There's nothing quite like spending the first week of November without lights or heat to concentrate the mind. Thousands of Connecticut residents who are cold at night, looking for a hot cup of coffee in the morning or wondering how they'll pay their rent with no work this week are asking a single question:
Who is looking out for us?
Granted, two powerful storms two months apart would stretch the capabilities of most utilities. But it is still galling to see electric companies in neighboring states employ more crews to address fewer power outages than is the case here.
If it wasn't apparent before, it is clear now that the Connecticut state government doesn't have a robust tradition of consumer advocacy, particularly to serve as a counterbalance to powerful utilities that have operated in this state for many decades. That is overdue for change.
Residents need someone in their corner to make sure this week's mistakes are not repeated, that they never again have to suffer for a week in the dark cold. But it's unclear who that champion is. Indeed, utilities seem to have more friends in state government than consumers do.
On occasion, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has hectored state residents when Connecticut Light & Power should be the target of his ire. The state Office of Consumer Counsel's dozen employees are easily outnumbered by utilities' lobbyists.
As another example, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which has the right to weigh in when utilities propose large acquisitions, didn't even bother earlier this year to review the terms of CL&P's proposed merger with NStar in Massachusetts, even though such a merger will almost certainly have an impact on Connecticut ratepayers.
In the legislature, a bill to force the utilities agency to review the deal went nowhere. Only the feisty Consumer Counsel's office objected; its lawsuit to force the regulatory authority to examine the terms of the deal is still pending.
Electric issues are so mind-numbingly complicated that few in the General Assembly bother to develop an expertise. That means few of them understand how to fight for the rights of ratepayers and fewer still are tenacious enough to do so.
These factors all contribute to the situation Connecticut faces now: Not only do residents have among the highest electric rates in the continental United States, but not enough people in power have asked tough questions on behalf of ratepayers before the lights go out.
Who is looking out for us? Precious few, as it turns out.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times