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CA Lawmakers Approve 'Wildfire Surcharge' Critics Call A PG&E Bailout

SACRAMENTO (KPIX 5) - Californians will foot the bill for the recent wine country wildfires, according to a plan just approved by state lawmakers.

Senate Bill 901 will have customers pay for PG&E's mistakes and help cover for the liability costs related to last year's North Bay wildfires which destroyed thousands of homes and took multiple lives.

"I think it's wrong," says PG&E customer Alice Mar. "I feel really sad. We already pay as much as we do.'

"There isn't any way to describe it but a bailout," says Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, or TURN.

Late Friday night, state lawmakers passed SB 901, allowing utilities like PG&E to pass some of the liability costs on to ratepayers.

State senator Scott Wiener (D) voted for the bill.

"Absolutely not a bailout for PG&E," he says.

Wiener says it's the lesser of two evils.

"We're going to have to pay one way or the other. This is the most responsible way to make sure shareholders are paying a lot without pushing PG&E into bankruptcy. If the utilities go in to bankruptcy, we the ratepayers hold the bag."

Experts say PG&E could go bankrupt if the law did not pass.

But consumer groups like TURN say customers should not have to pay for PG&E's negligence.

"PG&E threatens bankruptcy anytime it thinks its profits are threatened. We've heard these threats from PG&E before," said Spatt.

But lawmakers point out PG&E did file for bankruptcy about 20 years ago and customers ended up paying higher bills.
Many customers they have mixed feelings.

"I'm torn," says Mar, "because I do believe they need the assistance but at the same time, I don't think it should go to the consumers."

"They can't go out of business either, so it's kind of conflicting," says PG&E customer Sonal Body.

"We're in an age with corporate interests seem to come first all the time," says Jim Landman, another PG&E customer.

Governor Jerry Brown now has the bill. He is expected to sign it into law.

Meanwhile, PG&E wouldn't talk to KPIX 5 about the decision, but it did release a statement thanking lawmakers.

It reads in part:

"Senate Bill 901 is a common-sense solution that puts the needs of wildfire victims first, better equips California to prevent and respond to wildfires, protects electric customers and preserves progress toward California's clean energy goals."

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