The state Assembly’s budget bill proposes creating an Office of Utility Consumer Advocate to give residential consumers an independent voice to represent their interests during state and federal regulatory proceedings. New York has the second highest electric rates in the country (after Hawaii), and many customers were unhappy with the pace of restoring power following several major storms, according to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.
Forty states and the District of Columbia have a consumer advocacy office, he said. Utility companies “have had the upper hand on consumers” for too long, he added.
“The proof is in the monthly electricity costs of New Yorkers. On average, our electric bills are higher than just about every other state,” Silver said. “With this measure, we remove the unfair advantage utilities enjoy presently, bring fairness to the rate- making process and establish a long overdue independent voice for the state’s utility consumers.”
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, agreed. Despite the transition to a mostly deregulated energy industry, ratepayers haven’t had the necessary consumer representation on energy issues, she said.
“Lacking a meaningful voice before state and federal regulators, New Yorkers have sustained increased energy costs that have reduced buying power and made our state less competitive,” Paulin said. “The creation of a Utility Consumer Advocate office is a sound investment that will produce savings for ratepayers.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed his budget plan in January. The Assembly and Senate this week adopted one-house budgets for the 2014-15 state fiscal year. They have until April 1, the start of the new fiscal year, to negotiate and finalize a budget.
Ratepayers in states with a utility consumer advocate have saved on utility bills, Silver said. The Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate would be an independent state agency, he said.
“The Assembly Majority strongly believes it is in the best interest of ratepayers for the Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate to be a stand-alone agency. As an independent entity, this office would be truly free to challenge effectively the claims of utilities and advocate solely on the behalf of consumers,” he said.
The budget measure is modeled after a bill the Assembly approved last year that would give residential utility customers an independent representative during all regulatory proceedings involving utility companies that offer electric, natural gas, internet, cable television, telephone and wireless communication services.
(Journal News file photo of utility lines along Route 118 in Somers.)