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Turner Bills Would Protect Low-Income Electric Customers in Texas

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

Fixed income and low-income families would benefit from three "customer protection" bills relating to electric use in Texas outlined today by Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston).

Turner's HB 554 relates to the System Benefit Fund, which was created by passage of SB 7 several sessions ago, and that restructured the electric industry in Texas and moved it toward a competitive marketplace.

Some of the provisions of SB 7 include discounts of from 10-20 percent on bills for low-income families, a three-year educational component with $12 million provided to educate residential and small business consumers regarding electric choice in a competitive marketplace and a provision to hold local property districts harmless if nuclear plants were devalued.

Turner said he would not have voted for SB 7 without the System Benefit Fund, adding that during the last legislative session, lawmakers "swept" the fund, which he said "has created a great deal of hardship on thousands of Texans."

Turner's HB 554 restores the System Benefit Fund in full, he said, including $185 million in funding. In 2003, he said, more than 700,000 households benefited from the fund, but because changes were made last session, that number dropped to approximately 500,000.

The Houston Democrat said it is "critically important" that the fund be restored. He noted that all weatherization projects are paid out of the System Benefit Fund, some $10.7 million in projects. His legislation would restore that funding with a goal of meeting the needs of at least 95 percent of those eligible for the funds.

Restoring the educational component of SB 7 is "critically important," said Turner, because there are not yet enough residential customers educated regarding electric choice, something he said is necessary for a "viable market."

Turner said he wants it to be clear that everyone in the legislative process understands that customers are paying money into the System Benefit Fund. He said the fund was "not intended to be a tax" to fund general appropriations projects, school finance, Medicaid, etc., but that it was intended to assist low-income customers. He said he is hopeful there will be enough support in the legislature to return the fund.

Because of the increasing number of electric disconnects during the summer months, Turner said he has filed HB 555, which would require retail electric providers to file a monthly report with the Public Utility Commission (PUC) regarding their customer disconnects. It also provides that the PUC then must make those reports readily available to give lawmakers some idea "of what's happening in the broader market." He said he would also like to see provisions that would prohibit disconnects if the temperature goes above a set high or below a set low temperature - with electric providers instead being required to work with customers to set up a payment play for them. The target of his proposal would be low-income families, said Turner.

Turner's final customer protection bill, HB 412, relates to credit scoring. He said most of what is being heard of late regarding credit scoring is in relation to the insurance industry. "It scares me to think we will be dealing with credit scoring on the electricity side," he said. "We need to nip that in the bud right now." The Houston lawmaker said it should be made clear to the PUC and the electric industry that credit scoring "is simply not going to be tolerated on the electricity side."

While insurance is important, said Turner, it is not a commodity one must have to live. He described other services that are similar but also are "not essential for survival."

Turner said that in Texas, electricity has always been considered an "essential commodity" and "a matter - literally - of life and death." He said he cannot imagine instituting a policy so that if someone's credit is not good relating to paying for a car or a credit card payment, they would be denied electricity.

"I want SB 7 to work," concluded Turner. "I voted for SB 7. I believe it was one of the better bills in the entire United States. But it has to be a win-win, not only for the industry, but it has to be a win-win for the customer as well." He said the legislation is not operating in the best interest of citizens "when if you can afford it you get it, and if you can't, you go without it."

Turner said he is not opposed to the industry making money, but added that he does not want to see someone denied electric service because they are not able to pay their house note or their credit card bill, but are paying their electric bill.