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EDITORIAL: We should elect Public Utilities Commission

By: The Gazette editorial board
October 11, 2017 Updated: October 12, 2017 at 1:28 pm
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photo - Charles Cook, Flickr creative commons
Charles Cook, Flickr creative commons 

The state Legislature could help consumers, corporations and the economy by creating an elected Public Utilities Commission that answers to the public.

Under Colorado Revised Statute 40-2-101, the governor nominates all three members of the commission and each is confirmed by the state Senate. The commission's mission statement says commissioners are to serve the public interest "by effectively regulating utilities and facilities so that the people of Colorado receive safe, reliable, and reasonably-priced services consistent with the economic, environmental and social values of our state."

Colorado's aggressive environmental energy mandates, under what former Gov. Bill Ritter called the New Energy Economy, have revolutionized the state's utilities industry for providers and consumers alike. In a rush to abandon coal plants and build gas, solar and wind assets, Colorado's two publicly traded utility monopolies have sought rate hikes and boosted asset valuations on which they earn returns.

Along the way, consumer advocates and utility executives have questioned the objectivity of the PUC.

In Pueblo, Black Hills Energy has increased its base rate by more than 20 percent since 2010. Fighting for their most recent rate hike, company executives questioned the objectivity of Denver attorney and Public Utilities Commissioner Frances Koncilja after she said Black Hills wanted to "plunder" Pueblo by putting a "turd in the pocket of ratepayers."

Koncilja and other advocates of Black Hills customers question the objectivity of Public Utilities Commissioner Wendy Moser, who worked as an attorney for Black Hills.

The controversies raise serious questions about two-thirds of the Public Utilities Commission.

"The regulatory space at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is the playground of corporate lawyers, unelected bureaucrats, and well-funded special interest groups. They have 'stakeholder' meetings that include only themselves," wrote Amy Oliver Cooke, a member of President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency transition team and executive vice president and director of the Independence Institute's Energy and Environmental Policy Center.

Regulation of monopolies cannot be taken lightly and should never become inside ball.

Although we do not question the integrity of our PUC members, a system made up of three appointees lacks adequate checks and balances.

The Legislature could fix it by empowering the public to elect each member of a seven-member Public Utilities Commission, as we elect members of the Colorado State Board of Education. Elect a member from each congressional district, in conjunction with each congressional election. Or, structure it like the University of Colorado's Board of Regents. It consists of a member from each congressional district and two elected statewide.

The law should forbid companies regulated by the PUC from funding commissioner campaigns or political action committees that advocate for PUC candidates.

An elected board would answer to the people served by regulated industries. A law that regionalizes representation would protect all areas of the state.

Of 12 states that elect public service regulators, 11 have electric rates lower than the average throughout Colorado. Two of them, Louisiana and Oklahoma, have the second and third lowest rates in the country.

As Colorado revolutionizes energy production, consumer protection and industry oversight become increasingly important for providers and consumers. It may be time for a Public Utilities Commission chosen by the public it serves.

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