High Noon at the Ledge: your power bill up for grabs


Expanded from the 5-20-2001 Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

The shootout happens this week, maybe Thursday. The Nevada State Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor will hear Assembly Bill 661, which proposes to bring back electricity deregulation just a few weeks after Gov. Dudley Do-Right signed a bill repealing same.

DARTH HARVEY RULES. In addition to dictating Nevada tax policy, juice lawyer Harvey Whittemore now sets energy policy. In exchange for deregulating his casino clients and mining buddies, thus allowing them to shop for power, Lord Vader offered the crumb of letting pools of small consumers do the same. The guv killed that idea, so now AB 661 proceeds with no consumer protections to Sen. Randolph Townsend's, R-Reno, committee for final review.

Actually, it's not quite that simple. Truth be told, nobody is really sure what the bill will look like when it hits the Assembly floor sometime tomorrow. That's because amendments were made on the fly in committee, the legislative equivalent of jotting on the backs of envelopes. Lawyers are working all weekend to convert the changes into language which will pass legal muster.


SIERRA PACIFIC POWERFUL. As of this column's deadline, only the original version of the bill, introduced on March 26, is available to the public. Whittemore facilitated an egregious set of changes which he named the "Re-power Nevada Amendment." Among other things, His Lordship has decreed that the Public Utilities Commission can throw a cloak of secrecy over company operations, such as power purchase contracts which directly affect consumer rates. He wants automatic approval of rate increases if the commission does not act within 90 days of an application's filing. Currently, the PUC has six months.

I broke out in a rash when State Consumer Advocate Timothy Hay endorsed the deregulation of mines and casinos as long as ratepayer buying pools were allowed. That's too damned much of a crapshoot for an unproven concept. Haven't we learned from the deregulation of cable TV? Cable prices have increased by five times the rate of inflation since President Clinton signed the bill a few years ago.

HURTING THE WEAK. Assembly members David Goldwater, D-Las Vegas, and Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, proposed bills funding marginal rate relief for low-income Nevadans. One was killed, another, AB349, will be heard by Townsend's committee tomorrow. An amendment providing the aid may be added to AB 661. Gov. Guinn recently cut back his proposed $5 million fund for low income residents. Late last week, Sierra Pacific reneged on a $5 million promise for low income assistance which the company made last January when it was granted the largest rate increase in Nevada history ($311 million) without a hearing. The PUC ruled on the basis of an alarmist SPP press release which drudged up California fears.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GO SHOPPING. Las Vegas has already been warned of impending blackouts and there is some talk of outages in the north this summer. A power company spokesman said casino-resorts and large shopping malls will be spared. Exempting large gathering places from blackouts gives people places to go, the spokesman said.

Lobbyists for the Nevada Utility Reform Alliance (NURAy) report that there is no system in place to warn critical users of planned outages. Worse, there seems to be no central registry to facilitate contact of the sick and disabled after they've been blacked out. The Alliance thus passed a resolution to ask both the ledge and SPP to develop such a system, starting with immediate warnings in bill inserts.

No matter how much money is earmarked for the needy, it will not come close to enough and that's not the worst of it. Alliance lobbyist Thomas Wilson, a retired reporter, found out that currently available power bill assistance is administered by state offices which have unlisted phone numbers! Gov. Dudley Do-Right rides again.

Yesterday, Sen. Townsend promised the Alliance that Consumer Advocate Hay will have maximum clout before his committee regarding the final provisions of the bill. I'll be there to hold him to that commitment and to look over Mr. Hay's shoulder.

BLANK CHECK PROBLEM SOLVING. Even though our rates have been substantially hiked, the political game right now is to save much larger rate increases until after next year's November elections. Like California Gov. Gray Davis, Nevada's governor has "solved" energy problemsin exactly the same way -- by ensuring that no matter what mistakes the utilities make, we pay whatever they ask.

The least you can do is call, write, e-mail or fax your lawmakers and tell them to fight for the little guy on AB 661 and AB 349. Your pocketbook and more than a few lives depend on it this summer. Contact information and continuing updates at the NevadaLabor.com energy war room.

CONSUMERS DON'T COUNT. Nevada's first consumer advocate, Jon Wellinghoff, was just hired by The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a San Francisco-based consumer organization. Wellinghoff will represent consumers in the PG&E bankruptcy case. Alas, a federal judge ruled late last week that consumers have no standing. Bankruptcy court is for debtors and creditors, hizzoner said.

ANOTHER PUBLIC RELATIONS COUP FOR NEVADA: We scored the front page of yesterday's New York Times. "Bleak Statistics Tarnish Nevada's Glitter" read the impressive headline. Accompanying photos showed a pregant teen as an illustration of one of the national categories we always lead. Another photo showed a rundown Gomorrah South tenement.

The story and accompanying charts were worse. "Pick almost any index of social well-being and Nevada ranks at or near the very bottom of the 50 states, though it ranks near the top in personal wealth," wrote reporter Todd S. Purdum.

"You name it, we got it," said UNLV Prof. Bill Thompson.

Be well. Raise hell.

NevadaLabor.com | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 32-year Nevadan, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 , editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal. org/

He managed Sen. Townsend's 1980 initiative petition which forced the 1981 Nevada Legislature to establish Nevada's first office of consumer advocacy. He lobbied the 1981 session on utility issues and coordinated intervention in five cases before federal and state utility regulatory bodies. He is a member of NURAy.

Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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