Aging, Consumer & Environmental Organizations Call on Governor Hochul to Sign Utility Intervenor Funding Bill into Law

Posted on 10/04/22 by Erik Kriss

Energy efficiency concept and energy bill papers

Legislation Would Level Playing Field for Ratepayers in Utility Rate Cases and Other Proceedings Before the Public Service Commission.

ALBANY, NY - Today, a diverse group of organizations from across the state urged Governor Kathy Hochul to sign Intervenor Funding (A873-A, Cahill / S3034-A, Parker) into law.

The bill would level the playing field for utility ratepayers and permit nonprofits or groups of individuals that represent residential or small business customers to apply for the reimbursement of reasonable advocate's fees, expert witness fees, and other costs associated with participating in utility rate cases and other proceedings before the State Public Service Commission (“PSC” or “Commission”).

New Yorkers already pay among the highest utility rates in the country, but these essential services have become more unaffordable as inflation hits record highs and the fossil fuel commodity markets remain extremely volatile. Meanwhile, well-funded utility companies spend millions of dollars to argue before the Commission in proceedings, including rate cases, where they work to raise consumer rates even further. [1] Residential households and small businesses, who are often limited by time, money, and legal expertise, struggle to compete against these corporate interests.

In the letter (reprinted in full below) to Governor Hochul, AARP New York, the Public Utility Law Project (“PULP”), and more than two dozen other organizations who advocate for communities of color, the environment, seniors and the public interest, detailed how the availability of these funds would give residential and small business utility customers a new, independent voice to discuss issues pertaining to the affordability and reliability of their utility services. Currently, sixteen other states have laws that authorize intervenor funding and six have active and effective programs including California, Wisconsin, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon.

Beth Finkel, State Director of AARP NY said, “New Yorkers pay among the highest utility rates in the nation. But while utility companies spend millions of dollars in ratepayers’ money to push rate hikes on those very same customers, intervenor funding would start to tip the balance back and give consumers an independent voice at the regulatory table. AARP New York urges Governor Hochul to take this important step toward fixing a rigged system and sign this bill into law.”

Laurie Wheelock, Executive Director of PULP said, “As we enter what is expected to be another really tough winter for consumers, New Yorkers need a diverse set of advocates more than ever. Intervenor funding would give those residential households a broader and more local voice in the discussions that effect rates and reliability of the vital utility services we all depend on. We thank the bill sponsors for their steadfast advocacy and urge Governor Hochul to sign this into law as soon as possible.”

Hazel Dukes, President of the NAACP New York State Conference said, “Energy is a necessity, and it’s already a struggle for too many New Yorkers to afford this essential commodity. And older New Yorkers of color are more burdened by utility bills than most, as we learned in our Disrupt Disparities initiative with AARP New York. The NAACP New York State Conference fully supports this funding, which would take a step toward leveling a playing field that is tilted far too much in favor of the utility companies.”

Bob Cohen, Director of Policy at Citizen Action of New York said, “My experience participating in my first-rate case last year demonstrated to me that ratepayer and climate activists are simply outgunned by utility companies. National Grid -- a massive multinational corporation -- had well paid economists, lawyers, engineers and other professionals at its beck and call, and we had community volunteers assisted by a few overworked staffers with multiple other responsibilities. If Governor Hochul wants to give average New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet a real say in how our utilities are run and how much they pay for their heating, cooling, and electricity bill, she will sign this important legislation into law.”

Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director of the Asian American Federation said, “The Asian American Federation has been fighting alongside AARP New York and many other collaborators for years to help make utilities more affordable for New Yorkers. We finally have legislation before the Governor that would move us in that direction. We urge Governor Hochul to seize this opportunity and sign this bill into law.”

Russ Haven, General Counsel of the New York Public Interest Research Group (“NYPIRG”) said, "Governor Hochul must approve this bill to help level the playing field between residential customers and deep-pocketed utilities when it comes to rate hikes and other proceedings. Utilities hire armies of lawyers, economists, and engineers to push for higher rates and then make ratepayers foot the bill for those services. This legislation would help balance things by allowing nonprofit groups and community members to get funding to make the case for lower utility rates and smarter policies. New York utility ratepayers need more seats at the rate-making table."

Wayne Ho, President and CEO of the Chinese American Planning Council said, "The Chinese-American Planning Council works to empower individuals, families, and communities to be informed, involved, and active, and we believe community power is built across generations. One out of every four Chinese American seniors struggles with poverty, so we urge Governor Hochul to sign this legislation that will help community-based organizations fight for fair utility costs."

Briana Carbajal, State Legislative Manager for WEACT for Environmental Justice said, "Con Edison ratepayers in Uptown Manhattan owe a household average of over two thousand dollars in utility debt since the beginning of the pandemic. Con Edison and other multibillion dollar utility corporations continue to ask for electric and gas rate increases to support their unconscionable investments in fossil fuel infrastructure despite the debt and climate crises that are disproportionately impacting disadvantaged communities. The Intervenor Fund will give community-based organizations and consumer advocates a fighting chance to protect the environmental health and economic wellbeing of our members by providing the tools to develop a stronger voice to say no more to detrimental rate hikes. New York State needs to catch up to the sixteen states across the nation that already provide these essential funds to support environmental justice communities."

“Governor Hochul must sign this crucial legislation into law. It is patently unfair that under-resourced organizations and community members have to argue in opaque proceedings against paid attorneys from multi-billion-dollar utility corporations and government agencies. Experience has shown that the Department of Public Service does not stop utility rate hikes and poisonous fracked gas expansion despite overwhelming public support for renewable energy,” said Kim Fraczek, Director of Sane Energy Project. “It is unconscionable that the Department of Public Service does not provide financial help and information in support of public participation in proceedings that affect every aspect of people’s lives.”

