Turner in Wonderland: Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards
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Sylvester Turner went to the Public Utility Commission yesterday to argue for a petition he had filed asking the PUC to declare a moratorium on electricity disconnections for certain customers for the remainder of the summer. The customers that would be covered included low-income seniors (up to 125% of the poverty rate). The moratorium would expire on September 30. There were no freebies: low-income customers would pay one-third of their bills. Turner went to the PUC prepared to argue that June was the hottest month in Texas history, and that Texans are paying 43% to 66% more than the rates in surrounding states. But Turner did not get to present his arguments at the hearing. Instead, he was preempted by the commissioners. They denied his petition before he ever got to make his pitch for it. Each of the three commissioners read their reasons for denial. Only then was Turner asked if he wanted to say anything. “To make a ruling prior to hearing anyone — that really did get my goat,” Turner said. The arguments for denying the petition, as told to me by Turner, were: * The cost of electricity today is lower than it was in 2006 (but, Turner says, consumption is higher due to the extreme heat) * Customers can switch providers if they choose (but, Turner says, switchers may face a cancellation fee to leave one provider and must pay a deposit, usually two months usage or 1/5 of annual usage to their new provider) * The system benefit fund offers financial relief for eligible customers (but, Turner says, the system benefit fund only covers 55% of those who are eligible) * It would be ill advised to impose a moratorium in a competititve market * People will game the system * A moratorium would be detrimental to utility companies “The arguments mirrored what the companies had written to the PUC,” Turner told me. “The industry could not have presented their case better than the PUC did.” He was particularly exasperated that PUC chairman Barry Smitherman argued, “It’s really not that much hotter than any other Texas summer.” “He’s totally detached from the real world,” Turner said. Smitherman did tell Turner, “We can review this [decision] if conditions change.” “What does that mean?” Turner said to me. “It’s too late if people start dying. Seniors are more afraid of their electric bill than the heat.”