A bill that would create a utility consumer advocate got its preliminary approval Wednesday by the Idaho House Ways and Means Committee.
That means it will be printed and would have gotten a hearing if introduced earlier. Democratic Rep. Brian Cronin sponsored the bill that would establish an Office of Utility Consumer Advocate in the attorney general’s office.
Its job would be to ensure that all utility ratepayers would have fair and adequate representation in rate cases before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Forty-three other states and every state in the West have a similar utility public intervenor.
The utility consumer advocate would be governed by a Consumer Utility Board that would include three members who were residential customers, a small farmer, a small commercial customer, a large commercial customer, a low-income representative, an industrial customer and a representative of a group advocating energy efficiency.
The issue first came up this summer when the Energy, Environment & Technology Interim Committee turned down including the idea in the 2012 update of the Idaho Energy Plan. But the vote was close because there is a lot of support for the idea among Republicans in eastern Idaho because of rate increases from Rocky Mountain Power.
But Idaho has the lowest electricity rates in the nation, according to Energy Information Administration. In 2010 it was 7.99 percent.
The 2012 Energy Plan was approved this session.
Cronin worked with Republican Sen. John Tippets, of Bennington, on the legislation that is expected to be opposed by Idaho’s three investor-owned utilities.
"Consumers are already represented by a bipartisan public utility commission together with an effective and knowledgeable staff," said Stephanie McCurdy, an Idaho Power spokeswoman. "Adding another layer of government will only add costs to customers."
The advocate's biggest support comes from AARP Idaho.
The group that represents older Americans said a recent survey showed that 68 percent of Idahoans older than 50 support a consumer utility watchdog agency.
“Our members across the state have made one thing very clear to us; they need a better and bigger hand in the fight against unfair utility rate hikes – and a utility consumer advocate office would make that happen,” said Angela Cortez, interim state director for AARP Idaho. “Though this bill won’t pass this session, we’ll work across the state with our members, the public and other stakeholders, raising the issue over election season, to put the issue front and center for lawmakers next session.”
Cronin said the office would cost the state about $250,000, a sum he compared to the Constitutional defense funding lawmakers approved.