When state Consumer Counsel Mary Healey sat down before the General Law Committee Tuesday she told them, “this is not the first time I’m preparing to defend my agency’s independence and its right to be the strong independent advocate the utility rate payers paid for.”
Healey said she was defending her agency from a bill to implement Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s recommendation that the Office of Consumer Counsel, among other agencies, be merged into the Department of Consumer Protection.
If adopted, she said the measure would not only consolidate the currently independent office under the executive branch, it would likely eliminate her job altogether. The office would then fall under the Consumer Protection Department Commissioner William M. Rubenstein.
During the hearing Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, described this process as “lopping the head off the agency” and then installing the commissioner as the head.
But Healey said that consolidation would render the agency unable to accomplish its own goals. As an independent appointment with a term of five years, the Consumer Counsel is somewhat insulated from political pressures, she said. In the past she said she has taken positions contrary to the wishes of the sitting governor. Under the new proposal, her agency would fall under the governor’s branch.
Placing the agency under the department would dilute its effectiveness as it would subject it to the broad mandates that apply to the entire department, she said.
But Kissel said it was also important to make sure the agency isn’t beholden to the entity it’s charged with being critical of.
“If you value your job you’re not going to buck what your boss wants—that’s just how it is,” he said.
But when he testified at the same hearing, Rubenstein downplayed concerns about conflicting interests under executive branch.
There are many instances when one agency will advocate against another inside the same branch, he said. For instance, if the Department of Public Works wanted to construct a new facility it would have to comply with the regulations set forth by the Department of Environmental Protection, he said. But the DEP is not compromised by its need to advocate against other agencies, he said.
“The political reality is there is not a fourth branch of government known as the Office of Consumer Counsel. So [that office] must and does have oversight to which it must be responsible on a policy basis,” he said.
When the office was created it was within the Public Utility Control commission, he said. It was moved because it seemed wrong to have the advocate and adjudicator within the same agency, he said.
However, it would still be separate from the Department of Public Utility Control, he said.
Healey, who is also the president of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, said there are only three other states that she knows of that have placed their consumer advocate agency under the executive branch.
“There’s an incredible amount of expertise that we go up against in utility companies. It’s like David and Goliath,” she said. “But we have the expertise in house and that’s necessary to go head to head with utility companies.”
Healey said she understands the governor’s position and would like to be part of the solution to the state’s fiscal troubles. But she also said she feels the agency is already part of that solution by advocating on behalf of utility ratepayers.
“I think by our advocacy and our results we are part of the solution. We are promoting economic development by trying to keep these rates down,” she said.
The Consumer Counsel has a dedicated revenue stream, so consolidating it under an executive department saves no funds, she said. Instead the move would likely result in higher electricity rates due to a drop in advocacy, she said. Connecticut already has the highest electric rates in the continental United States.
While other agencies have similar goals, Healey said there are a number of reasons the Consumer Counsel Office was a necessarily independent entity. For one, it has a specific right to appeal decisions in cases of utility rate changes written into its statutes, she said. It’s also the most aggressive advocacy agency specific to utility rate payers, she said.
“On a scale of one to 10, we’re a 10 in terms of aggressiveness for ratepayers and I am not a shrinking violet when it comes to issues I believe we need to take on to further the best interest of ratepayers ,” she told the committee.
Before leaving Healey said she and her staff were trying to prepare some guidelines for the legislature so if the agency must be consolidated, they would have an idea of how do it with the least amount of damage.
Following their testimonies, both Rubenstein and Healey left to meet and discuss the proposed changes.
“Look, it’s fair to say that we have a common mission and what we’re talking about is the best way to deliver that mission, which we’re both interested in doing in the most effective way. So we’re working through those issues,” Rubenstein said outside the hearing room.