Ohio Consumers’ Counsel steps down, citing Kasich budget cuts

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Ohio’s Consumers Counsel, Janine Migden Ostrander, announced yesterday she is leaving the post out of frustration with steep cuts her agency suffered in the recently-enacted state budget. The office represents Ohio’s 4.5 million utility customers before the Public Utility Commission of Ohio (PUCO), a body that must approve any rate increases proposed by regulated utilities including electric, gas and telephone providers. Budget cuts of nearly 50%, proposed by Kasich and approved by the Legislature, have already resulted in the shuttering of a consumer call center, 30 layoffs, and a reduction in the number of cases in which the office can represent ratepayers at PUCO.

Hard times were never a justification for the cuts. The office is funded by utilities, not taxpayers. And it has delivered over $8 billion in savings in the past decade, a dramatic return on the $50 million spent over that time to operate the office. The only justification ever offered for the cuts was an ill-informed claim the agency’s mission duplicated that of the PUCO. However, the two are decidedly different. As the Plain Dealer’s Tom Suddes analogized in an editorial, the PUCO is the court before which utility rate cases are tried — and the Consumers’ Counsel is the lawyer for ratepayers. The Kasich budget cuts will ensure that utilities walk into court with a distinct advantage.

In her resignation, chief among Migden-Ostrander’s complaints was that her efforts to speak to the Governor regarding her agency’s budget were fruitless:

Migden-Ostrander said Kasich and House Speaker William Batchelder, a Republican from Medina, exhibited a “profound disinterest and disrespect” toward residential consumers. She said she got no response when she tried repeatedly to speak to them about her agency’s impending cuts during spring budget talks. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 21)

Or, as she put it in her resignation:

“Last January, the governor issued an ultimatum to the citizens of Ohio to either get on his bus or be run over by it. At the beginning of his administration, I tried to get on that bus, but the doors were locked to the OCC and the 4.5 million households we represent.

Interesting, then, that the Governor admitted earlier this year to meeting a lobbyist on behalf of an unnamed natural gas client to share its complaints about the OCC. It is the only time, the Governor claims, he has met with any of his three lobbyist best friends about companies they represent.

The lobbyist, Don Thibaut, has been a perennial on the Governor’s payroll, drawing a salary from Kasich’s political action committee for years, and contributing $5,500 to the Kasich-Taylor campaign. While we don’t know the name of the client on whose behalf he met with Kasich, we do know that the Governor’s campaign accepted nearly $640,000 from energy interests, including over $18,000 from executives with IGS, a natural gas company that employs Thibaut.

Unfortunately, unlike his political contributors, Ohio’s 4.5 million utility customers never got a meeting to discuss the high cost of energy and the need for a consumer watchdog to prevent unfair price hikes. As companies like AEP attempt to shift the burden of rate hikes toward residential customers to the benefit of business and industry, a watchdog is exactly what Ohio utility customers need.

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