Editorial: Utility curve

Kansas utility customers need to keep an eye on potential new directions for the board that represents their interests to state lawmakers and regulators.

A state agency that represents the interests of consumers and small businesses in utility rate matters is drawing more than the normal amount of attention in recent weeks.

Many Kansans probably don’t know much about the functions of the Citizens Utility Ratepayers Board, but they should be paying attention to recent discussions by the five-member board. During a Dec. 11 meeting in Wichita, CURB members threw out a few ideas about the possible future of the board, including the possibility that it should be abolished or its mission drastically changed to focus on lobbying against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

Since that meeting, the board’s new chairwoman has said those discussions were a “hypothetical” exercise for the board and that she didn’t see taking on the EPA as a realistic mission for CURB. The board didn’t, however, backtrack on its decision at that meeting to prohibit CURB’s acting consumer counsel from speaking to the media about utility issues or representing ratepayers at the Kansas Legislature — two key functions the counsel previously had performed. Board members said they would handle those duties themselves.

A recent Journal-World story offered some history of CURB and its role on behalf of consumers. It was created in 1988 by Gov. Mike Hayden to make sure consumer interests were represented in discussions of huge rate increases being sought by the electric utilities involved in the construction of Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant. At that time, and in many cases since then, CURB has worked to come up with a plan that was helpful to consumers and provided the electric companies with a fair return on their investment. The Kansas Corporation Commission, which is responsible for approving those rates, routinely hears from representatives of utilities and from CURB. Although the KCC also has a responsibility to the consumers of Kansas, CURB has played an important role in making sure the KCC receives the information it needs to consider rate increases from the perspective of small businesses or individuals who may not have the expertise or finances to make that case on their own.

CURB members still say they intend to study how other states — both those that have consumer agencies and those that don’t — provide for representation for small utility customers. There’s nothing wrong with seeing how other states handle this issue, but these board members still are bound by the statute that created CURB and gives it the authority to hire a consumer counsel, direct the counsel’s activities and propose legislation to the Kansas Legislature.

CURB has served an important mission since 1988 by representing the interests of state utility customers and providing pertinent information to both the Legislature and the KCC. It’s troubling that the agency’s board members are even hypothetically discussing ways to alter that mission in ways that may not meet their statutory duty.