The state Legislature isn’t doing anything this budget season to help New Yorkers stuck with some of the nation’s highest utility bills.
Utility lobbying and opposition from Gov. Cuomo and Senate Republicans have blocked efforts by AARP and Senate and Assembly Democrats to set up a new agency to fight high New York utility rates.
A bill establishing an Office of the Consumer Utility Advocate passed the Assembly last year. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, touted the idea in a March 13 news release that announced his state budget plan included $500,000 to set up the agency.
The idea had some traction in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx, leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference – which shares power with the minority Republicans – put the ratepayer advocate near the top of his legislative agenda for this year. Klein pushed for the advocate as part of a plan to lower the cost of living for senior citizens. Actually, the office would have helped all utility customers.
But Klein’s support wasn’t enough. Barring the unforeseen – always possible in the Legislature – funding for a consumer utility advocate won’t be included in this year’s state budget, and the separate bill establishing this office is dead for now, NYP&L’s sources say.
Utilities are the loudest voice before the Public Service Commission, and spend millions in ratepayer money arguing for higher rates, AARP said in a study released March 26. Over the last four years, Con Edison customers have paid $11.5 million to support the company’s lobbying. National Grid’s Brooklyn gas customers have paid $3 million.
A handful of non-profit groups fight for consumers, aided by the Utility Intervention Unit, an understaffed state agency. But consumer advocates can’t match utilities’ lobbying firepower. And outside the framework of rate cases – which are argued mostly with reams of documents and written legal arguments – the PSC hardly ever talks to consumer groups.
An NYP&L check of public records shows that from January 2013 to March 2014, no Commission member or staffer met privately with members of any ratepayer advocate group. Not even business-oriented groups like the New York Energy Consumers Council, which represents owners of large buildings, got sit-downs with commissioners or staff.
Yet Con Edison got more than 50 private meetings with commissioners or staffers. National Grid did even better, getting 70 such meetings.
New York is unique in allowing Con Ed, National Grid and other utilities “unfettered” access to utility commissioners, the Moreland Commission on utilities’ response to Hurricane Sandy reported in June 2013. “[M]any ratepayers lack the necessary resources to express their opinions and concerns on matters that impact their lives and their pocketbooks,” the commission said in recommending a consumer utility advocate.
There’s nothing wrong with utilities lobbying in Albany. But ratepayers need lobbyists too.
I wrote last June about the Assembly’s initial passage of the ratepayer advocate bill. You may also want to see AARP’s 2013 report on of how ratepayer utility advocates work in other states — and how much they’ve saved consumers.
Update, March 27: I got this statement today from the PSC:
Advocacy groups such as AARP, PULP and others play a dynamic and important role to help shape decisions made by the Commission by providing comments and testimony in proceedings. PULP [the Public Utility Law Project], for instance, has submitted 76 filings since January 2013. Meanwhile, AARP members have submitted numerous comments in various proceedings. The comments and testimony received are heavily weighed in the Commission’s decision-making process. Commission and staff meet regularly with outside parties, when possible, as part of the regular fact-gathering process. Advocacy groups would be welcomed upon their request to meet.