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Another Voice: New Yorkers need an advocate to curb electrical rates

By Neal Lane

New Yorkers pay the highest residential electric rates in the continental United States.

New York is one of the only states without adequate consumer representation before rate-setting utility regulators.

Cause and effect?

Residential ratepayers are no match for the deep-pocketed utilities and large commercial energy users that send well-lawyered armies of highly paid staff to make their case before New York’s Public Service Commission.

Average New Yorkers need their own champion. Residents in more than 40 other states have one, and it works.

Neighboring Connecticut’s $3 million office of utility consumer advocate saved ratepayers $730 million in the 2012 fiscal year. That’s more than $243 in benefits for every dollar spent. California’s advocate delivered a 153-1 return on investment on behalf of residential customers.

But over the last 20 years, New York has allowed its once-strong consumer advocacy function to dwindle to a small unit in the Department of State.

At last count, the average residential electric bill was more than 70 percent higher in New York than in Ohio, and more than 50 percent above Pennsylvania’s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Meantime an investigation ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is developing recommendations to improve power providers’ future performance.

The commission should urge creation of an independent utility consumer advocate office with the authority to sue over unfair rate hikes.

And before they go home for the year later this month, state lawmakers should pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx, to create such an office.

It would provide residential ratepayers a powerful voice as utilities appeal for additional rate hikes. Three-quarters of New Yorkers think it’s a good idea, according to an AARP survey.

Elections enable residents to hold politicians accountable. But New Yorkers have virtually no influence with the non-elected officials who approve sky-high electricity prices. In fact, of the dozens of organizations that appear before utility regulators, virtually none represent the consumer.

A utility consumer advocate office would give residential ratepayers a meaningful seat at the table when regulators consider rate hike proposals – and could help erase New York’s dubious distinction as tops in residential electric prices.

Neal Lane is New York State president of AARP and a former director of the New York State Office for the Aging.