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Now more than ever, Thurston County needs a publicly-owned utility

PERSPECTIVE: Democracy caught the virus

After incredible growth in the movement during February, the Thurston Public Power Initiative campaign came to a screeching halt. For some reason, the Washington State government can’t figure out a strategy for gathering signatures online. People bank online, buy all

kinds of things online, pay their taxes online—but to make democracy work? Don’t two of the richest people in the world live in this state? Didn’t they make their fortune in the technology sector? Why then did the Thurston Public Power Initiative have to fall victim to the effects of the coronavirus?

With a visit by Dennis Kucinich in February, the campaign to allow the Thurston PUD to provide electricity had the momentum and volunteers to get the 15,000 signatures needed to put the initiative on the ballot.Then came the coronavirus, shutting everything down. The campaigners faced denial, then anger, then depression, then bargaining, but finally we have reached acceptance. The Thurston Public Power Initiative 2020 is over… but the fight to replace Puget Power is not.

A fork in the power lines

Instead of our county initiative, we are gearing up to build the boldest most aggressive public power movement this country has seen since the Great Depression. We’re reorganizing to go statewide. Our goal is ridding the state of PSE completely! If PSE is bad for Thurston County then it’s bad for all counties. Every person deserves the security of cooperatively and democratically owning the means of power production and the distribution system. No one should be forced to pay to a foreign investment firm every time they flip a switch or set the thermometer in their own home.

As part of the reorganization, Thurston Public Power Initiative will focus its efforts locally, and Power to the Public will re-form as a statewide coalition. A new group, Utility Strike, is emerging as a direct action response to the pandemic-driven economic crisis.

The need for publicly-owned utilities will increase

#UtilityStrike is a reminder to the private utilities who often forget that they serve at the people’s pleasure. Even before the crisis, as many as 31% of households reported that paying each month’s energy bill was a challenge. As the crisis broadens with tens of millions of people laid off and many businesses shuttered, utility bills loom as a bigger burden.

Results from the most recent federal survey of Residential Energy Consumption found that:

• about one in five households reported reducing or forgoing basic necessities like food and medicine to pay an energy bill. 14% received a disconnection notice. 11% of households reported keeping their home at an unhealthy or unsafe temperature to save money.

• That people forego basic necessities to pay energy bills, shows that our utilities are fundamentally flawed in how they operate. Utilities that already force low-income families to make these choices aren’t going to improve the situation after the crisis. It’s up to us to replace Puget Energy—whose first commitment is to profit and dividends—with community-owned public utilities driven by service to their communities.

The chance to build on hard work already accomplished

We owe a lot to those whose hard work on the initiative campaign brought us so far and set the stage for a renewed effort:

• We educated thousands of people about the raw deal with PSE.

• We showed the opportunities of a Thurston Public Utility District.

• We organized hundreds of volunteers for thousands of hours.

• We made alliances with workers and environmentalists.

• We stayed true to our values and made a lot of friends.

• We forced PSE to be more generous during this crisis as the price for their outrageous profits.

The long list of people to thank is best left unspecific with PSE watching, but it’s everyone who volunteered time and collected signatures, all members of the steering committee, our generous donors and the businesses and political candidates who supported our campaign.

Thanks to Tom Nogler who passed away at the beginning of the campaign but whose spirit has carried us forward. And to Hali Panneton, a faithful and strong supporter, who died in March. We honor them by joining the fight as it continues in new forms. More information at:

Bruce Wilkinson is campaign manager for Power to the Public, a graduate of Evergreen, a local arborist and construction worker.

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