970s, Orland was the one consumer ahead of the pack. He had been quietly showing up for years at Public Service Commission hearings in protest of the unfairness of the system. He was often the only consumer in the room.

The former Tribune columnist taught me and other utility activists the rules of the game and how to organize. We may not be able to have him with us for the current fight, but we certainly have available the knowledge and the spirit he left with us.

If you can attend this morning, the Outland tree is located west of the Reno Police Officers Memorial. A reception follows at the McKinley Arts and Culture Center Atrium nearby at 925 Riverside Drive. You may read some of Orland Outland's writings at (Use the search engine for his name.)

Tonight at 8:00 p.m. on the Showtime cable network, you would do well to tune in a new film entitled "10,000 Black Men Named George." It's the inspiring story of how legendary labor leader A. Philip Randolph organized the oppressed sleeping car porters into a national union in the 1920s and 1930s. The porters worked for nothing but tips and were all called "George" so that passengers wouldn't have to trouble themselves with treating any individual with respect.

Emmy nominee Andre Braugher ("Homicide -- Life on the Street," "The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson," "City of Angels") heads an outstanding cast which includes Charles S. Dutton ("Roc," "Alien 3," "Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here"), Mario Van Peebles ("Ali," "Highlander 3," "New Jack City") and Brock Peters ("To Kill a Mockingbird," several Star Trek films).

After 12 years, Randolph not only won the fight, but went on to greater glory. He and his friend Bayard Rustin organized a little coffee klatch in the nation's capital — the 1963 civil rights march on Washington which brought Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., to international prominence.

I proudly serve on the A. Philip Randolph Institute's Northern Nevada Chapter, a local organization dedicated to reaching out to young people.

Be well. Raise hell.


© 2002, 2006 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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