Lawmaker Pushes For Increased PSB Accountability

11/10/10 7:34AM By John Dillon
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot
Public Service Board members David Coen, left, Chairman James Volz, listen during a hearing in Montpelier in 2009.
(Host) A leading lawmaker wants to overhaul how utilities are regulated in Vermont by making the Public Service Board more politically accountable.

Essex Orleans Republican Senator Vince Illuzzi says the current structure leaves the board in charge of state utility policy without enough input from the governor or the Legislature.

As VPR's John Dillon reports, Illuzzi's proposal revives a debate that goes back to the 1970s.

(Dillon) Illuzzi is a veteran lawmaker who chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee.

He wants the three-member Public Service Board to have to answer to an official appointed by the governor.

The board now functions as a court; its members are appointed by the governor and serve six year terms. Illuzzi says the board's independence makes it hard for the governor and the Legislature to exert direct influence on utility policy. He says the question comes down to who should be in control of important decisions affecting consumers and businesses. 

(Illuzzi) "Is it a three-member board appointed for six years which is really accountable to no one? Or is a secretary appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate that would take into consideration not only the technical and legal arguments made to the board but also information from the business community and others who depend on electric utilities, or telecom and broadband. Those are all front and center in order for Vermont to move forward. That's where we're going to be focusing for the next three years."

(Dillon) Illuzzi is still fleshing out his ideas for reorganizing the board. In January, he says he'll have a bill drafted aimed at giving the governor more control. One idea he's considering is for the three-member board to hear evidence but the final decision would be up to a political appointee.

(Illuzzi) "In other states, the Public Service Board members are either elected or there is a different structure whereby hearing officers will make recommendations to a commissioner or secretary who is directly appointed by the governor so that there is accountability on the public side of the equation when these significant decisions affecting our regulated utilities are made."

(Dillon) Thirty years ago the Legislature also re-examined the role of the Public Service Board. Lawmakers then decided to create a new Department of Public Service. The department represents the public in rate cases and serves as the governor's voice on utility issues. The board was left as an independent body to weigh cases based on evidence and law.

Montpelier lawyer Dick Saudek witnessed the change and served both as PSB chairman and as Public Service Commissioner. He said the idea for reorganizing utility regulation came from Governor Richard Snelling.

(Saudek) "And he felt that the board was being called upon both to be a consumer advocate and to be a fair judge, a fair judge, of rate cases. And he felt those functions should be split."

(Dillon) The present structure works well, says Don Kreis, former general counsel to the New Hampshire public utility commission. Kreis now is deputy director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.

(Kries) "I actually think of the various systems I'm familiar with, Vermont has it close to as good as it gets in the sense that you do have a vigorous executive branch agency that's headed by a commissioner whose job is to vindicate the policy preferences of the governor while at the same time you have this body of neutral decision makers that keeps itself isolated from the vicissitudes of the various policy arguments that are going on."

(Dillon) But Kreis says there's no perfect way to regulate utilities. And he says Illuzzi raises a good argument about giving the governor more direct influence on public policy

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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