Lawmakers: Changes would hinder utility rate challenges

2013-05-01T18:00:00Z 2013-05-01T20:58:05Z Lawmakers: Changes would hinder utility rate challengesBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

A bill to streamline appeals of decisions by the Nebraska Public Service Commission hit a speed bump Wednesday when several Nebraska lawmakers said the measure would hamper the public's ability to challenge rate increases by utilities.

The Public Service Commission regulates utilities, telephone companies and taxi service, among other things.

Several senators objected during first-round debate of the bill (LB545) by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton that would send appeals of PSC decisions from state district courts to the Nebraska Court of Appeals.

"This is not right, folks," Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery told colleagues.

Opponents said it would be wrong to send appeals of rate increases and other decisions by the PSC to the Appeals Court because the court only would be able to review the record from the PSC regarding the decision.

District courts, on the other hand, can bring in special masters or experts to help decipher cases.

Opponents of the measure said the PSC has a too-cozy relationship with utilities, which generally account for the bulk of the campaign contributions given to PSC members.

"This is an industry bill," Avery said. "That's the way they want it, folks. Keep it under the radar. Keep it quiet."

PSC Commissioner Anne Boyle stressed that the Legislature is the first body to consider matters that come before the commission.

"The senators receive campaign contributions from special interests on a myriad of issues," she said. "We enforce the laws that they create. They have been too attuned to Washington, D.C., standards -- one for themselves and another for everyone else."

Commissioner Frank Landis said the bill is meant to reduce the overall cost of such appeals.

"Nothing more, nothing less," he said.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus rejected arguments that the bill would reduce appeal costs and unclog district courts -- noting than an average of four PSC rulings per year are appealed.

He said utilities want to avoid district courts and the possibility of special masters being brought in and go instead to the Appeals Court, which would use only the record prepared by the PSC.

"There will be no hearing -- only a review of findings," Schumacher said. "We don't want to talk about facts. We just want the deal done. This doesn't pass the smell test of common sense.

"Nothing is broken here," he said of the present appeals process. "Four appeals is not too expensive. This is an effort to absolutely try to foreclose this little club that controls hundreds of millions of dollars ... to make sure that the public is not involved."

Said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha: "This bill does not deal with the people."

"It deals with a corrupt sheriff and Jesse James," he said.

Dubas said her intent simply is to streamline the process, because PSC lawyers are paid by the public.

"The way the whole process unfolds ... you have to go to the PSC and present your case and it will eventually move to a judicial process," she said. "We went to the Public Service Commission and said, 'Is there a way, without jeopardizing due process, that you can find efficiencies to address the process and still allow everything to unfold?'"

Dubas denied the bill was introduced at the behest of entities the PSC oversees.

"The Public Service Commission has been working on this for several years at least," she said.

Lawmakers moved off of the bill before voting whether to advance it. It was not immediately known when it would be debated next.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

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