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Does the PUC protect consumers or companies? - abc27 WHTM

Does the PUC protect consumers or companies?

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

Electric prices spiked this winter and thousands of customers complained.

The Public Utility Commission was thrust into the center of the storm and many abc27 viewers suggested the PUC wasn't doing enough to reign in unscrupulous companies. They wonder if the PUC is on the customer's side or the companies' side?

Pamela Witmer is one of five PUC commissioners, so we posed the question to her: is the PUC pro-consumer or pro-company?

She mostly rejected the premise.

"We're on nobody's side," Witmer said. "We're making sure the laws that are passed by the General Assembly and the rules that we have in place are enforced."

But the law was not written to the benefit of average electric customers, says Michael Schnierle, an administrative law judge with the PUC from 1987 to 2004.

"The law favors the utilities primarily because you don't want them to go bankrupt," Schnierle explained. "If a utility doesn't have enough money to render service, everybody loses out."

But lots of Pennsylvanians lost out this winter when their electric bills doubled, tripled, even quadrupled.

A Cumberland County policeman's bill is typically $400 a month. It skyrocketed to $1,200 in February.

"I was in shock," he said. "My wife cried for a day. There's no way we can afford that."

Early on, the PUC got wind that prices on the spot market were soaring and did issue a news release warning variable-rate customers about the coming spike. But it also reiterated that customers needed to do their homework before signing variable-rate contracts.

"Because it is variable, that means it can change at any time," PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher explained as the first complaints trickled in.

The PUC also repeatedly stressed it can only do so much legally and it's helpless when it comes to electric bills.

"We do not control competitive pricing. That is not an area where the commission has regulatory responsibility or authority," PUC vice chairman John Coleman said as complaint calls continued to mount.

And the complaints from customers who felt ripped off kept coming; thousands upon thousands of them. Lawmakers got them, too, and they made their displeasure known to the PUC in a series of public hearings.

"These people are sharks in the state of Pennsylvania," screamed Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre).

"We've got to do something," insisted Rep. Bob Godshall (R-Montgomery).

The PUC's public tone changed dramatically."We feel their pain," PUC Chairman Robert Powelson said at a public hearing to customers who got stung. "We recognize we have to do more."

And the PUC did more, and, by government agency standards, did it quickly.

It changed PaPowerSwitch.com, its website, by color coding fixed-rate and variable-rate offerings so customers could clearly see the difference as they shopped.

It ordered all variable-rate contracts to be plainly worded, with no important terms and conditions hidden in the fine-print.

It's proposed, to the chagrin of electric companies, that customers be able to switch out of what they deem as bad contracts in three-to-five days instead of the current 30-day switching period.

It's also investigating companies' marketing practices and talking tough if it finds egregious wrongdoing.

"We will revoke a license," Powelson has promised repeatedly in the past two months, though there has been no disciplinary actions to date against electric suppliers.

There have also been apologies in the PUC's public meetings.

"We can share some of the blame and we're trying to fix some things that perhaps should have been done earlier," Commissioner Jim Cawley conceded.

"My joke is that PUC stands for protecting utilities from consumers," laughed Dave DeKok, a reporter who covered the PUC during the deregulation years for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

"If you look at why the PUC was established back in the 1930's, it was to protect consumers from rapacious monopoly electric companies that were very bad actors," DeKok said.

DeKok concedes the PUC reacted quickly and properly to spiking electric bills this winter, but says in general its attitude is hands-off, which can lead to customers getting ripped off.

"The PUC might say, 'we no longer have the authority to do what you want us to do.' If that's true, then the legislature needs to come in and fix it so they can go after these guys," he said.

But that's a legislative debate. The fact is, the PUC is legally limited in what it can do.

Schnierle suspects that's intentional; that utilities successfully lobbied to have the PUC's powers reduced during the rewrite of the law for electric de-regulation.

"I think they (PUC) don't advocate enough for the average consumer, but I don't think there's anything they can do under the law right now that they're not doing," he said.

Witmer admits it's a difficult balancing act of often competing interests.

"We walk a very tight rope," she said. "We walk down the middle of the line. Our best day is when generally both sides are unhappy with us."

DeKok is unhappy with that answer and he reminds the PUC about the first word in its name.

"I don't think they ever figured out that protecting the public is what the public thought they were there for," he said.

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