2021 Leg Session, Energy, Featured, Uncategorized

Gaines: Legislative changes to ratepayer watchdog unsupportable

Perhaps it’s because I am relatively new to watching politics, but I find people’s reactions to proposed laws to be inscrutable sometimes.

A seemingly minor change can draw a huge response (as I saw in my town when a bill was proposed in the legislature to remove the word “Junior” from the local community college), while a major change to how a state agency will function–for the worse– lands with barely a puff of dust kicked up.

I watched the latter happen pretty recently with Senate Bill 103.   If you follow the link you’ll see it carries the innocuous title of “Sunset of Office of Consumer Counsel” and you might be tempted to move along.  After all, that title carries the distinct whiff of legal boilerplate enabling someone to do something.

I would urge you to resist that temptation, however, because, while it does continue the function of the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) and the advisory Utility Consumer’s Board (UCB), it does much more than just keep them going until their next sunset hearing.  I believe it will have the effect of making the OCC and UCB less effective and less independent advocates for you and I.

(As a side note, in order to not get tripped up in titles, I will use the old names OCC and UCB in my writing and not the new names which are proposed under the law.)

First, looking through the bill you will see it changing the UCB from a “type 1 transfer to a type 2 transfer”.  If that didn’t mean much to you at first, you’re not alone.  It didn’t to me until I looked it up.

Changing in that way means that the UCB lose some of its independence, as it moves the UCB under the control of the director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA).

DORA is an organization run by a political appointee of the governor and subject to his wishes. Do you really think the UCB will be as willing to advise the OCC to advocate for energy ratepayers against backroom deals, like the one between Governor Polis’ administration and Xcel, when it’s under his thumb?

Looking further, you will see that the bill removes the requirement that ” … members of the board represent all 7 of the state’s congressional districts and instead require[s] that appointing authorities ensure that the board’s membership reflect the greatest degree of diversity possible.”

Diversity is fine, I wholeheartedly support it, but I remain concerned about losing voices for places outside the Front Range on the board.  Without specific mandates requiring it, we run the risk of, as has happened with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission appointments, the governor marginalizing and ignoring huge swaths of the state.  In the case above, it was even worse because he had language in the bill directing exactly from where to pull appointees which he flat ignored.  Do you think I or others believe he’ll take the idea of including voices from parts outside the Front Range more seriously without a requirement?

Lastly the bill requires a shift in how and for what the OCC and UCB can advocate for.  In the past, the OCC was mandated to speak for you and I in our economic interest as utility ratepayers.  You can now add speaking on behalf of statutory decarbonization goals, just transition programs, and “environmental justice” to the OCC’s mandate.

Let me be clear in my troubles with this.  I’m not here to argue whether or not we should be working on decarbonization, just transition programs, or environmental justice.  I am here to argue that diluting the mission of an organization dilutes its effectiveness.  We live in a finite world after all.  If we start piling on to the OCC, will there still be time to–as they have in the past–advocate for seniors with trouble paying heating bills?  In addition, at least the first two new charges have a statutory definition so everyone can know exactly what will be argued for.  If they don’t like it, they can seek to change the definition through elected officials.  There is no definition for “environmental justice”.  Who then decides what should be sought?  What if you and I disagree on that?

I am all for having an Office of Consumer Counsel, along with an advisory Utility’s Consumer Board that are independent, represent the entire state, and work in the interests of all Coloradans.  Given that, I’m against this bill and hope you join me.

Cory Gaines runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook and lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”

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