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It's not often you see a lawmaker lobbying her colleagues to kill a bill because she thinks it insults her husband. But that's what happened Tuesday as Sen. Carol Liu made the rounds on the Senate floor asking fellow senators to withhold their votes when Senate Bill 434 came up.

Liu, a Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge, is married to Michael Peevey, chair of the powerful Public Utilities Commission. The bill she was trying to kill would bar future PUC chairmen from sitting on the boards of nonprofit organizations created by the commission that regulates utility companies in California.

"I don't think the bill has anything to do with public policy," Liu said after the vote. "I think it's a jab at my husband, period."

Peevey sits on the boards of two nonprofits, which the PUC created as part of PG&E's 2004 bankruptcy deal and the mergers in 2005 of four major telecom companies. Chairing the commission that regulates the industry while sitting on the boards of the nonprofits the commission created is a conflict of interest, says Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

"You're taking public money that has transparency in public, it has full oversight, it has full accountability, and turning it over to a nonprofit where their actions, and future fundraising, is all behind closed doors," said Hill, who carried the bill Liu tried to kill Tuesday.

"To me, it's a clear conflict of interest that should not be allowed to continue into the future."

The bill passed out of the Senate 26-2, with Liu and her deskmate Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley the only votes in opposition. Several Democrats who were present did not cast a vote on the bill, including Sens. Lou Correa of Santa Ana, Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa, Ted Lieu of Torrance and Lois Wolk of Davis.

"Pass on this," Liu said to Evans and others as she circulated among her colleagues before the vote.

It was the second time in recent months that Liu worked to kill a bill that would reign in the power of the PUC chair.

In September, a similar scene erupted on the Senate floor when the upper house took up a budget-related bill that contained a paragraph prohibiting the existing PUC chair from sitting on the boards of related nonprofits.

With Democrats holding a super-majority in the Legislature, budget trailer bills normally fly through with little discussion by the time they make it to a floor vote. But not this one. Senate Bill 96 was stuck three votes short of passage when the Legislature broke for lunch on Sept. 10.

"It's the first time I've seen that happen, where a budget bill had to be placed on call because enough members did not vote on it," Hill said.

At the time, The Bee asked Liu and other Democrats why they weren't voting for what seemed like a routine bill for their party. The answers were vague.

"We're just sending a message," Liu said then. "We'll vote on it."

She chalked up her opposition to displeasure with "the inner workings of the Legislature."

When the Senate re-convened after lunch, they voted again and the bill passed 25-13, with Liu abstaining and almost every other Democrat voting yes.

Hill, who became a vocal critic of the utilities commission following the fatal 2010 explosion of a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno, said that bill mistakenly only applied to the existing PUC chair -- and not anyone who will hold the post in the future. He said the new bill, SB 434, was necessary to apply the same restrictions into the future.

The bill now moves to the Assembly for consideration.

PHOTO: Sen. Carol Liu talks to colleagues on the Senate floor as they prepare to vote on SB 434. January 21, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Laurel Rosenhall


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