• Bill would boost consumers’ voice
     | January 07,2014

    MONTPELIER — Backed by the Shumlin administration and legislative leaders, a bill seeking better advocacy for underrepresented consumers on utility matters before the Public Service Board is poised for passage as soon as this week.

    The Vermont chapter of the AARP hosted a State House news conference Monday to promote legislation that calls on the Public Service Department to represent “ratepayer classes who are not independently represented parties in proceedings before the board.”

    The bill, S.25, passed the Senate last year and is expected to sail through the House this week. House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell were on hand Monday, as well as Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Democrat from Bennington County.

    Greg Marchildon, AARP’s state director, said Hartwell’s bill “marks a significant step forward for consumers in our state.” It will provide balance to entities that can afford to hire representation, he said.

    “We know that Green Mountain Power and Omya and Killington and Jay Peak and some of our large and successful corporations in the state, they have the resources to present their case in front of the board. But, not the little guy and not small communities and not small business owners who are going to need the department to be their primary voice,” Marchildon said.

    The senior advocacy group studied various models across the country to determine how residential, low-income and small business ratepayers can be better served and have more influence on PSB decisions, he said.

    “We concluded that the path laid out in S.25 directing the department to be more acutely focused on the interests of underrepresented groups is the best model for effective advocacy in our state,” he said. “That is why we are encouraging the swift passage of S.25 in the House and the Senate to make a statement of our state’s commitment to its consumers.”

    AARP has been seeking changes to how individuals and small businesses are represented in PSB proceedings after the merger in 2012 of the state’s two largest utilities — Green Mountain Power and the now-defunct Central Vermont Public Service Corp.

    The terms of the merger called for $21 million to be returned to CVPS ratepayers because of higher rates required years earlier to avoid bankruptcy. AARP and others wanted that money to be returned directly to ratepayers in refund checks, but the PSB, which approves rates and oversees the operations of utilities, ruled in favor of the merged utility and allowed it to invest the money in efficiency projects instead.

    Smith and Campbell were quick to tamp down any suggestion Monday that the bill is directly related to the merger battle.

    “This is not meant to be sort of a judgment on what has happened in the past. If in fact, I would say, that it was seen as a judgment on what has happened in the past, it would have more difficulty passing,” Smith cautioned.

    Rather, the bill is intended to put individual residents and small businesses on a more level playing field with the state’s utilities and corporations, he said.

    “I actually think that this is not a backward-looking piece of legislation,” Smith said. “This is about making sure that as we move forward we address people’s concerns, we incorporate them into what we are doing and we refine statutes to make them be able to more clearly articulate what the mission of the department is.”

    Hartwell said he introduced the bill because of concerns that utilities and well-funded corporations had too much influence on PSB proceedings and that “the department wasn’t really focused on the ratepayers.”

    Marchildon said AARP is not interested in looking back at past cases, either, particularly the merger issue.

    “Whether the board would have made a different determination is anybody’s best guess,” he said.

    However, Hartwell said, there is no denying past proceedings were a factor, despite the assurances from Smith. The merger is “an example of a controversy that encouraged this bill,” he said.

    After the news conference, he added: “I think what they’re trying to avoid is going back to rehash specifics like the $21 million. The history is out there. We’ve had commissioners out of the utility industry under both administrations, this one and the previous one. I wanted to encourage an environment where you had an independent assessment.”

    Whatever the original intent, the bill seems to be on the fast track to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk. Smith said it will be one of the first votes in the House this week once lawmakers kick off the second half of the biennium today.

    Asked if there was any chance the bill would stall in the House, Smith offered a decisive answer: “No.”

    Meanwhile, despite the legislation, Smith said the Public Service Department is doing “a great job for Vermonters.”

    “But, when there are questions about whether it is effectively representing everyone, I think it’s important for us to ensure the confidence of our citizenry that everybody is being represented. This bill does that,” he said. “It ensures that there is a focus not only on those people that represent themselves, but those Vermonters who do not have the resources to hire representation in the Public Service Board proceedings.”

    The Senate offered its unanimous approval of the bill last session. Members of the upper chamber believed that regular ratepayers deserved more consideration in decisions made by the PSB, according to Campbell.

    “We felt in the Legislature, especially in the Senate, that it is extremely important to protect the consumers, the ratepayers, here in Vermont,” he said. “The best way to do that was to ensure that this department would in fact put this at the top of their list.”

    Recchia said his department is already making an effort to better represent average Vermonters. “I think this bill codifies something that we believe in,” he said.

    “This bill clearly makes it appropriate and directs us to pay heightened attention to the fact that there are other ratepayers in the issue that need to be addressed, and we will do so and believe we have already started really revamping that effort,” Recchia said.

    Other steps, including electronic filing of documents, will allow the public greater access to information, Recchia said.

    The department does not intend to “transfer obligations” or have any one group subsidize another as a result of the legislation, though, he said.

    neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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