The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel is a state office that is statutorily designated to represent Ohio consumers before various rating boards such as the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO.) It uses its office of lawyers and economists to try to make the case to such agencies why proposed utility rate hikes are not really necessary and harmful for the consumers.
The PUCO is an entity that approves rate increases. It’s also where energy lobbyists and senior utility executives go when they want a change of scenery. That’s been true under both Republican and Democratic Governors, by the way. Take for example, Governor Kasich’s latest appointment to PUCO. Kasich also appointed the new Chair of PUCO, who just happened to be the Republicans’ former Chair of the House Public Utilities Commission.
The Consumers Counsel office is not funded by the State’s general revenue fund. It’s entire funding is based on fees levied on the utilities. Cut the Counsel’s budget, and the money goes back to the utilities.
So Kasich found the perfect corporate giveaway. A double whammy. In his budget he slashes the agency’s budget by more than half. That creates a virtually impotent, underfunded consumer watchdog to fight against the utilities’ army of hired guns of industry lawyers and economists, many of whom are just biding their time around the revolving door that is the PUCO/utility relationship.
When the Cleveland Plain Dealer approached Kasich press secretary Rob Nichols and asked why this agency is being cut when such a cut doesn’t affect the State’s projected deficit, Nichols acknowledged that the deficit has nothing to do with it.
The administration is aware of that, spokesman Rob Nichols said. But that is not why the governor wants to cut its funding. It’s because the consumers’ counsel is somewhat redundant to the PUCO, he said.
"I think the redundancy of the program in and of itself is a justification to reduce its funding," said Rob Nichols, Kasich’s spokesman.
According to John Kasich, we don’t even really need a Consumers’ Counsel at all because all the former utility executives, lobbyists, and industry friendly politicians that comprise of PUCO.
"It is a disgrace to cut their budget in half when it is money not taken from the state coffers," [State Rep. Vernon] Sykes [(D)-Akron] said in an interview. "It cripples the people’s advocate against the law firms and economists hired by the utility companies. This is a major issue for us."
Fellow committee member Matt Lundy, a Democrat from Elyria, said he would offer amendments to get the funding restored.
"The notion that the public utilities commission is going to represent the consumer when it is hearing from companies and not from consumers is horse puckey," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.
"If the commission is supposed to be the judge and arbitrator in these cases and is capable of deciding without the input of the most directly affected constituency, the consumer, then they ought to be capable of deciding without the input of companies."
As has been the case with everything so far on the Kasich budget, apparently no Statehouse Republican was willing to go on the record and defend Kasich’s proposal.
If you were still somehow doubtful that Kasich’s budget has nothing to do with the need to deal with a “projected $8 billion deficit” (although the Administration is struggling to explain what happened to it in their budget), if you think it’s just some leftist conspiracy theory that Kasich is using the shock doctrine to jam through some of the most outrageous, ideologically-based policies in Ohio, how do you explain this cut, then?