Still not even

Kansas electric customers need Westar, but how much responsibility should customers bear for helping the utility get back on its feet?

David Wittig, the crooked former chief executive of Westar Energy, is long gone. But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t questions surrounding the Topeka-based utility.

Many of those questions will be aired by the Kansas Corporation Commission in coming weeks. The state’s largest electric utility provider is seeking a rate increase totaling $84 million – which could increase average residential bills in this part of the state by $63 per year. The KCC, which must approve the increase, has begun three weeks of hearings on the request.

Already, Westar leaders have used Wittig – the man recently convicted on federal fraud charges – as a reason why the public should pay higher rates and help shareholders reap a reasonable profit. Westar leaders say Wittig’s terrible stewardship makes the rate increase necessary to ensure the financial health of the company.

For many Kansans, hearing that argument is about as much fun as sticking a finger in a light socket. After all – and this is a point KCC regulators should remember – average Kansans did not hire Wittig to be Westar’s CEO. That fell to the company’s board of directors, which was elected by shareholders. Westar’s corporate greed was driven by those in the corporation, not average Kansans whose only role in Westar’s history has been to turn their lights on each morning and dutifully pay their bills.

But it cannot be denied that Kansas needs Westar. The state cannot go dark, and we cannot afford to live with the uncertainty surrounding a financially troubled utility. And keeping Westar healthy enough to avoid a corporate takeover – and thus remain based in Kansas – is an important public purpose.

Westar, though, must make its case for a rate increase exceedingly clear. Jim Haines, Westar’s new president and CEO, has done a good job of turning the company around. He has given it a clear mission, boosted morale, and most importantly, injected integrity. But KCC regulators must insist on clear, hard numbers, and allow no question to go unanswered. Already, commissioners have received recommendations from their staff and from the respected Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board that suggest Westar’s proposed rates are too high.

Whether we “owe” Westar an additional $84 million a year in rates is debatable. But throughout the debate regulators should remember this: Given all that we endured with David Wittig, Westar still owes average Kansans plenty.