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April 26, 2015 06:00 PM UTC

The Office of Consumer Counsel: Sonnenberg's Faustian Bargain

  • 8 Comments
  • by: Colorado Pols

SUNDAY UPDATE: Setting up a late-session battle, majority House Democrats have introduced an alternative “clean” bill to reauthorize the Office of Consumer Counsel without stripping it of authority in telecom rate cases. The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch:

The main differences between the bills are telephones and duration before the next sunset review. Sonnenberg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 271, and other Senate Republicans say there’s no need for the Office of Consumer Counsel to ride herd over phone rates. Those are dictated by competition in the free market, after the legislature deregulated telecoms last year.

Supporters of House Bill 1381 say the office needs to keep a watch on remaining phone services and issues, such as 9-1-1 service and whether deregulation is giving customers a fair shake.

The newest OCC bill sponsored by Reps. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, and Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and 28 Democratic co-sponsors preserves the OCC’s telecom oversight. The Senate bill reduces the time until the next sunset review from 11 years to six. The House bill maintains it at 11.

From House Democrats’ presser:

“Extending the Office of Consumer Counsel is a no brainer,” Rep. Esgar said. “It provides critical protections for Colorado consumers and businesses to ensure that big utilities and telecom companies aren’t ripping off hardworking Coloradans to increase their profits.”

HB15-1381 will continue the counsel in its current form for another 11 years. A Senate bill, SB15-271, also extends the counsel, but only for six years and removes the counsel’s oversight over telephone providers, potentially threatening 9-1-1 services and causing unneeded rate increases.

“We know the counsel has prevented telecom rate increases in the past,” Rep. Winter said. “We shouldn’t create a loophole that threatens 9-1-1 services and will cost consumers more money.”

Stay tuned, the classic battle of consumers versus corporate lobbyists is about to resume.

—–

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch reports on a deal in the works with Colorado Senate Republicans to prevent the Office of Consumer Counsel from sunsetting–an office important to consumer advocates to represent utility customers in rate hike proceedings.

As Bunch reports, Republicans are seeking a pound of flesh in exchange:

Consumer groups have been fretting the fate of the Office of Consumer Counsel, whose experts have helped convince the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that some of the rate increases requested by gas, power or phone providers are either more than necessary or not necessary at all.

The agency will reach its sunset on July 1, unless the legislature passes Senate Bill 271 or tries to revive the agency early in next year’s session. There’s a provision that allows the office to “wind down” for one year, but a delay would deal it a crippling blow, supporters say.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is sponsoring the bill and will argue its merits before the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee next week. The bill could be heard and moved to the full Senate as early as Tuesday or as late as Thursday, though it’s not on the committee agenda for either day as of Thursday evening. Despite the late hour of the legislative session, Sonnenberg is confident the reauthorization will face few roadblocks on its way to the governor.

“I don’t see there’ll be much opposition,” he said. “I do understand there’s a little bit of heartburn about taking out the telecom.” [Pols emphasis]

That’s right–the “deal” being offered by GOP Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg would reauthorize the OCC for the purpose of negotiating electrical and gas service rates, but would strip the office’s authority where it concerns telecommunications services. Bunch quotes the director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group warning that “now’s not the time to bench Colorado’s consumer advocate on telephone issues.” So why is this happening, you ask?

It’s simple: CenturyLink and the rest of Colorado’s telecom players have really good lobbyists. There’s nothing about stripping the OCC of its authority in telecom utility service negotiations that helps consumers, but with the legislative session winding down and Republicans in control of the Senate by one seat, this is in all likelihood the best deal consumers are going to get. And if you don’t like it, your alternative is to lose all of your representation before the Public Utilities Commission on rate hikes.

Such a deal, Sen. Sonnenberg.

Comments

8 thoughts on “The Office of Consumer Counsel: Sonnenberg’s Faustian Bargain

  1. The Republican politician’s wet dream:  First a consumer protection office that isn’t allowed to, you know, protect consumers.

    A little later, Step two: eliminate the budget of that office entirely, because it’s, you know, just another governmental bureaucracy that “doesn’t do anything.”

    Oh, and don’t forget by the way, to fill your pocket with your 30 pieces of corporate silver for doing the dirty work to enable them to better and more effectively screw consumers!

  2. Century Link is one of the worst price gougers out there – hidden fees for this, that, and the other, surcharges you can’t get rid of without suffering through half an hour of their English-challenged customer reps “helping” you…

    Comcast really isn’t much better. And now with the merger, Comcast being in 51 percent control, MSNBC is shedding liberal hosts and viewers like a dog with an itchy undercoat.

    Joy Reid has gone, Chris Hayes is supposedly next on the chopping block. Their online viewing site absolutely sucks – one has to sit through five repetitions of their dreary pro-fracking ads to get one measly 10 minute news segment.

    We do need the office of consumer counsel to regulate the worst excesses of these companies, so that our “bargain” internet or cable doesn’t become the zombie that wants to eat our brains – and everything in our bank accounts.

  3. Doesn’t the OCC rep the public for PUC rule-making, too?

    So, first the telecoms have their Democratic patsy push through bills to deregulate and exempt your services from taxes.  Then they get their Republican stalwart to strip the agency that would protect the folks who were concerned about losing service or paying high prices under those laws of their protection.  Nice job, guys.

    So, if you have copper wire, which works through disasters beautifully, be prepared to switch to networked voice, which, well not so much.  If you’re relying on landlines because you can’t hear, or are old or poor, too bad.  Gotta keep Colorado attractive to business!

  4. The scrap over the OCC is the inevitable outgrowth and consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  Sure Sen. Sonnenberg is a conservative Republican who instinctively favors the business community but the Supreme Court’s decision allows extremely concentrated sources of wealth to dominate the political messaging which leaves the majority, including most Republican voters, out of the state and nations political discourse, feeling unrepresented, and eventually detached from the government.  That undermines our future.

    President Rutherford B. Hayes, a little remembered Republican president (1876-1880), but a staunch supporter of free enterprise, confided in his diary:

    “Shall the railroads govern the country, or shall the people govern the railroads?”

    And later, as if recalling Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he characterized the federal government as:

    “a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”

    He realized, over a century ago, which unfortunately some of today’s Supreme Court justices have forgotten, the corroding effect of concentrating too much political influence in one group or economic sector. The super wealthy now dominate one of our political parties and they control the message that party sends out to voters. Eventually, through the ballot box, voters will rise up to strike a new balance. 

      

  5. The Dems, led by Pueblo’s mighty freshman rep, Daneya Esgar, Faith Winter, and 28 other Democrats, are offering an alternative.

    House Bill 15-1381 would keep telecommunications services under the Office of Consumer Counsel’s authority, and extend the time until the OCC is next reviewed. 

    Both bills will be heard at the same time, next Wednesday at 1:30 pm, in separate hearing rooms. Should be interesting. 

  6. This is the same man (my senator) who thought it appropriate to spend his time trying to roll back our state renewable energy mandates, even though HIS senate district hosts the vast majority of the billions in wind farm investments in our state.  ALL of this without his constituents barely having to life a finger to make it happen.  There may not be a state senator in this entire nation who has enjoyed the fruits of renewable mandates any more than Sonnenberg. 

    Senator, the free market spoke loud and clear through both a statewide ballot initiative in 2004 and the majority of our legislative body in the ensuing years. 

    War on Rural Colorado my @$$

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