Two years ago, the proposed merger of Vermont’s two largest electric utilities triggered a debate over the adequacy of the state’s regulatory system. Now, a bill borne out of that dispute will look to give regular Vermonters more sway in the rate-setting process.
Few issues in Montpelier over the past few years have galvanized consumers as much as the proposed merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp. At issue specifically was GMP’s plan to repay the $21 million that CVPS ratepayers had once spent to bail out their troubled utility. GMP wanted to settle the debt by investing in efficiency programs. Irate lawmakers wanted the cash returned directly to ratepayers.
Utility executives aided by the Shumlin administration managed to head off the legislative intervention that might have otherwise killed the deal. But ratepayer advocates say the episode exposed a regulatory system that favors utilities and big businesses over homeowners.
“I Introduced bill a year about a year ago because I felt that the department wasn’t really focused on the ratepayers it should be focused on,” Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, said Monday. “It had a lot of history of utility presence, if you will. And I felt that we could do better.”
Hartwell’s bill, called S.25, won unanimous passage in the Senate last year year. And House Speaker Shap Smith said it will be his first order of business in 2014. The bill directs the Department of Public Service to give special consideration to the financial interests of residential, low-income, and small business consumers.
Greg Marchildon is head of the Vermont chapter of AARP, a group that lobbied heavily against GMP’s $21 million payment plan. AARP staged a press conference Monday to celebrate the near-certain passage of S.25, a bill Marchildon said will help rectify an imbalance of power that disadvantages residential electricity customers.
“We know that Green Mountain Power and Omya and Killington and Jay Peak and some of our large and big successful corporations in the state, they have the resources to present their case in front of the board,” Marchildon said. “But not the little guy, and not small communities, and not small business owners who are going to need the department to be their primary voice.”
Chris Recchia is commissioner of the Department of Public Service, the state office that represents ratepayers. He said Monday that the department often focuses its attention on the parties that have legal representation in utility cases. While the department already tries to take into account the interest of the residential and low-income ratepayers, Recchia said the legislation will make sure they get their full due.
“I think it’s really a process change,” Recchia said. “What it really does is make it clear that there is going to be a mechanism by which the department, before coming into a rate case or a proceeding before the board, really reflects and reaches out to those specific groups to assess what their interests are and make sure we are analyzing those in the context of the department’s position of what’s in the public good and the public interest.”
Speaker Smith said he thinks the department already does a good job weighing the interests of all classes of ratepayers. And he said that concerns over citizen representation in regulatory dockets predate the fight over the GMP/CVPS merger.
“But when there are questions about whether it is effectively representing everyone, I think it’s important for us to ensure the confidence of our citizenry that everybody is being represented, and this bill does that,” Smith said.
The legislation won’t end the fight in Montpelier over regulatory oversight of the energy industry. Critics of mountaintop wind development in particular say the Public Service Board has been unresponsive to the concerns of the residents affected by those developments.
Hartwell has already introduced a bill that he said would make it easier for residents to influence the board’s decisions.