Utility Bill Goes To Ritter

Gov. Bill Ritter will soon decide if those living in poverty are entitled to receive help from local energy regulators.

Senate Bill 22 would allow the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to determine policies for low-income utilities customers.

That is, those who are living at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. Colorado Confidential initially reported on the bill in early February, when the Senate Business, Labor and Technology committee voted unanimously to pass the measure.

Now it has made it all the way to the Governor’s desk and awaits an unknown action.

During its initial committee hearing, witnesses testified as to how the bill would be a start to offsetting staggering rate increases and assisting the elderly and disabled.

And although the bill doesn’t list a specific plan to address the problem, it does give the PUC the power to at least consider one.

From the previous article:

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 Rocky Mountain New is not happy with the proposal, saying it will turn the PUC into a “welfare agency,” despite the fact that the bill doesn’t actually specify any sort of action to be taken by regulators.

The editorial cites that 185% of the poverty level is $18,130 for an individual and $37,000 (2006 levels) for a family of four, despite that fact that 100% of the federal poverty level is $10,210 per individuals and $20,650 for a family of four according to 2007 poverty level guidelines (PDF).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10% of Colorado was below the poverty level in 2003, with 15% in Denver County alone.

The editorial than cites LEAP and the nonprofits like Energy Outreach Colorado as supplements for low-income individuals who are struggling to pay their energy bills.

But in a recent Denver Post article (PDF), an executive director for Energy Outreach Colorado said that “in my 30 years in the energy industry, I have never seen a situation more frightening for needy families who are struggling to stay warm at home.”

And in 2006, it was reported that assistance for utility bills was at record levels (PDF).

So goes energy and poverty in Colorado.

The measure has managed to survive both floors in the General Assembly with little coverage or scrutiny, and now it’s in Gov. Ritter’s court.

If the proposal is made into law, the PUC could very well come up with some type of assistance for the poor; while the bill also requires that the commison take into account customers who are more affluent.

But ultimatly, the decision comes down to Ritter.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.