portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reporting oregon & cascadia

corporate dominance | government

Politics has no place at the PUC

Here is the latest from CUB. If you aren't a member please consider joining. Membership is just $15/year and the CUB acts as a consumer watchdog on regulated utilities. They save all of us money and it works best when membership is high.
Politics Has No Place at the PUC

Almost six years ago to the day, CUB helped to write, and then-Governor John Kitzhaber signed, an Executive Order (No. EO-00-06) that explicitly forbids the Oregon Governor or his/her Staff from interfering with or exerting influence over the PUC decision-making process. Greatly abbreviated, the Order basically states: "WHEREAS, Oregon citizens are best served when the PUC decisions are based on sound policy rather than political favor... THERFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED AND DIRECTED: That the Governor, the governor's staff and executive branch personnel will respect and encourage the commission and professional staff to independently fulfill their statutory and administrative duties..."

That makes sense, doesn't it? However, the temptation always exists, and arises anew every few years, for people to assume that the governor should be doing something more, with regard to some regulatory issue at the PUC (utility taxes comes to mind currently). CUB believes that this kind of gubernatorial influence is a slippery slope and should be avoided, and we would like to share with you why that is.

First, a little history. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a difficult time for utility ratepayers. Back then, the Public Utility Commission in Oregon had only one Commissioner, and that Commissioner was of course appointed by the Governor. A series of decisions were handed down that stirred people's interest and their ire, regarding the Commissioner's ideal role as an independent arbiter of ratemaking, and his actual role which was not living up to the ideal. It was felt that customers' voices were not being heard, and ratemaking was reflecting that.

And so in the mid-80s a few things changed. In 1984, Ballot Measure 3 passed, which created the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon to be that much-needed voice for residential customers. Then, in 1986, through Ballot Measure 4, the Commission structure was changed so that three Commissioners (rather than only one) were now appointed by the Governor, and jointly handed down the decisions that regulate our utilities. The new PUC had a new emphasis, as well, on public process that discouraged backroom deal-making.

It was important in the early days of the new 3-Commissioner system to send a signal that a new day had dawned. This happened when then-Governor Neil Goldschmidt attempted to intercede with then-Commissioner Ron Eachus on a regulatory matter, off the record. At the very next public PUC meeting, Commissioner Eachus recounted the contact with the Governor's Office, putting it firmly on the record, where all such contacts should remain. It is this spirit of openness that CUB has tried to foster in the regulatory process, since that is how we feel the best decisions are made.

In political processes, the utilities often have more resources to wield undue influence over the outcome. In the PUC process, each party offers arguments that stand or fall based on their own merit, and everyone knows all the arguments being made (for example, here is a copy of CUB's Opening Comments regarding utility taxes). This process is therefore more like an open debate, and less like a slam dunk for those with power and huge economic resources. CUB does not win every argument, or every case, but we do feel that the PUC process as it currently exists is a successful process, because it is transparent.

Some have criticized the current Governor for staying out of the PUC process on utility tax issues. Having seen the dangers of a politicized PUC, we have a different viewpoint. We certainly understand people's desire to see the Governor work for a fairer system, but the truth is that in our experience, when a Governor weighs in, that weight is used far more frequently and vigorously to favor utility interests. Maintaining an open and independent process at the PUC is more important than any one case decision. We appreciate Governor Kulongoski's willingness to recognize and respect the importance of the Executive Order signed by his predecessor protecting that independence, and his willingness to not dive into the debates hotly swirling around the PUC public meeting rooms. We expect that same respect for the principles of Order No. EO-00-06 from whoever holds the Governor's office in the future.

We need openness, not influence; independence, not politics. That is how we achieve "fair, just, and reasonable" utility regulation.

Thanks for reading CUB Online.

Please visit our website: www.oregoncub.org .