With Moratorium on Utility Shutoffs Due to End, Lawmakers Seek Action From PSC

    More than 60 members of the General Assembly have written to the Maryland Public Service Commission, urging the PSC, which regulates utilities, to quickly study the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on consumers’ ability to pay their utility bills.

    In their letter, sent late last week, the lawmakers endorse a request from the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, which represents consumers in matters before the PSC, that the regulatory agency schedule an emergency proceeding to examine the economic impact of the pandemic.

    Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed an emergency order in the spring, preventing utility companies from disconnecting their customers for failing to pay their bills, but is due to end on Aug. 1.

    The language in the Office of People’s Counsel emergency request from June 26 is decidedly technical: “OPC requests that the Commission issue an order to require regulated utilities to (1) implement temporary credit and collection and service disconnection and reconnection policies to address the unprecedented economic fallout and job losses resulting from the COVID19 pandemic: and (2) submit monthly data reports to the Commission. OPC proposes that the Commission issue an order consistent with the policy and data collection requirements set forth in Exhibit 1 to this Petition, and with any regulatory waivers required of such action.”

    But even with the jargon, the lawmakers argue that there is an urgency to the Office of People’s Counsel request.

    “In these unprecedented times of incredible suffering, we must implement all policy tools that can support public health, ensure economic security, and provide some certainty to allay some of the many fears community members are experiencing,” the lawmakers — all Democrats — wrote. “The Executive Order prohibiting utility disconnections during the State of Emergency, ends on August 1. The financial and health emergency has not ended for too many Marylanders. While some of the financial support in terms of increased funding for energy assistance and increased pandemic unemployment is helpful, it is not enough. The OPC proposal extends the moratorium on utility disconnection, creates a transition grace period, requires the establishment of deferred payment arrangements, requires utilities to create temporary credit and collection procedures, waives reconnection fees, and requires data reporting to ensure that policy makers have a complete understanding of the community needs and utilities’ responses.”

    On the same day that lawmakers were writing to the PSC, the commission announced that it would host a two-day online conference in late August “to gauge the impact that COVID-19 has had on Maryland utility operations, consumer protections, service reliability and financial health.”

    In advance of the conference, which is to be held Aug. 27 and 28, the PSC posed a series of questions to the state’s electric and gas utilities in its hearing notice. The questions, according to the commission, “seek to probe the impacts that stay-at-home orders and the prohibition on shutoffs have had on energy usage, utility operations, reliability, and revenue. Of particular interest to the Commission are the policies and procedures the utilities have developed to handle increasing numbers of customers who are unable to pay utility bills and who may face disconnection of service when the moratorium is lifted.”

    Is a conference scheduled for late August too late to help consumers when the moratorium on shutoffs expires four weeks earlier?

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    Josh Kurtz
    Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.