A bill that aims to give energy regulators more breathing room when it comes to setting policies for low-income utilities customers passed through a Senate committee today, although exact solutions are far from being a reality.
The measure would allow the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC)-consisting of three members who are appointed by the Governor for four-year terms-to determine electric and gas rates for customers who are at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. There is no clear plan as to how those living below the poverty level will continue to handle rising energy costs, but those who testified in favor of the bill saw it as a start to fixing problems that federally funded assistance programs can’t control.
Cameron Graham, representing the Colorado American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), testified that state-wide survey found that 78% of association members were concerned about rate increases, while 13% said they had cut back on purchasing food or prescription drugs to pay their natural gas bill.
The federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) operates in Colorado during the winter to assist those who are having problems paying their energy bill, but as one speaker pointed out during the hearing, the program bases energy needs on weather from previous years, which can leave many out in the cold if the following winter proves to be harsh.
Xcel Enery, with over a million customers throughout the state, also spoke in favor of the measure. Fred Staffel, representing the utilities business, acknowledged that access to heat and electricity was an issue his company takes seriously.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, and was approved unanimously by the Business, Labor, and Technology committee.