Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pa. House may restrict utilities

By Kim Leonard

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The House Consumer Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would weaken utilities' powers to crack down on customers who haven't paid their bills.

State Rep. Joseph Preston, D-East Liberty, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 824, which would roll back some sections of a three-year-old law that allows winter utility shutoffs for higher-income customers and spells out procedures for restoring service and setting up payment plans.

The proposed changes to Chapter 14 of state Act 201 are "not a radical position," said Ian Phillips, Pennsylvania Acorn's state legislative director. The organization, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said the number of disconnected households has risen by 38 percent since the law changed in early 2005, with nearly 17,000 families going without heat last winter.

Utilities are fighting the bill. J. Michael Love, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, which represents natural gas and electric companies, said 160,000 customers have cleared their debts as a result of the Chapter 14 changes.

The law "allowed us to focus on making sure the people who can pay do pay," Love said, noting that between April and November each year, up to 13,000 disconnected customers pay in full to get their gas or electric back.

"This says they had the money, and were holding it back," he said, adding that customers who always pay their bills incur costs to cover the nonpayers.

A key provision of the bill deals with reconnections. For a customer whose gas, electric or water service has been shut off, H.B. 824 would require that utilities demand lesser payments up front to have service restored.

Currently, a reconnection fee plus a two-month deposit that can be held for two years, can be demanded along with arrangements to pay past debts. The bill would cut that to a one-month deposit, held for 18 months, and give the customer 90 days to pay it.

The change would afford more low-income households another chance, Phillips said.

But Love said there's no evidence a weakened Chapter 14 would help more customers clear their debts; most companies are willing to work with customers, and have customer assistance plans that allow financially troubled households to pay 40 to 80 percent less than others do, he said.

Legislators are expected to introduce amendments that would retain current provisions of the utility law, before today's committee vote, Phillips and Acorn said.

Kim Leonard can be reached at kleonard@tribweb.com or 412-380-5606.