Consumers Counsel’s hands tied further by House sub-bill

The Ohio Consumers Counsel (OCC) has had a rough couple of months and it doesn’t look like it is going to get any better anytime soon. To review, the OCC is the statutory required advocate for residential utility consumers, which represents roughly 4.5 million Ohioans. The OCC represents residential consumers and their interests in front of state and federal regulatory agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the FCC, and the Ohio Supreme Court.

In Governor’s Kasich’s budget their funding was cut by 50% and there were rumors that Republicans might try to restore some of it but instead the sub-bill is even worse for the OCC. Republicans have already stated that they believe that by reducing the OCC’s budget they are simply trying to make government smaller and more efficient.  The problem is though that the reduction in the OCC’s budget represents zero savings for the state as a whole because the funds given to the OCC come from assessments made on utility companies that are passed on to consumers at a whopping three cents for every $100 paid. It is ludacrious to say that these assessments are somehow making utility companies uncompetitive and considering that the OCC’s caseload has risen by almost 40% in the last two years, it is clear their is a real need for a consumer’s advocate.

The House sub-bill goes even further in tying the hands of the OCC and preventing them from doing what they are legally required to do. The sub-bill includes language that would prevent the OCC from advocating cases against competitive markets.

Sec. 4911.02

(C) The counsel shall not advocate or otherwise promote any position contrary to development of competitive markets in this state, including the policies of this state as set forth in Chapter 4929. of the Revised Code.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem to me that this is just a back door effort to prevent the OCC from advocating cases that would benefit consumers simply by allowing utilities to claim that the OCC’s efforts are working against competitive markets. Also, considering chapter 4929, which is the portion of the Ohio Revised Code that deals entirely with natural gas producers. So, not only will the OCC be prohibited from advocating for lower prices for consumers for utilities, but the OCC can’t take on cases against natural gas producers.

The fun doesn’t stop there, the sub-bill also consolidates the OCC call center with the existing PUCO call center, prohibits the OCC from even operating a call center, and utility companies would no longer have to make customers away on their bills that the OCC even exists or inform them how to contact them.

The OCC is the only consumer advocates for residential utility consumers.  The Republicans in the House, and this Governor, seem to think that providing consumers with advocate against multi-million dollar utility companies just isn’t needed anymore. With cases against utility companies rising, and these same utilities being large supporters of Governor Kasich and House Republicans, could it just be another case of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours? Given how this administrations has acted in the first 4 months I don’t see how it couldn’t be.

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