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POUT L T L GEN Rove Unsinged; Poor Burned \( WAR ON THE POOR I According to consumer groups, since energy deregulation went into effect in Texas in 2002, residential electric rates have increased 80 percent on average in the deregulated parts of the state and the rates of city-owned utilities and co-operatives have risen at a slower but significant pace as well. At the same time, programs designed to help low-income households with their electric bills are either stagnating or have been eliminated thanks to a miserly state legislature. Now there is evidence that the combination of the two is contributing to homelessness in Texas. “I think with low-income people, rising energy prices are devastating families,” said Carol Biedrzycki, Executive Director of the Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy. “We have reached increases that are catastrophic. ” The legislative evisceration of LITEUP TEXAS, a statewide assistance program that benefited, at its peak, almost 800,000 low-income, disabled, and elderly customers in the state by offering a 17 percent monthly discount and a waiver of late fees appears to be causing the most impact. Last year the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature discontinued LITE-UP, created in 2002 in conjunction with deregulation, although the state continues to collect fees for the program from residential customers. Terry Hadley, a spokesman for the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the competitive electricity markets, conceded that no other program exists “as extensive as the LITE-UP program,” but that customers should “work with their retail provider” or “look at switching providers” if they are having trouble paying their electric bill. However, the companies selling electricity to consumers in deregulated parts of the state have few obligations or incentives to provide assistance to low-income households. Reliant Energy, the second-largest electricity provider in the state, is offering a 3 percent discount for LITE-UP customers for a six-month period as well as a $120 onetime annual payment for low-income customers. This assistance is a pittance in light of the 86-percent increase in Reliant’s residential rates since 2002. In addition, under PUC rules, utilities may refuse service to customers who owe the utility back debts. As a result, many poor families who qualify for affordable or public housing are unable to move in. “You can’t rent anything if you can’t get your utilities turned on,” said Fred Butler, Executive Director of the Austin-based research and advocacy organization on social service issues. Case managers who work with poor clients say this Catch-22 is keeping people in shelters and deepening homelessness. “I have a lot of clients who work really hard to eliminate their utility debt, but they are still struggling to get into housing, especially with energy prices going up and up and up,” said Lauren Tybor, a case manager who works with low-income families in Austin. She noted that all of her clients living in shelters have utility debts over $500. Utility companies often refer needy customers to human service agencies, but these organizations have limited resources. For example, in 2004, Caritas of Austin provided 1,350 clients with rent and utility assistance while turning away 17,364 requests, according to a report sponsored by CAN. “Prices are so high in the major areas of the state that most assistance programs are literally running out of money, even the ones that get federal funds,” said Butler. “We exist in a society where we are making the difference between the haves and have-nots greater every day… When [profit] becomes so ridiculously huge, [the utilities] should plow some of that money back into the community.” WAR ON THE POOR II It usually takes a few months after a legislative session for all the damage that the Lege has inflicted on the state to become apparent. To wit, tens of thousands of poor women across Texas are discovering that they may no longer have access to birth control, screenings for cervical and breast cancer, health exams, and other essential family planning services. For this, they can thank three conservative Republican state senatorsGreenville’s Bob Deuell, Steve Ogden of Bryan, and Tommy Williams of The Woodlandswho legislatively attacked Planned Parenthood’s budget. Their two amendments to last session’s state budget resulted in a 25 percent cut in funding for family planning providers such as Planned Parenthood this year. No matter that Texas boasts one of the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rates. Undeterred, Williams and Deuell authored amendments to the state budget that siphoned $25 million in state and federal funds from family planning providers that perform abortions chair of the Senate Finance Committee, allowed the amendments into the budget. The senators redirected $5 million to crisis pregnancy centerspseudohealth clinics often run by religious groups that offer abortion-free advice to pregnant women. The other $20 million was appropriated to federally qualified health centers that offer some family planning services, though not abortions. The federally qualified health center in Deuell’s district saw its budget more than double. The problem, say family planning advocates, is that some areas of the state, such as South Texas, lack federal health centers, and some of the centers are not equipped to provide the level of services that Planned Parenthood does. 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 27, 2006