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Austin DON’T LET Ma Bell get utility reform legislation, full-page newspaper ads warned con sumers last month. The warning comes too late. With only days left in the session, not only has Ma Bell, Reddy Kilowatt, and Lone Star Gas gutted reform, they also have managed to weaken the regulation we had. Despite all the hope and promises, this session of the legislataure is on its way to becoming a disaster for utility customers. The utility lobby is having itself a field day in Austin. Those who read the press reports in the daily newspapers might get the impresion that “reform” is making progress. These appearances are grossly deceiving, however; only minor reform has passed. But what is worse, gas and water companies may be successful in weakening the law under which they have their rates set. Utility customers may find it hard to believe that the strong reform voice of the electorate has been reversed in less than six months. “How,” they might ask, “could that happen?” We got a taste of what was coming last December, when the Sunset Advisory Commission, under Chairman Ed Howard of Texarkana, ignored the election mandate and refused to take a positive stand on reform. The utility lobby turned any possible commission action and recommendation on the Public Utility Commission, the Railroad Commission, or utility reform into an exercise in futility. But the utilities’ main success came in March when the Senate considered the reform bills. What passed the Senate as “reform” in SB 232, the utility reform bill, contained exactly what they agreed in December to concede to consumers, not one bit more. Careful examination of the features in this bill show only two that will help consumers: Extending the time for decisions on rate increases from 125 to 185 days. Six months is still one of the shortest Jack Hopper is a consultng economist and frequent Observer contributor. periods in any state; Creation of a public counsel, whose effectiveness was crippled when the Senate refused to give him the power allowed the staff at the PUC. He will operate with limited rights as any other intervenor you, I, or any other “affected party.” Most of the rest of SB 232 is redundant or added verbage. The provision that “eliminates” the fuel adjustment doesn’t do that at all; in fact, an amendment was added on the Senate floor that would allow fuel pass-throughs to continue. The other features already exist in the Public course, the utility lobby mustered twenty senators to oppose an elected PUC. Why did the Senate deliver so much less in May than the public demanded in November? Because the utility lobby controls the legislature. The chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, Ray Farabee, taking his orders from Lt. Governor Bill Hobby, warned the consumer and city representatives who negotiated with the utilities for reform what the ground rules would be: his committee and the Senate would accept only the changes the utilities were willing to make. Anything they wouldn’t accept an elected commission, strict prohibition on fuel adjustments, and on Construction Work In Progress they could forget. SB 232 was written by the utilities. But consumers may not get even that much. The day after SB 232 passed the Senate, utility lobbyists were already telling House members that it was a bad bill and would lead to bankruptcy. They may pass an even worse bill. They have shown less backbone than the spineless Senate in standing up to utilities this session. At least some reform came out of the Senate in SB 232. But consider two other bills in which regulation has been weakend: SB 1254. The gas utilities have convinced the legislature that reform does not need to be applied to gas rates and regulation. They assert that election complaints were all directed at electric and telephone regulation; that consumers are happy with their gas bills and with gas regulation. They propose to split the regulatory law in PURA and which now applies to all utilities, and have the Legislature enact something called the “Gas Utilities Regulatory Act.” As the basis for GURA, the gas companies took the PURA, renumbered, retitled, and rewrote it to their own specifications and interpretation and left out a number of important sections. SB 1254 kills the legislative intent to put gas utilities and both commissions on the same regulatory level for electric, telephone, and water regulation. It particularly may weaken the power of cities, who exercise primary regulation on gas rates. This bill was designed and pushed by Lone Star, Southern Union, and Pioneer Gas, and is carried by Sen. John Traeger of Seguin, who has carried much of the utilities’ legislation in the past. Why do the gas utilities want separate regulation? “We’re different from the others,” they will tell you. So are electric, telephone, and water utilities different from each other. But ask how the new GURA differs from the old PURA. “There is no difference,” they tell us. “Nothing was changed. ” Well, is the GURA different or not? Obviously it is, or the gas utilities wouldn’t have gone to so much effort to enact it. What are the major differences? Gas utilities will continue to enjoy the automatic gas adjustment, in defiance of the governor’s promise to end it. And they will not be subject to all the reform that might come out of this session. y OU WOULD think that, especially in a reform session, a bill designed to weaken existing regulation and exempt one kind of utilities from reform could never pass. But the business lobby’s dominance of the legislature and its leadership is so complete that it has been easy. The burden of proof for utilities has been reversed; the legislature considers whatever the utilities ask for as being in the public interest and requires utility customers to prove it should not pass. That presumption, that the utilities would decide what reform to enact, not only operated in the Sunset Commission and the Senate, it worked as well in the House. On the House floor on April 14, Bill Messer of Belton, sponsor of HB 593, the bill that continues the life of the Railroad Commission, sneaked Traeger’s gas bill into the middle of the Railroad Commission bill as an amendment. He did it on third reading when members, press, and public attention was low. Reform Voice Silenced Utility Lobby Going Home Happy By Jack Hopper 4 MAY 20, 1983