Power Play over Ohio Power Bill Produces Problems for Pubic Officials, Energy Consumers

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: After spending months dawdling over a bill that will redefine Ohio’s energy system for years to come, the Public Utilities Committee in the Ohio House yesterday got a sudden burst of energy that kept them sequestered into the wee hours of the morning in a subterranean meeting room, as they accepted a new, possibly industry-built version of a bill that the majority Republican party accepted and passed out of committee without Democrats even being in the room.

Democrats voiced concerns that they were given precious little time to read the new version of the bill, which one source reported had the digital fingerprints of a known utility insider on it and also said the committee chairman’s denial of their request to meet in private to review amendments they had not seen before was a case of disrespect to minority members.

For his part, Strickland said he’ll veto the bill if it comes to him as passed by the House early this morning.

"I am today announcing that I would veto the bill if it passes in its current form," he said, "because it would threaten our ability to both keep and create jobs in Ohio." [Strickland, Plain Dealer]

But House Speaker Jon Husted, R-Kettering, who directed his caucus to make massive changes to a bill passed by the Ohio Senate that was only slightly different from the version Gov. Ted Strickland submitted, said the bill had gone “as far as it could and that it was time to move on.”

In a rebuttal to Strickland’s warning to veto the bill if it isn’t recast, Husted’s office issued a written statement that said:

"We produced a bill that meets the policy goals the governor originally outlined. We are continuing to work to refine the bill and are taking feedback from all parties. We will send the governor a bill that is dramatically better than current law. We hope he will choose to sign it." [Speaker Husted]

Adding to his charm offensive, Husted said he “still holds out hope during the course of the day that we will be able to put something together that everybody can support.” But from the voices of the bill’s critics, who say it will only lead to higher prices for them and more profits for utilities, it seems the olive branch of compromise the Speaker has offered will be tested in conference committee, where the threat of an executive veto may hold more sway than in the House energy committee.

Key to sustaining Strickland’s veto is the inability of the House to override it, as they have done in the past when their margin over Democrats was veto proof. Republicans now need the help of Democrats, and that won’t happen this year if Strickland bears his teeth in the face of a bill that benefits energy producers more than energy users.

Democratic House Rep. Jennifer Garrison from Washington County in southeastern Ohio, who sits on the House energy committee, said of the bill: "It's a rate-hiker and a job killer that puts money into the pockets of utilities and advocates the kinds of policies that will cost consumers plenty.”

At issue in all this is the anticipated spike in energy prices that experts say will arise when Ohio’s current energy bill, which some say was a failed attempt to create lower prices through the creation of viable as was predicted would happen back in 1999, expires at the end of this year..

One critic of the bill, Dave Rinebolt, the executive director of Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy, a cadre of groups representing low-income customers, who was among a handful of names sent to Strickland in February to fill a seat on the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, said the bill, as its been reshaped by House Republicans, is worse for consumers than no bill at all.

Rinebolt has also been credited with revealing information from American Electric Power, a major supplier of electricity generated through coal-fired power plants, that shows it proposed an amendment, which was rejected in the Senate, that would have paved the way for it to raise its rates, which are low compared to rates from other Ohio utility companies, as much as 72 percent over three years.

Critics of the bill says efforts to compromise the bill, as AEP wanted to do in the Senate despite being denied but may have achieved in the guise of a complex formula inserted by Husted's troops that does the same thing, should be rooted out. Otherwise, Ohio energy users, big and small, will face rising rates, which may fatten the the top line of utilities companies but will cause further economic harm to Ohioans who are already laboring under rising prices for food and fuel.

Another appointed state official charged to advocate for Ohio’s 4.5 million residential energy users, said she was pleased with the advanced energy portions of the bill, a focus on the future that Husted has taken under his wing during the debate on how much emphasis Republicans, who have historically been in the camp of big utility producers, but was less than sanguine about the rest of the bill as it emerged from committee late Tuesday morning.

In a prepared statement, Janine Migden-Ostrander, said she was “disappointed in versions of the overall energy policy bill.”

She said the work and compromise that went into the advanced energy portions of the bill – solar, wind, and biofuels, among other categories of alternative energy generation – would benefit Ohio’s residential consumers because they would “mitigate energy prices increases,” which Husted has said is going to happen.

But the former Enron lawyer and utility industry policy adviser now turned a paladin for Ohio residential consumers, said the expected rise in rates that the bill will enable is of deep concern and asked lawmakers to build in safeguards to keep rising energy prices from doing more damage to the pockets of already struggling Ohioans than they’ve already done.

“We encourage policymakers to make significant changes if the current bill goes to a conference committee. On balance, rate proposals of each version of Senate Bill 221 did not benefit residential consumers and reduced the consumer protections and safeguards in the law. We are deeply concerned with the steep costs that would be paid by the millions of households across our state.” [Migden-Ostrander, OCC media release]

Even big industrial energy users, who coalesced to lobby on the bill as the Ohio Coalition of Affordable Power, said the bill was bad for them and for consumers.

Eric Burkland, who spoke on behalf of the group and who serves as president of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, said the bill would “result in huge price increases that would undermine all businesses, especially electricity-intensive companies that are among Ohio's largest employers."

The House didn't vote on the bill today, as Husted said it might, which may mean that negotiations are the parties and stakeholders is still on going.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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