Liccardo: Bills Too Damn High

Bay Area residents got a shock in with the hike in their January energy bills.  Those rates will increase—again—in April.

These rising energy bills follow higher bills for insurance, food, water and medicine – not to mention the already-punishing cost of rent or a mortgage.  The bills are just too damn high.

Contrary to the belief of some, these higher bills aren’t simply the result of some generalized “inflation,” which declined sharply in recent months.  Rather, specific policy choices got us to this place—and it’s long past time for relief for millions of American families.

Congress must act. Yet our dysfunctional political system discourages elected officials from working together to get things done, and we must overcome the campaign spending and political power of big corporations to win this fight for hard-pressed families.  As Mayor of San José, I was able to bring people together in the fight for fairer energy and water bills, to reduce $3 billion in taxpayer burdens for public liabilities, to create more middle-income housing, and to stand up to big corporations that now spend heavily against me in in this congressional race.

In Congress there are common-sense solutions that our leaders can unite behind—because they matter so much to our families.

Let’s start with those punishing energy bills.  In San José, we gave one million residents the option of lower-cost, cleaner energy through a successful “community choice energy” program.  Despite poor recent decisions of California regulators that discourage solar adoption, we can still dramatically reduce energy costs by embracing rooftop solar, and we can mitigate against blackouts with home battery storage. Congress can empower homeowners and small business owners to finance the cost of solar, storage, and energy-efficient improvements that can reduce bills immediately.

My proposal for a Resilience Savings Plan—which you can read about here – can lower both energy bills and insurance premiums.  It improves a financing approach deployed in some communities, known as “property assessed clean energy” (or PACE) programs, by enabling more residents to invest in cost-saving retrofits like solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, and batteries, as well as ways to “harden” homes against fire threats and flooding.  By deploying financing approaches routinely used by Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae to help home buyers, we can reduce the interest costs of traditional PACE programs.  We can also make PACE much safer by mandating uniform disclosures, consumer protections, and enforcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  By leaning in, Congress can unlock insurance and energy cost savings for our families, make our homes more resilient to wildfires and storms, and deliver climate benefits with more widespread adoption of clean energy.

Painfully high mortgages and rents won’t get any better in the Bay Area with this year’s halt in new housing development.  Congress can help by deploying tax credits to incentivize private investment in converting empty office, hotel, and retail space in our downtowns to housing – unlocking tens of thousands of new units in our region alone. We can boost the inventory of homes for sale by doubling the capital gains exemption on the sale of existing homes.  This will liberate older homeowners feeling “trapped” by the steep tax on the sale of their older homes, and it will enable younger families access to a supply of less expensive older homes.

At the pharmacy we can lower drug prices with Congressional action by mandating pricing transparency among pharmacy benefit managers (PBM’s), who extract high returns that drive up costs to patients and their insurers.  We can also pass a bi-partisan bill to target price gouging, and working to substantially reduce bloated administrative costs and billing fraud throughout the health care system by enacting long-overdue uniform coding processes.

At our grocery stores we can help lower food prices in numerous ways, starting with ending the federal program that uses our tax dollars to promote turning food into fuel, a questionable practice that does not improve our climate but does raise our food prices.  We need Congressional antitrust oversight on the monopoly power of major corporate grocers – two of which control nearly half the national market – to stand up for consumers.

I’ve described all of these ideas, and more, in a book, “Let’s Get it Done,” that’s free to read, because voters deserve to know what specific solutions Congressional candidates are willing to stand for, and more importantly, Americans deserve to see a do-nothing Congress get something done.

Republicans and Democrats agree that the bills are just too damn high, because we’re all paying them.  It’s time Congress does more to address rising costs. Let’s get it done.

Sam Liccardo was mayor of San Jose 2015 to 2023. He is a Democratic candidate for the 16th Congressional District.

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