Politics & Government

Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board may dissolve or refocus on fighting clean-air rules

CURB was created by the Kansas Corporation Commission in 1988 to give residential and small business consumers a voice in the legal process of setting utility rates.
CURB was created by the Kansas Corporation Commission in 1988 to give residential and small business consumers a voice in the legal process of setting utility rates. File photo

A state board created to represent home and small-business utility consumers on rate issues is considering dissolving itself or changing its focus to fight federal clean-air regulations.

The members of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board – all appointees of Gov. Sam Brownback’s – floated those possibilities during a lengthy meeting in Wichita last week.

The board also voted unanimously to strip its acting consumer counsel, Niki Christopher, of the agency staff’s traditional role in representing consumers at the Legislature’s utility committees.

Board members questioned the need for CURB’s near-daily presence at the Capitol when the Legislature is in session and said they would travel to Topeka themselves on an as-needed basis.

The board also barred Christopher from speaking to news media about utility matters, another longtime role of CURB’s lawyers. The board members said they will field reporters’ questions themselves.

The board is considering making fundamental changes in the wake of the resignation of CURB’s former chief consumer counsel, David Springe.

Springe, a 17-year fixture at the agency with 14 years as its chief lawyer, left this month to take the job of executive director of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

CURB’s primary function has been to represent residential and small-business utility customers in court-like Kansas Corporation Commission rate cases.

The commission sets rates for for-profit, private-sector utilities across the state, including Westar Energy, Kansas Gas Service, Kansas City Power & Light and Black Hills Energy.

CURB is usually the only legal party representing residential customers and small businesses in rate cases.

Recently, CURB participated in settlement negotiations with Westar that resulted in a $78 million net rate increase, instead of the $152 million Westar initially sought.

Emission standards

The most vocal advocate for eliminating or changing CURB’s mission was board member James “Lenny” Mullin II, who represents the Kansas 3rd Congressional District in the Kansas City suburbs.

Mullin questioned whether CURB representation in rate cases still has much value when electric rate increases are being driven by the costs of bringing the state’s aging coal-fired power plants in line with current federal emissions standards.

He said instead of fighting against the utilities, CURB should join with them in opposing the emissions rules.

“There’s 15 states that have sued the EPA now saying ‘We’re not going to comply with clean energy,’ ” Mullin said. “Would we be better off taking our budget and fighting (for) that? If we’re talking about affecting the consumer’s bottom line, if we could defeat that mandate from the EPA, we would save way more.”

Christopher told the board she doesn’t think the statute enabling CURB gives the board the authority to shift the agency mission to Washington and they’d need to go back to the Legislature for the go-ahead to take on the EPA.

She said her interpretation of the CURB statute is that “The board has three functions: employ an attorney as consumer counsel, guide the activities of the consumer counsel and recommend legislation to the (Kansas) Legislature when in the board’s judgment, it would positively affect the interests of utility customers.”

The goal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that most climate scientists agree are causing destructive changes in the planet’s atmosphere.

Bob Hall, the board’s member-at-large, likened the effort to fight global warming to the dystopian dictatorship in George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

“What did they call it, ‘newspeak’?” Hall said.

Some people call it climate change fraud. That’s what I call it.

CURB board member Bob Hall

“When they found out for sure and certain that the globe was not warming … then they had to change their terminology. Now we call it climate change. Some people call it climate change fraud. That’s what I call it.”

He said he doesn’t think humans are producing enough carbon dioxide to justify switching to cleaner energy sources.

“I mean, who do they think they are – God?” he said. “They’re not going to change the temperature of the Earth.”

Board’s makeup changes

Six years into the Brownback administration, all five CURB board members are Brownback appointees.

Members expressed concern that Brownback would get blamed by the public for utility rate increases and proposed using the agency’s resources to combat that.

“A lot of times … when you read the headlines in The Wichita Eagle, you’d think that … the governor’s administration is responsible for the rate increases,” said board member Ellen Janoski, who represents the Wichita-based 4th Congressional District. “People need to understand why they’re happening. ... Unless you know what agency or who or whatever is responsible for the prices going up, then really you don’t have information enough to take action.”

Janoski said CURB needs to spend more time educating consumers on what’s causing rate increases and should work to “have more of a relationship with the media” to press its message.

About an hour later, the board voted to forbid Christopher from talking to the media.

The board also directed Christopher and her staff to let board members handle the agency’s relations with the Legislature. Christopher warned that CURB will lose influence if staff members aren’t there on a daily basis and she can’t respond immediately to legislators’ requests for information and opinions on developing bills.

“I think the board can go before the Legislature itself, if required,” Mullin replied.

The board’s former chairman, former state Rep. Brian Weber, lives in Garden City and represented the 1st congressional district. Weber has now resigned his position, he said Wednesday.

He voted with his colleagues to limit Christopher’s authority but left open the possibility some of the position’s powers could be restored if and when a new consumer counsel is hired.

The agency is budgeted for three lawyers but has only one, Christopher, at present, who is planning to retire in August.

The board authorized Christopher to handle day-to-day administrative functions and any cases that CURB has already joined. But she’ll need to get board approval before intervening in any new cases.

Frustration

Weber, the chairman of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, resigned Wednesday, expressing frustration with the direction in which his colleagues want to take the state agency.

CURB was created by the Kansas Corporation Commission in 1988 to give residential and small-business consumers a voice in the legal process of setting utility rates.

A year later, the Legislature established it as a state agency, and two years after that, made it completely independent from the KCC.

Weber said the birth of his second daughter two months ago and a desire to spend more time with his family and his heating and air-conditioning business were major factors in his decision to step down.

But he also said he was troubled by the direction the CURB board wants to go.

“Whatever the result looks like, if it’s different, it needs to include rate cases, it needs to include advocating for consumers, for the small businesses and the individuals collectively. I think that’s important,” he said. “If CURB were to stop litigating rate cases and were to focus on other matters, I don’t foresee that you’d get the results you have now (that benefit) small business and individual ratepayers collectively.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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