Times Union: Empower users with advocate

 

Times Union Commentary By Derrick Holmes

Monday, June 9, 2014

 Still reeling from huge spikes in their utility bills this past winter and already facing the highest average residential electric rates in the continental United States, New Yorkers don't believe there's anything they can do about the seemingly endless increase in the cost of energy.

They're feeling that strain in their kitchen table economies.

They don't think they're adequately represented when utility companies push for rate hikes.

And they don't think their elected officials are doing enough to keep utility costs from spiraling ever upward.

That much is abundantly clear from a statewide AARP survey of voters 50 and older.

But state senators have a window of opportunity to act. This month, they can give their constituents an independent utility consumer advocate.

A bill to create such an advocate passed the Assembly last month and has the strong support of Senate Democrats — including the Capital Region's Neil Breslin and Cecilia Tkaczyk. Whether it passes the Senate and goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo is entirely up to Senate Republicans and their leader, Long Islander Dean Skelos.

The utility industry is fighting the legislation. And when it comes to raising rates, it's a well-funded industry — well-funded by consumers. The industry charges its customers more than $10 million a year for the costs of pushing rate hikes on those very same customers.

Essentially, consumers are paying for utilities to raise their rates. Yet consumers have no one making the case for them to the regulators who rule on rate hikes.

That's an uneven playing field, plain and simple. Cuomo's own Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response recognized that and recommended an independent entity to advocate for New York's 7 million residential utility consumers.

We need an independent entity devoted to representing utility consumers and armed with the power to challenge rate hikes in court.

Such independent advocates save utility consumers billions of dollars a year in 40 other states. Neighboring Connecticut's utility consumer advocate office reported saving $730 million in 2012 on behalf of residential ratepayers — 243 times its cost. California's office reported a 153-1 return on investment.

AARP believes a good part of the reason New York tops the lower 48 states in residential electric rates is the lack of an independent consumer advocate.

Three quarters of voters 50 and older in the Capital Region don't think their interests are adequately represented when regulators weigh proposed rate hikes — and don't think their elected officials are doing enough when utility bills go up, AARP's survey found.

Nearly four of every five said last winter's utility bills put a strain on their household finances, and more than four of every five favor an independent utility consumer advocate.

The survey showed similar numbers in every region of the state.

It's time to change the game.

Politicians love to tout tax cuts, and keeping taxes under control is important since we all have to pay taxes. But everyone needs energy. Keeping utility bills in check is no less important.

Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein and his Independent Democratic Conference, which shares power with Skelos and the Republicans, are all for a full Senate vote on the bill — which has bipartisan support.

The votes are there. All we need is Skelos and his conference — including the Capital Region's Kathy Marchione and Hugh Farley — to show leadership.

Derrick Holmes of Albany is Interim New York State President of AARP.

Publication date: 
Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 00:00