Albany tries again on utility consumer advocate bill

 

The state Assembly is trying again to set up a new agency called the Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate. The advocate would push for lower rates from Con Edison and other utilities.

Spoiler alert: the bill will probably die in the state Senate.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat, is this year’s lead sponsor of the bill. It passed the Assembly May 11 by a 119-24 vote.

“When you look at the astounding lack of representation that New York’s utility consumers have during rate hike proceedings it is easy to see how New Yorkers pay the highest utility costs in the continental United States,” Dinowitz said in a March 17 news release.

That’s as true now as it was when Albany first considered the idea several years ago. Similar agencies in more than 40 other states are proven consumer money savers. California’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates says that in 2015, it reduced utility bills in the state by $5.3 billion. The agency says that for every dollar it spent in 2015, consumers saved about $191 on their utility bills.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz

Dinowitz’s bill and its predecessors have had strong support in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly. But the idea of a consumer advocate office is not popular in the Republican-dominated Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also not a fan.

Opponents of a consumer advocate office say that consumer advocacy is the Public Service Commission’s job. It’s true that the PSC is charged with ensuring that utility rates are just and reasonable. It’s also true that the PSC staff is dedicated to investigating utility operations and arguing for fair rates.

But at bottom the PSC is a judicial agency, not a consumer advocate. And those who appear before the agency are overwhelmingly utilities and business groups.

Back in 2013, a Moreland Commission appointed to study the state’s response to Hurricane Sandy recommended the establishment of a utility consumer advocate agency. From the commission’s report:

Invariably, the PSC must weigh the needs of regulated utilities against the needs of ratepayers. But a problem arises when the judge – i.e., the PSC – hears overwhelmingly from well-funded and professional advocates and economists representing business interests but not from consumer interests. This status quo brings to mind the observation of the late Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA), who said “all anybody wants in life is an unfair advantage.”

But fairness and due process – as there is in judicial proceedings – requires that two sides debate crucial issues involving, say, utility rates, modernizing the electric grid, establishing the right level of capital investments, and storm hardening so the State is not penny-wise-and-pound-foolish when the next devastating Hurricane Sandy hits.

The doom Dinowitz’s bill faces in the Senate seems like another case of legislators listening to the folks who inhabit the Albany insider world — lobbyists — rather than the people who elected them.

If legislators listened to voters, they’d know high utility rates are a big issue. An AARP study last year noted that more than half of New York City voters between ages 35 and 69 worry about their ability to pay utility bills. Another AARP study two years ago found that utilities spend $10 million per year advocating for their interests in Albany.

Lobbyists do their all to keep New Yorkers paying some of the highest utility rates in the nation. Who in Albany will stick up for people who don’t have lobbyists speaking for them?

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch.com and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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