Time to bid ORS adieu
By HANNAH HILL
During this week’s legislative energy committee meetings, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) Dukes Scott stated that the statutory duties of the ORS conflict at times.
The ORS is the entity tasked by state law to “represent the public interest of South Carolina” before the Public Service Commission. The law goes on to define “public interest” as a balance of three things:
- The interests of the ratepayers
- The financial integrity of the utilities, and
- Economic development (job attraction and retention).
Mr. Scott definitely has a point. The first two are inherently at odds with each other, and the third will often be at odds with both of the others.
However, it wasn’t always like this. Before the ORS was created by 2004’s Act 175 (the same act that created the Public Utilities Review Committee), the utility ratepayers’ interest was represented by the consumer advocate office within the Department of Consumer Affairs.
According to a recent story in The State: In 1993, utilities that had sought rate increases received, on average, only about 64 percent of what they had asked for, the Consumer Advocate’s office reported that year.
A brief look at the agency accountability reports for the period immediately preceding Act 175 paints a similar picture. Consumer Affairs saved ratepayers $107,000,000 through intervention in utility cases in fiscal year 2003-2004. In fiscal year 2004-2005 (the year representation of ratepayers was transferred to ORS), Consumer Affairs saved SCE&G customers roughly $17 million annually going forward.
Clearly, the system was working, despite the view that Consumer Affairs was underfunded. Why shift the representation of ratepayers to a new, conflicted agency that doesn’t even work on paper – unless that was the point? According to the House and Senate journals, not a single lawmaker spoke in opposition to Act 175 at any point in the legislative process.
Scott was frank that the Base Load Review Act limited ORS’s power to oppose the rake hikes tied to construction of the V.C. Summer nuclear reactors. Add to that the conflicted mission from 2004’s Act 175 and you have a hamstrung agency.
So what’s the solution?
Move ratepayer advocacy back to the Department of Consumer Affairs. There is no need for a separate agency – the utilities and the Public Service Commission are fully capable of looking out for utilities’ financial health, and economic development shouldn’t even factor into these decisions.
In other words, it wasn’t broke. Now, unfix it.