Jess Mullen, Executive Director of Communities for Local Power said, "We're asking for logical and fair policy. Our status quo severely skews in the favor of massive, corporate, often foreign-owned utility companies. Why not balance the scale so that New Yorkers can also have a say on what impacts their communities and their pocketbooks?"

Amber Johnson, Organizing Director of the Energy Democracy Alliance said, “New Yorkers pay some of the highest utility prices, but they are not adequately represented in discussions about the availability and affordability of vital utility services. An intervenor reimbursement program would allow community organizations to hire lawyers and experts so that they can meaningfully participate on a level playing field with big corporations in Public Service Commission's (PSC) process. Access to conventional decision-making tables would be widened, aiding in the system's change and will diversify and strengthen outcomes. It will help make talks more equitable for all parties and, provide consumer interests a voice in rate cases and other actions that have an impact on affordability.”

Monique Fitzgerald, Climate Justice Organizer of the Long Island Progressive Coalition said, "Corporate greed is dictating our rates and the delivery of a system that has led us to millions of dollars in utility debt and further entrenched us in the climate crisis.  It is time that our regulatory agencies allow the interest of the people to drive us to a debt free and clean utility system." 

“I am a local resident living near National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline and LNG terminal. In order to ensure that this for-profit utility was not solely responsible for deciding the future of my community’s finances, health, and safety, for the past two years, I’ve volunteered about 25 hours a week of my own time to build a case against National Grid’s unjust and poisonous projects in North Brooklyn,” said Margot Spindelman of the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Coalition. “We simply cannot trust the Public Service Commission to listen to the public’s analysis and implement our suggestions. Our agencies must step out of their silos and address the financial and climate crises affecting New Yorkers. And the people directly affected by utility proposals need public resources to do this vital work.”

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October 3, 2022

Honorable Kathy Hochul
Governor, State of New York
Executive Chamber
New York State Capitol
Albany, New York 12224

Dear Governor Hochul,

We the undersigned organizations urge you to sign S.3034-A (Parker) /A.873-A (Cahill) into law to establish an intervenor reimbursement program for nonprofits or groups of individuals in any proceeding before the Public Service Commission (PSC).

New Yorkers pay among the highest utility rates in the country but lack crucial representation in issues pertaining to the affordability and reliability of essential utility services. Utility companies that are already well funded spend millions of dollars collected from consumer utility bills to argue before regulatory committees to increase those same consumers rates. 

Essentially, residential and small business customers pay for utility companies to increase their own utility rates without having any representation at the negotiation table that is focused solely on their own interests. Organizations like ours already do or have the ability to bring unique perspectives to these proceedings, which help produce better results for the public. Allowing us to seek reimbursement for our reasonable expenses will help level the playing field against corporate interests.

Utility companies can represent themselves in front of regulatory boards with not only all the legal counsel they may need, but also the resources to bring in experts to represent their interests. On the other hand, nonprofits and groups of individuals lack the resources to fund their legal counsel fees, without even considering bringing in experts. 

Importantly, the legislation includes guardrails that prohibit not-for-profits that represent the interests of utilities –like trade associations– from receipt of intervenor funds. Additionally, to receive such funds, the intervenor must make a “substantial contribution” to the proceeding. This judgment is left to experts at the Department of Public Service, who will determine whether or not the factual or legal contentions, or specific policy or procedural recommendations, made a significant difference in the Commission’s decision-making process. 

Utility services are essential, but unfortunately many consumers already cannot afford their monthly bills as inflation hits record highs and the cost of living in New York State continues to increase. This request is to simply help make negotiations fairer for all parties and finally allow consumer interests to have a seat at the table in rate cases and other proceedings which impact affordability. 

Our organizations respectfully urge you to sign S.3034-A (Parker) /A.873-A (Cahill) into law. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

Sincerely, 

Beth Finkel, State Director
AARP-NY

Hazel N. Dukes
NAACP New York State Conference

Jo-Ann Yoo 
Asian American Federation

Bob Cohen, Policy and Research Director
Citizen Action of New York

Carol Chock, President
Ratepayer and Community Intervenors

Monique Fitzgerald, Climate Justice Organizer
Long Island Progressive Coalition

Kartik Amarnath, Policy Specialist  
PUSH Buffalo

Brian Eden, Policy Director
Campaign for Renewable Energy

Mohini Sharma, Organizing Director
Metro Justice 

Lisa Furst
Vibrant Emotional Health 

Russ Haven, Esq.
New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG)

David Hepinstall, Executive Director
Association for Energy Affordability

Laurie Wheelock, Executive Director 
The Public Utility Law Project

Wayne Ho
Chinese-American Planning Council

Irene Weiser, Coordinator
Fossil Free Tompkins

Jessica Azulay
Alliance for a Green Economy

Kim Fraczek
Sane Energy Project

Ann Marie Cook
Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc. 

Margot Spindelman
No North Brooklyn Pipeline Coalition

Jess Mullen
Communities for Local Power

Roger Downs
Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter

Christine Hoffer
NY-GEO

Kristen Van Hooreweghe
Climate Solutions Accelerator of the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region

Betta Broad, Campaign Director
New Yorkers for Clean Power

Briana Carbajal, State Legislative Manager
WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Amber Johnson, Organizing Director
New York Energy Democracy Alliance

[1] See Regulatory Commission Expenses, an analysis done by PULP on how much each utility spends on legal fees in PSC proceedings from 2016-2021, at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1f7gfh8RaLxYammtGuoGu7TYJEzr2M9Fo/view?usp=sharing.

This story is provided by AARP New York. Visit the AARP New York page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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