Eric Davis: Not a fair shake for Vermont ratepayers
The Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is currently considering a rate increase request from Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest electric utility.
Last week, the PUC posted on its website an anonymous letter claiming that “the Department of Public Service, under Commissioner June Tierney, serves the interests of Green Mountain Power and not the public. The Department’s participation in GMP’s recent rate case was a sham.” The letter, which appears to have been written by someone inside DPS, provided a detailed list of the ways in which the Department of Public Service did not undertake an independent review of GMP’s proposed rate increase.
The letter also claimed that Brian Winn, the director of finance and economics at DPS, frequently disagreed with Commissioner Tierney’s approach to the GMP rate case, and was dismissed from state service after he testified before the PUC on the GMP case. Winn told Vermont Public Radio that he “can confirm most of the allegations” in the letter, and that he would provide a detailed response in the form of a public comment to the PUC, which will be posted on the PUC’s website.
The anonymous letter also noted that Elizabeth Miller, a former Shumlin Administration official who served as both the governor’s chief of staff and as commissioner of Public Service, is an attorney representing GMP in the rate case.
This is not the first time GMP and other Vermont utilities have hired former state officials as staff, attorneys or lobbyists. Neale Lunderville, who worked in the governor’s office under both Jim Douglas and Peter Shumlin, served on the staff of GMP, and then as general manager of the Burlington Electric Department, after leaving state government. Former Democratic legislators Robert Dostis and Lucy Leriche both worked for GMP after leaving the Vermont House.
During both the Douglas and the Shumlin administrations, the Department of Public Service was criticized for being too close to the utility companies. For many years, Montpelier observers have said that the revolving door spins too quickly among the DPS, the governor’s office, the Legislature and the utilities.
Because this issue continues to recur, the Legislature should take a close look at the administrative structure for representing the consumer and public interest in utility rate cases. Vermont is the only one of the six New England states in which the responsibility of representing the public interest is given to a department in the executive branch, headed by a commissioner who is appointed by and responsible to the governor.
In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Attorney General’s office is responsible for representing the public when utilities file requests for rate increases. In both of those states, as in Vermont, the Attorney General is a separately elected official, independent of the governor.
A better structure is that used in Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire. In these three states, an independent office of the public advocate is responsible for representing the public and consumer interest before utility regulators. The director of the public advocacy office is appointed by the governor, but for a fixed term that overlaps any one governor’s term. Additionally, the director of public advocacy can only be removed from office for cause, not at the governor’s discretion.
Under the structures in the five other New England states, the state public service or energy department is responsible for energy policy and planning, and for considering how energy policy intersects with state attempts to control climate change. These responsibilities do entail working closely with the electric utility companies.
In these five states, and many others, the representation of the public interest in rate cases is in the hands of another department of state government, one that has a more arms-length relationship with the utilities. Vermont should do the same.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.