Guest: LA Times' Michael Hiltzik on PG&E's bankruptcy; Also: Federal court blocks Admin citizenship question on Census; AG-nom Bill Barr testifies; Trump's record shutdown grinds on...
By Brad Friedman on 1/15/2019, 6:26pm PT  

Good news and not-terrible news on today's BradCast, along with an interesting proposition for the state of California in a climate changed world. [Audio link to show follows below.]

We start off with the good news today, courtesy of a federal court in Manhattan, where a U.S. District Court Judge blocked the Trump Administration's attempt to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 Census. Judge Jesse Furman's 277-page ruling [PDF] slammed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for violating the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and for offering "pretextual" reasons for adding the question against the wishes of career Census Bureau administrators. Ross had falsely claimed the question was "well tested" and needed by the Dept. of Justice to better enforce the federal Voting Rights Act.

In fact, Republicans have long sought to add the rig the census by adding the question in hopes that it would decrease responses from immigrant communities to help shift the balance of power during decennial redistricting from Democratic-leaning urban areas to more Republican-leaning rural areas. Furman's ruling called out Ross for lying and even responded to an earlier statement on the case from Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch. Several other legal challenges await, however, including a separate case on the same matter that will be heard by the Supreme Court in February.

Meanwhile, William Barr, Trump's nominee for Attorney General, testified at his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. He claimed he wanted to allow Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who he cited as a friend, to complete his investigation into Trump/Russia, though would not fully commit either to publicly releasing Mueller's full report, nor to recusing himself from oversight of the probe, even if DoJ ethics officials recommended that he should. Barr, a former AG under George H.W. Bush, wrote and helped circualate a lengthy memo [PDF] last year undercutting the validity of Mueller's investigation.

All of that, as Trump's record-length federal government shutdown continues today, with so-called moderate Democrats in Congress declining invitations to the White House in response to Trump's latest effort to drive a wedge between them and Speaker Nancy Pelosi on funding for his southern border wall. The shutdown grinds on as hundreds of thousands of federal employees are furloughed or forced to work without pay, with travelers now facing long lines at TSA checkpoints at major airports, and as some federal employees are being forced to turn to charity food banks to help feed their families.

Next, with California's largest privately run utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announcing plans to seek bankruptcy protection this week, after facing some $30 billion in potential liabilities for massive, deadly wildfires across the state over the past two years, some have suggested the state should simply buy up the company, which was found to have been responsible for sparking many of the recent record fires by failing to adequately maintain its equipment and power lines.

Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and business columnist MICHAEL HILTZIK joins me today to discuss the issue, as PG&E seeks state protection from liability in hopes of passing costs on to rate-payers. The company, which serves some 16 million customers in Northern California, was once valued at more than $30 billion, but with its stock price now gutted after the bankruptcy announcement and previous criminal convictions it is currently valued at just about $3.5 billion. California could end years of repeated company mismanagement, Hiltzik explains, by purchasing the company or its most valuable assets, at --- pardon the pun --- fire sale prices.

"I wrote a column a year ago saying, 'it's time to take the franchise away from PG&E and put it out for bid.' Let somebody else come in and show that they can operate all of these functions much better, more efficiently, cheaper, and without these constant [failures]. PG&E is like the Wells Fargo of the utility business. It can't seem to do anything right, and scandals continue to crop up," Hiltzik tells me. "My case against PG&E goes way back to the proposition they tried to sneak across through the voters many, many years ago to basically eliminate competition from public power consortiums. So PG&E has just been a bad actor. They have been absolutely atrocious operators."

Hiltzik discusses the pros and cons of what would be a radical, if potentially profitable, investment by the state of California, and how the company's failures and need for public bailout portend similar threats to other fossil fuel-reliant firms, insurance companies and states as the increasingly brutal impacts and costs of climate change undercut profitability.

"We really need to have a debate --- and a debate in the near term --- about who should own these utilities and how they should be operated," he argues. "California has probably done more than most other states in starting to come to grips with [climate change], because at least we've been developing information about what those impacts will be. But nobody has done enough planning up to this point."

Finally, Desi Doyen joins us for the latest Green News Report with, as usual, no shortage of disturbing news...

Download MP3 or listen to complete show online below...

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