Bevin’s PSC out to strip poor of voice in utility rate cases

Published 10:46 am Thursday, January 17, 2019

In a startling departure from past practice, Gov. Matt Bevin’s Public Service Commission is fighting to exclude advocates for the poor from decisions about what Kentuckians will pay for heat, light and water.

Almost 1 in 5 Kentuckians live in poverty, but the PSC also is asserting that affordability can have no bearing on its decisions about whether utility rates are “fair, just and reasonable” as mandated by state law.

This dubious quest, which the PSC has escalated to the state Court of Appeals, is forcing non-profits and government agencies, including the PSC, to waste resources on red tape and litigation, even though they have no money or staff to spare and important missions to fulfill.

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Composed of three Bevin appointees, this PSC has made some strong decisions that will benefit consumers and that made utilities unhappy. Yet the only evidence offered by the PSC to bolster its argument that advocates for the poor add nothing of value to rate cases is a news release from the office of Attorney General Andy Beshear, a candidate for governor and the Democrat most reviled by the ill-tempered Bevin.

Published in a small online newspaper, the release boasted of Beshear’s success in advocating for low-income customers.

On the basis of that boast and with no rational explanation, the PSC concluded that the Office of Attorney General can be counted on to represent the interests of low-income Kentuckians (even while businesses, industries and utilities hire armies of lawyers and expert witnesses to plead their cases to the PSC).

The PSC also has concluded that what the Community Action Council, based in Lexington, and the Association of Community Ministries and Metropolitan Housing Coalition in Louisville add to rate cases is not worth the time and resources it takes to process and read their filings.

The three non-profits run programs that help low-income people pay energy bills and afford housing. In November, the PSC refused to let them become participants (known as intervenors) in a case in which Kentucky Utilities and LG&E are seeking a rate increase that would amount to an additional $9.63 a month for the average KU customer. The PSC also refused to grant intervenor status to the Sierra Club, which advocates for the environment.

At the same time, the PSC welcomed large industrial and commercial interests into the case, giving a green light to intervene to the Kentucky Industrial Utility Customers, The Kroger Co., Walmart, Charter Communications, the U.S. Department of Defense and the governments of Lexington and Louisville.

The four blackballed groups challenged the decision — and won — in Franklin Circuit Court. Judge Phillip Shepherd issued an injunction which the PSC now is challenging at the Court of Appeals.

The PSC also has excluded Lexington’s Community Action Council from being a party in Kentucky American Water’s request for a 24 percent rate increase. The Community Action Council is the expert on Lexington’s low-income residents and has recommended programs endorsed by an earlier PSC, but, because it can’t afford to take the PSC to court alone, has thrown in the towel on the latest water rate increase.

Why the PSC inflicted this black eye on itself and the Bevin administration is baffling. More information leads to better decisions; considering data and arguments from respected anti-poverty organizations can’t be more taxing than picking a legal fight with those same organizations. The PSC should extricate itself from this needless fight as soon as possible.

Lexington Herald-Leader