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States crack down on utilities billing customers for lobbying, political efforts

Environmentalists and Democratic supporters in state governments are pushing for regulations that would prevent utility companies from using revenues from consumer energy bills to fund lobbying and political influence efforts. .

Federal and state laws already prohibit utility companies from using money from rate payers directly for political or lobbying expenses. But loopholes could allow lobbyists for industry associations, public relations firms, lawyers and consultants acting on behalf of utilities to receive customer funding.

In some cases, toll payers are, perhaps unwittingly, funding efforts to raise energy costs or oppose climate change efforts to reduce emissions.

Colorado’s Democratic-run legislature recently passed a bill banning investor-owned utility companies from charging customers for lobbying, advertising, political efforts such as donations to candidates. . Colorado Governor Jared Polis (Democrat) is expected to sign the bill.

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis, one of five elected officials of the independent regulatory body that oversees public works in Louisiana, said he hopes the state will do the same. there is He is working on a similar proposal with Colorado.

“Something has to be done here because it’s not fair to the people of Louisiana who suffer from the highest energy costs in the country, the least reliable public grid in the country, and the pollution.” Lewis, a Democrat representing the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas, told The Washington Times. “They are using our hard-earned money to buy elections against our own interests.”

Under such a proposal, shareholders would be responsible for paying the costs of advertising, lobbying and other political efforts. Since the rule applies to utility companies, investor-owned green energy companies will also be affected.

The power industry has abundant funds. OpenSecret, a Washington-based nonprofit that collects data on campaign finance and lobbying, said the company spent more than $124 million on lobbying last year and employed more than 800 lobbyists.

Other blue states recently enacted similar measures regulating how utility lobbying is funded. New York State prohibits public energy companies from passing on trade association membership fees to consumers. In Minnesota, utilities cannot charge payers for advertisements that enhance public image or sway public opinion.

Utilities are heavily regulated by states, and to incorporate rate increases and spending into consumer bills requires approval from state regulators like Mr. Lewis. Although it’s a red-hot Louisiana state, each member of the commission is elected, which means the agency doesn’t need approval from the Republican-controlled state legislature.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission is made up of two Democrats (one of whom is Lewis) and three Republicans.

“I think it’s going to be a fruitful discussion when it comes to toll payers,” Lewis said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the federal government’s independent energy commission that oversees the U.S. power sector, solicited public comment last year when considering whether to ban charging customers for trade association dues. Congressional Democrats have repeatedly asked the commission not to pass these fees on toll payers, but the agency has so far refused.

Environmental activists, frustrated by utility companies’ resistance to aggressive efforts to push for a transition to alternative energy sources, believe these anti-lobby regulations are a victory for fighting climate change and lowering utility costs. It advertises that there is.

“Utilities are ground zero for implementing the transition to clean energy,” said Jamie Henn, director of climate activist group Fossil Free Media. “This is a very important leverage point that could change the way utilities operate. will give us the means to help stop their activity.”

Energy companies, meanwhile, deny allegations of evil lobbying with funds raised from customer bills.

In testifying to lawmakers opposing Colorado’s anti-lobbying bill, the utility rejected lawmakers’ accusations that companies were adjusting their definition of lobbying to avoid disclosing costs.

“When it comes to lobbying, everything we do is participating in the legislation process, and whatever work you guys are doing here, we’re going to look into that lobbying,” he said. said an executive at power and natural gas provider Black Inc. Hills Energy. “Again, when billing, you don’t pay any fees. These dollars are drawn from our revenue requirements and whatever we present.”

Lobbying against the Colorado bill included Black Hills Energy and other regional utility companies, as well as lobbyists from some of the country’s largest fossil fuel and utility industries, including the Edison Electric Institute and the American Petroleum Institute. .

Major climate change groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council lobbied in support of this.

Edison Electric Labs claims to be transparent in its political spending and lobbying activities and to comply with all applicable laws.

In its annual lobbying report released earlier this year, the group said it reports lobbying costs to Congress as required by federal law. Records show that the Edison Electric Laboratory spent nearly $10.5 million on lobbying last year.

The Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog, has passed legislation to better define political activity and lobbying, removing ambiguity about whether rate payers are paying policy makers. I am asking for

“A combination of loophole-filled vague and outdated rules, lack of visibility to regulators and the public into their political influence activities, and a waiver of enforcement by regulators has allowed utilities to keep their customers’ money at their fingertips. Political operations,” said EPI Executive Director David Pomerantz in a report on the subject. States crack down on utilities billing customers for lobbying, political efforts

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