In my last posted Blog, I had issued a BAD NEWS ALERT that warned Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) customers about a May 26th California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Meeting where they would hear public testimony and vote on two new proposed rate increases. The first will assess a fixed charge for all of its customers and the other will lower the “baseline” above which they would pay higher rates for electricity. The rate increases were approved by the CPUC.
I testified on behalf of people with disabilities to follow up on a CFILC letter of opposition we sent to the CPUC. We were asked by The Utility Reform Network (TURN) and Disability Rights Advocates to give a disability community perspective to the proposal. Consumer and utility advocates argued that the rate increases violate state law that only allows moderate increases over time for low-income customers.
I was disappointed to learn at the last minute that my 3 minutes of allotted time was reduced to 2 minutes! It forced me to scramble to cut my well-rehearsed presentation, so I spoke quickly and violated the public testimony speed limit.
Nevertheless, I testified that the rate increases would be a substantial financial hardship for people with disabilities. They would come on top of recent state budget actions that reduced income benefits, required copayments for medical appointments and prescriptions, and lowered Medi-Cal coverage for Durable Medical Equipment and medical supplies. These rising costs are challenging the ability of the disabled to afford living independently.
Lowering the baseline will also hurt people whose medical conditions require maintaining constant air conditioned temperatures or medical equipment usage. Others live in subsidized housing that uses electricity for heating.
The proposals allegedly would encourage energy conservation, but these customers have no such options and will only end up paying more. It’s likely that many will find the increases unaffordable and may be forced to default on their utility bills and risk electricity shutdowns.
It was apparent that CPUC President Michael Peevey, who sponsored the proposal, had paved the way for its approval. It was smooth sailing because a new commissioner appointed by Governor Brown could not vote because his prior advocacy was a conflict of interest.
Nevertheless, TURN and other advocates negotiated some minor improvements to the original proposal. They were able to extend the rate increase phase-in period. Sometimes political success means working hard to make a devastating proposal merely alarming. It is admittedly a subtle nuance.
It’s ironic that the rate increases were proposed to “level the playing field” between rates paid by low-income customers and businesses and higher users. It was claimed that low-income rates needed to be increased because they had been exempted by state law that expired in 2009.
Of course, that philosophy is consistent with the kind of thinking that is going on in Congress today in the Federal Budget debate. Republicans claim that stimulating economic recovery requires lowering taxes and fees for the wealthy and corporations. They advocate for the elimination of programs assisting seniors, the poor, and people with disabilities and to force them to pay more out of their shrinking household budgets.
And so it goes.