Gov. Jerry Brown voiced strong support for beleaguered California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey on Friday, following the disclosure of emails indicating a cozy relationship with the utilities Peevey regulates.
Brown, meeting with this newspaper's editorial board, also said he plans to proceed with his twin-tunnel plan for the Delta whether or not the public votes on it, and suggested that comprehensive reform of the California Environmental Quality Act, long one of his top priorities, is all but dead.
In a wide-ranging interview, the governor reviewed with evident pride his third term's accomplishments, such as closing the state's budget deficit, enacting a local control funding formula for schools as well as some pension reform, presiding over the expansion of MediCal and creating a successful health care insurance exchange. Then he took a dig at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was indicted earlier Friday on charges of abuse of power and coercion.
"In the big picture, not only am I not indicted, but I'm doing a hell of a job," Brown quipped, later declining to commit to debate that and other topics with Neel Kashkari, his Republican opponent in the November election.
In some of the CPUC emails, Peevey offered public relations advice to PG&E on handling revelations of the utility's criminal indictment. In another email, PG&E regulatory executive Laura Doll wrote to the chief of staff of Commissioner Peevey, expressing enthusiastic gratitude for advice that the staffer, Carol Brown, provided to PG&E. "Love you. Thanks," Doll wrote. The recent release of those emails stoked Peevey's critics, who have long seen him as too cozy with the state's utilities, to demand his immediate ouster.
"I know there's been a lot of ink poured out on this topic, but I would say he's a very effective leader, he gets things done" especially on promoting renewable energy, Brown said Friday of Peevey.
Brown went on to describe Peevey as "a strong force," the likes of which hasn't held the CPUC's reins since John Bryson did so during Brown's second term, from 1979 to 1982.
Brown also said Friday he will "charge ahead" with his divisive, $23 billion proposal to build two massive tunnels that would make it easier to move water from north to south in California -- with or without a vote of the people.
Although Brown conceded his plan to construct tunnels beneath the San Joaquin River Delta to siphon water south will likely end up on the ballot eventually, he said he's not going to put it there voluntarily because the plan seeks to address a problem -- deteriorating levees and saltwater intrusion -- that can't wait.
"I'm doing this because it's a problem that's presented to me," Brown said. "People think I'm talking about my legacy. No. I do things that show up that I can't avoid, and this is one that I've got to do."
Brown's comments Friday came several days after he helped negotiate a new $7.5 billion state water bond for the November ballot. In order to mitigate opposition from environmentalists, the final version of the bond package prohibits any bond money from being spent directly on the tunnel proposal.
Prior to his Friday comments, Brown had been mostly mum on the project, officially known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, since his administration released a detailed blueprint more than a year ago, but Capitol observers expect the project will be a top priority of his next term if he wins his gubernatorial bid in November.
Rewriting California's onerous environmental regulations was another topic many had expected Brown to take up next year if he cinches an unprecedented fourth and final term as the state's top leader.
But on Friday, Brown said his hopes to do so have dimmed significantly. He wouldn't say CEQA reform is dead, but he compared hurdles in changing the law to revising the Catholic Church's persistent opposition to birth control.
"Once you start to fiddle with the theology of CEQA, you get into difficulties," Brown said.