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As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported this morning, a study committee at the General Assembly appears to be in the process of advancing a legislative proposal for the 2015 session that would reverse a controversial Utilities Commission decision from last fall that provided a windfall to big utility companies.

As I explained in the Weekly Briefing last October, the ruling allowed utility companies the option to keep charging consumers for income taxes that the companies no longer paid as a result of recent corporate tax cuts. The ruling was especially controversial in that it came in the form of a direct about-face from a previous 6-1 Commission decision from just months before. In the latter ruling, three new McCrory appointees joined with the Commission chair to overrule the previous decision — a move that sparked bitter dissent from three holdover Perdue appointees.

According to news reports, most companies have not actually been collecting the windfall. Only Dominion North Carolina Power — which serves a swath of northeastern North Carolina — has been pocketing the cash thus far. Nothing, however, would prevent Duke and the other big guys from following suit at some point unless the courts and/or the General Assembly step in.

This brings us back to the Revenue Laws Study Committee which included language in its draft report to the 2015 session reversing the decision yet again — see pages 4-6. This morning’s N&O story — especially the headline (“NC lawmakers to end policy letting utilities overcharge customers”) indicated that the draft report would be adopted today and that the legislature would pass the legislation into law.

A closer look, however, shows that such an optimistic take may well be premature. Read More

Commentary

UtilitiesNC Policy Watch followers will recall that last week we reported on a an recent and egregious giveaway to big utility companies in which the North Carolina Utilities Commission pulled a mysterious and unforeseen rabbit out of a hat to reverse its own previous ruling from earlier this year.

The case revolves around whether all of the 2013 tax cuts enacted by the General Assembly and Governor McCrory should be accounted for when it comes to computing the rates that regulated monopolies like Duke Energy are allowed to charge ratepayers. In May, the Commission ruled by a 6-1 vote that they must.

A few months later, however, in an abrupt and apparently unprecedented move, three McCrory appointees to the Commission changed their minds and signed on to a new opinion by the Commission chair, Ed Finley, in which the May ruling was summarily reversed and the “exceptions” (i.e. the appeal) submitted by two of the power companies upheld. Parties in the case were not even given a chance to submit arguments on the question.

According to the new majority, the cut to the state’s corporate income tax should not be factored into rates and companies should be free to keep the windfall if they like. According to the three overruled commissioners:

“The Majority’s decision, rescinding, in part, the Commission’s May 13, 2014 Order in this docket, allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay. The Majority’s decision errs with respect to fairness to ratepayers; errs procedurally with respect to due process and the limitations of the Commission’s right to rescind, alter, or amend an Order; and errs in its content with respect to its legal conclusions.”

As it turns out now — perhaps because of the adverse publicity here and elsewhere — most, if not all of the big utilities are now saying they will not keep the windfall.

This is good news for consumers but it should not be the end of the story. Even if the utilities are too embarrassed to keep their unearned money, the Commission majority’s heavy-handed action was and is still unacceptable and sets a terrible precedent — both with respect to substance and procedure.

Let’s hope that both the Utilities Commission Public Staff and Attorney General Roy Cooper stick to their guns, appeal the matter to the state judiciary and secure an order vindicating the rights of consumers ASAP.

Uncategorized

Some giant corporations complain about and battle government. Others try to co-opt and corrupt it. In the case of Duke Energy, one gets the distinct impression that the ever-mushrooming Charlotte-based monopoly will simply absorb North Carolina state government at some point and turn it into its Raleigh branch.

Fortunately, some intrepid consumer advocates are still giving Duke heck for the heck it continually visits upon residential ratepayers and our ever-more-fragile natural environment. Here’s their press statement from earlier this week on the occasion of a public hearing in Charlotte (the actual Utilities Commission proceedings begin Monday July 8 here in Raleigh — be on the lookout for more information):

Broad Coalition of Ratepayers Calls for Rejection of Duke Energy Rate Hike
Rate case opposed for environmental, social justice and financial reasons

Charlotte, NC.  A broad coalition of organizations and dissatisfied ratepayers will gather this evening at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse to call on the North Carolina Utilities Commission to reject the proposed Duke Energy rate hike and a settlement proposed by the Commission’s Public Staff. The coalition’s opposition is based on environmental, social justice and financial reasons. Read More

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As noted here yesterday afternoon, one of the bills still residing on Governor Perdue’s desk is a controversial proposal that would set the table for a hostile takeover of the city of Asheville’s $173 million water system (and perhaps, full-blown privatization of the public system).

Last night, the Asheville City Council voted unanimously to ask Perdue to veto the bill.

According to an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

“Members debated whether a gubernatorial veto would stand up and whether it is worth losing another provision of the bill that would protect the city’s seats on the MSD board in the event the agency merges with a Henderson County sewer system.

But they ultimately came around to the position of Mayor Terry Bellamy, who said Council should underline its opposition to a transfer.

‘I don’t support (the bill) and I don’t believe it was written fairly,’ Bellamy said.

This opens the door for our system and other systems around the state’ to be tampered with by the legislature, she said. ‘I don’t think we should take this and let it go. I don’t think this is right.’”

 

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Governor Perdue still has a few bills sitting on her desk that were sent to her during the waning days of the legislative session. One of them is a measure that’s vehemently opposed by a broad range of groups and individuals in western North Carolina.

The proposal, which  was advanced from scratch during the last couple weeks of the session by Buncombe County lawmaker Tim Moffitt, raises the explosive issue of forcing Asheville to transfer its $173 million municipal water system to the local Metropolitan Sewerage District.

Though the bill itself would not force such a transfer right away, it does appear to lay the groundwork for such a move and, perhaps ultimately, privatization of the system (and maybe other public water systems as well).

Reports indicate that the Asheville City Council will be discussing the issue this evening. It will be interesting to see if Council tries to weigh in with the Governor before her deadline for action at the end of this week.