The biggest mistake the Legislature made as it rearranged the state’s utility regulatory system to pave the way for SCE&G and Santee Cooper to try to build two now-abandoned nuclear reactors wasn’t replacing the consumer advocate with a new Office of Regulatory Staff.
The biggest mistake was requiring that new agency to “balance” the interests of the public with economic development and the “financial integrity” of regulated utilities.
The Legislature fixed that in 2018, when it passed a law that said the office’s job was to protect ratepayers while preserving the “continued investment in and maintenance of utility facilities so as to provide reliable and high quality utility services.” You could argue that with that change, it wasn’t essential to authorize a new position of consumer advocate for utility matters.
Good — since the consumer advocate’s job would be to focus exclusively on ratepayers’ interests, without having to think about the utility market — but not essential.
The lack of a consumer advocate has become apparent enough that some of the state's utility commissioners have repeatedly noted their absence.
Lawmakers, however, wisely decided that it was necessary. Well, sort of. They created the position in legislation they passed in the spring of 2018, but they didn’t bother to provide funding for the new position until this spring.
Still, even that legislative foot-dragging doesn’t excuse the lackadaisical response from the Department of Consumer Affairs. As The Post and Courier’s Jamie Lovegrove and Andrew Brown report, an agency spokeswoman said that after a first round of interviews, the agency decided to pursue applicants nationwide. Meantime, the director and a consumer advocate who handles other issues are temporarily filling the role, she said, adding that: “Even if we don’t hire the consumer advocate in the next month, when we put together our program and we feel like there’s a need to intervene we will.”
We don’t question the decision to try again if the agency didn’t get any applicants it considered up to the task. That’s what it should do instead of hiring someone who isn’t qualified or experienced enough. What we question is the lack of urgency.
The fill-in consumer advocates haven’t filed any briefs or testified at any Public Service Commission meetings in the year and a half since the law was passed. Essentially, they didn’t participate in the just-ended case, ordered by a pro-solar-energy state law passed this spring, to determine how much Dominion and Duke Energy must pay to purchase solar energy. And it showed: On Nov. 15, the PSC declined to increase the required length of contracts with solar companies and actually lowered the rate the utilities must pay for solar energy.
We’re glad to see that legislators have taken note of the foot-dragging at Consumer Affairs. (We would note, however, that the last person who needs to be throwing stones is House Labor, Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Sandifer, who is one of the utilities’ best friends in the Legislature. He was one of the chief architects of the both the 2007 Base Load Review Act that gave SCE&G a blank check to build the nuclear reactors and the 2004 law that stripped the Department of Consumer Affairs of its role in utility cases.)
We hope lawmakers’ attention will spur the agency to work more intentionally to find the right person for the job. We can’t afford another nonperformance like we saw in the solar-energy case.