Representative Nino Vitale is back at it.  The legislator, who was quoted last winter suggesting that poor people who couldn’t heat their homes would be motivated to work, and who has refused to wear a face mask because he was created in the image of God, is back meddling with utility policy.  Vitale characterizes the bill, HB 246, as a PUCO reform bill, though that is in the eye of the beholder.

The biggest change in the bill would permit the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to require intervenors in a hearing to consolidate their positions.  Essentially, this means that if OPAE intervenes in a case, and the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel and a local group represented by a legal aid attorney also intervene, the Commission could require all of us to work together or could actually limit intervention to one of the parties.  This is a far cry from current practice, which encourages parties to participate in proceedings.

Consolidation is a solution looking for a problem.  Yes, Commission proceedings can be sprawling and take months, if not years.  But in most cases, parties come to consensus on the majority of issues and develop balanced settlements.  OPAE many times has settled all but one issue in a case, saving the biggest policy dispute for litigation.  This saves everyone time and effort (and expense) while allowing a focus on the critical issue.

Unfortunately, other provisions of the bill might render participation in cases as moot.  Rep. Vitale proposes to allow utilities to file a particular type of alternative rate plan known as a “formula rate plan”, and requires the Commission to approve.  This puts rates on auto-pilot and guarantees increases without the possibility of netting against price decreases.

There are significant changes to how the PUCO and OCC are funded, though the changes do not appear to affect policy in any way.

OCC would be significantly affected by another provision in the bill.  Vitale proposes to change how the OCC Board is appointed.  Instead of staggering appointments by the Attorney General, the Senate and House would also get the power to appoint one-third of the Board each.  Other provisions would limit the ability of OCC to advocate on behalf of consumers.

While OPAE has had differences with OCC in recent years, Ohio consumers are generally better off with a well-funded statutory consumer advocate than without.  OCC participates in accounting hearings and other types of proceedings intervenors like OPAE simply cannot afford to participate in.  Ohioans should be represented in every utility matter to ensure residential concerns are heard.

The PUCO would also be exempted from the five-year rule review process required of other state agencies.

Other changes focus on the Ohio Power Siting Board, and would raise new barriers to siting and permitting renewable energy facilities.  This legislature never misses a chance to block the path to clean energy technologies.  Bob Murray and his bankrupt coal companies are still pulling political strings in Ohio.  Thirty-times more Ohioans work in clean energy jobs than work in coal mines, but a growing clean energy sector is not viewed as politically correct by many state legislators.