Assemblyman Dinowitz Announces Legislation Creating New State Office to Fight on Behalf of Utility Customers

Bronx - Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) announced today that he has introduced legislation, A.6239, which would create a new state consumer advocacy office named the State Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee, consumers in New York have been left without a voice and real representation when it comes to utility services.

Currently more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have an independent state agency that represents the interests of residential utility customers. New York is one of few states, and by far the largest, without such an independent office.

The proposed bill would create the State Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate to serve as an independent advocate and appear on behalf of New York consumers in state and federal regulatory proceedings, as well as judicial review proceedings concerning rates and conditions of public service utilities. Though New York currently has the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Utility Intervention Unit (UIU), which is a division of the Department of State, the Utility Consumer Advocate would focus solely on consumers and their interests as related to utility services.

In past proceedings before the PSC, utility providers and large commercial and industrial customers have actively and vigorously represented their own interests; however, there is a stark lack of input from parties that represent consumers. The Utility Consumer Advocate would be appointed by the Governor, subject to Senate confirmation, and would serve a six-year term. He or she would exercise independent discretion in determining when to initiate and participate in proceedings that affect residential utility consumers and how to advocate for their interests.

In other states where such an office exists residential consumers have seen drastic savings in comparison to the actual amount of funding that goes to these offices. California’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates lobbied over 200 times on behalf of California consumers and saved them over $4 billion in rates saved and increases avoided; in fact, they estimate that for every $1 spent representing and advocating on behalf of California’s public utility customers, the average customer saved $153 per year.

“The creation of an appointed advocate with the powers allotted in this bill would give New York utility customers a voice at the table and save them a considerable amount of money when it comes to the utilities they use every day” Dinowitz said. “This bill will be a major step in bringing New York State to the front of the pack when it comes to consumer protections and making sure the State is working on consumers’ behalf. When the utility companies come with their hands out asking for a rate increase every customer in New York will know that there is someone at the table with the ability to question and review their proposals.”

The Bill is widely supported by consumer advocate groups representing various demographics around the State.

Beth Finkel, State Director for AARP in New York, said, "While most New Yorkers feel the pinch of soaring utility bills, the elderly on fixed incomes bear the brunt of the blow. It is unfortunate that our state is one of only a handful lacking an independent consumer utility advocate office to represent the interests of residential consumers and ensure that rate hikes are fair. This bill helps level the playing field and makes sure consumers have a strong voice at the table when utility companies press for rate hikes. AARP strongly supports this bill, and we commend Assemblyman Dinowitz for introducing it and taking a stand for consumers in New York."

Russ Haven, Legislative Counsel with New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), said, "New Yorkers, who have been hammered by high utility costs and unreliable utility service, desperately need an independent watchdog that has the legal authority to bark, and when necessary bite, to protect their interests. Assemblymember Dinowitz's bill would create an independent utility advocacy unit that will protect residential consumers, result in a more efficient, competitive utility marketplace, and ultimately benefit businesses. This will make New York a more affordable place to live and do business."

Gerald Norlander, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, Inc., said, "This bill helps to address the lack of independent, adequately funded representation of New York's residential utility customers. The multiparty stakeholder decision-making process used by utility regulators to reach decisions requires participation by a well funded, independent stakeholder. It lacks legitimacy when "consensus" or multiparty agreements are reached because there is no independent utility consumer advocate for residential customers at the table where the agreements with utilities, ultimately approved by regulators, are forged."

Chuck Bell, Program Director for Consumers Union, Publisher of Consumer Reports, said, “Through years of under funding and neglect, New York state has fallen behind in ensuring that ratepayers have an adequate voice in state utility regulation. Huge utilities like Consolidated Edison, National Grid, Verizon and Cablevision are amply represented by lawyers and experts in utility rate hearings and policy forums, and consumers are not. To rebalance the scales, we need a strong, independent utility consumer advocate that can represent the public interest in the affordability, accessibility and reliability of energy and telecommunications services. New Yorkers are paying some of the highest utility rates in the country, in particular, energy affordability is a key challenge, and it affects consumers in every part of the state. Over 1.5 million New York individuals and families pay more than 6% of their household budgets for home energy. We commend Assembly Member Dinowitz and this bill's cosponsors for their leadership in addressing the public need for a much stronger public voice on utility issues, and we urge the Assembly and Senate to act swiftly to approve this important bill."