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A New “Consumer Protection” Bill Where the Solution is Worse than the Problem

On June 7, 2024, Senator Stefano, Chairman of the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, introduced SB 1250. The overt purpose of the bill appears to be to require the Public Utility Commission (“PUC”) to convene stakeholder groups for the various fixed utility groups that it regulates and to use the feedback from these groups to determine whether policy statements, regulations or statutes under the PUC’s jurisdiction should be “created, remain in effect, be amended or be repealed to reduce ratepayer impact and permit the public utility to operate in a more effective, efficient or economical manner.” The PUC must issue a report and a plan on how it will implement the changes that it views as necessary. There is no provision for the General Assembly to do anything with the report except receive it.

The problem with the legislation is the lack of required diversity of the “stakeholders”. While the bill identifies the usual participants in PUC cases, utilities, Commission staff, the Consumer and Small Business Advocates and industrial groups, there is no process for other groups to request recognition or for participation to be permitted, except “as deemed necessary by the commission.” If the PUC is going to address new issues in new ways, it makes sense that the Commission should hear from diverse and different stakeholders who may have different views than the standard groups. That is not to say that the usual participants should not participate, but rather to advocate for the ability of new voices to be heard.

The consequence of not broadening and diversifying the participants is that it creates an echo chamber of sorts, where the only ideas are those the participants have already heard, from interests and people they already know. We can do better. If the goal truly is to identify ways to make public utility service better, it seems best to hear from many interests, not a few. The bill should require new/other groups a path to participation and not diminish their participation in the discussions and the eventual report. For example, the PUC is presently seeking legislation that would seriously impede the future of renewable energy in Pennsylvania. However, the policy that the PUC is promoting in the General Assembly was not the subject of a broad based stakeholder group. Rather, it was the product of a select few.

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