AUSTIAtA 1601 t CHK b 0 -1-1-1E UNIVER Please indicate quantity, size, and style, a h andling to: TEXAS and French, S M L. XL. ..`00 postage and Reporter Ed Curda of the El Paso Times, who covered El Paso Electric hearings at the Texas and New Mexico commissions, was struck by the difference in “regulatory climate.” His description suggests what’s wrong with the PUC: “In Austin the atmosphere was like a freight train with the throttle wide open . . . there was a sense of urgencyone of ‘let’s get this thing over with.’ The procedures and time limits for rate decisions seem to give New Mexico ratepayers more benefit than their kin in the Lone Star state.” One lawyer experienced in dealing with the PUC has reached a much harsher conclusion. The PUC, he says, is a “hometown situation. The company and commission are like a court in a little townjudge, jury, lawyer for the other side all in sympathy with each other. Practicing at the PUC,” he says, “is very discouraging.” Former commissioner Erwin thinks consumer interveners expect too much. “Some of those guys would only be happy if they had an equal vote with the commissioners,” he says. And chairman Cowden says, “We protect the public interest, and that includes consumers. Why should they be singled out?” Furthermore, says the chairman, “If that doesn’t give them enough protection, and I’m convinced it does, we have a broad, ‘liberal’ intervention policy. We let almost anybody intervene. Look at all the consumer groups who do.” Juanita Ellis of CASE is one consumer who is not appeased by that assertion. “That’s a bunch of baloney,” she says. “There’s no way we could match Dallas Power & Light’s money. It spent $200,000 on its last rate hearing; we spent $300. How can we ever be on equal terms?” Utility commissions in other states have recognized that it is their job to make up for this kind of inequality by forcing the utilities to bear in fact the burden of proof imposed on them by law. They understand that this is what a mandate to serve as a substitute for competition is all about. For example, the members of California’s utility commission recently said, “If we are to be more than a conduit in translating cost increases into rate increases, we must have better tools to exercise our regulatory ingenuity to insure that utilities operate productively and efficiently.” But this sort of thinking is alien to the Texas PUC, at least as it is currently constitutedafter all, California’s commission gets C’s and even D’s from Wall Street’s investment analysts. There is nothing permanent about the PUC’s passive regulatory policy and phi losophy. It depends entirely on the appointed commissioners. Governor Clements will soon fill the seat vacated by Alan Erwin, so there is at least a chance that PUC policy could change direction. So. far Clements has said only that before he names anyone “I’ll know their position . . . and will be sure they’ll know mine” and that he’s looking for someone with “good judgment and experience in the business world.” If the governor has any historic perspective, he can anticipate what will come of an appointment that reinforces the PUC’s passive philosophy. The same public impatience that pushed the Legislature into acting in 1975 is mounting again in response to steady and rapid rises in rates, slow improvements in service, and the PUC’s failure to make the utilities bear the burden of proving that their rates and operations are in the public interest. The stage is set already for another confrontation between the utilities and consumers, and unless the governor and the commissioners take measures to avert it, they may find that the people have decided the only way to get the PUC to hear their side of the argument is to elect its members themselves. Jack Hopper is an economist and utility rate consultant. He writes and edits Southwest Energy and Utility Watch. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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