Lawmakers have six days to figure out what the Office of Consumer Counsel is and how to refund it

Let’s say a state lawmaker has a heart attack at the Capitol. She cannot speak; she can hardly breath. She calls 911. Current technology ensures that emergency responders know right away that someone is calling from 200 East Colfax Ave. Paramedics rush over. But is the lawmaker on the first floor or the third? The East Wing or the West? As technology advances, communities throughout Colorado will have the opportunity to invest in new technology that would tell ambulance drivers not only exactly what floor the ailing lawmaker was on, but also provide the paramedics a blueprint of the building and, if the patient chooses, her relevant medical history.

That technology isn’t free. Anyone with a phone pays a small monthly fee to fund 911, a fee that will go up as technology and services improve.

Indeed, according to a report released today by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (COPIRG), some areas of the state pay four times more for 911 services than others and rates have increased by 44 percent overall since 1998. Of the 57 local governing boards in charge of setting those fees, 53 have hit or exceeded the state cap, 70 cents a month. After that, if they want to add services and raise fees, these local governing boards have to argue their cases before a court-like governmental body that oversees everything from telecommunications to electricity costs — the Public Utilities Commission.

Here’s where things get wonky. For 30 years, a little-known small-staffed agency called the Office of Consumer Counsel has gone before the PUC to advocate for consumers not just when 911 fees are set to rise, but electricity rates as well.

“We represent three classes of consumers — residential, small business and agricultural,” explained OCC director Cindy Schonhaut. “We’re an advocate for those three consumer groups who don’t have the voice that the large customers have. The Walmarts of the world, they have their own lawyers who participate in cases because they’re such large energy users.”

Representing Colorado consumers before the PUC and an assortment of federal agencies, the OCC has saved consumers $1.7 billion. Another way to look at it, that’s $30 for every dollar spent to run the office. Even so, the OCC is set to expire unless the State Legislature passes a bill in the next six days to keep the the office’s lights on.

Enter the Labyrinth   

Lawmakers are on it, but in a slightly confounding way. This afternoon not one but two bills to save the OCC will get their first public hearings, in the House and the Senate, at exactly the same time.

“The two main differences are that the House version would extend the OCC for a longer time and continue to include telecom as one of its purviews,” said sponsor Rep. Faith Winter, D- Westminster.

But where Winter’s OCC bill includes consumer advocacy for telecom issues, it lacks a re-up of the Governor-appointed board that oversees the office.

That piece is included in the otherwise stripped-down Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.

Clearly the re-up is complicated, just like the wonky stuff the OCC deals with on behalf of consumers each day – so we don’t have to.

Winter said she plans to fight hard for telecom coverage in the next few days and isn’t ready to make a do-or-die decision about supporting an office that wouldn’t advocate on behalf of consumers for things like 911 fees.

Meanwhile Sonnenberg initially said he’s firm on removing telecom from the OCC’s future jurisdiction.

“We basically deregulated telecom last year,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a need for this extra layer.”

On hearing about the 911 rates in nearly every community slated to go before the PUC, Sonnenberg said he’d never heard of a problem, but he’s ready to learn more about the issue.

Gov. Hickenlooper has shot up a sort-of light above the labyrinth, weighing in on the confounding OCC re-up issue by asking lawmakers to bring him a mashup of the two bills under consideration.

“The OCC serves an important role in advocating for ratepayers and protecting consumers,” Hickenlooper said in a statement.  “There are differences of opinion on the appropriate scope of the OCC in light of last year’s telecommunications reform law, but we can address these differences without abandoning obligations to consumers.”

Image of dense labyrinth by xOneca, Public Domain.