Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Barely anyone had the energy to debate a 79-page Senate bill early this morning that overhauls public utility regulation in the state, but that’s what they did for about 40 minutes before unanimously sending it to the House.

“Boy there’s a lot of parts to this,” Sen. Norm Needleman, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, said as he tried to summarize the bill.

The bill seeks to enhance the role of Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) Commissioner Marissa Gillett and gives her the ability to adopt a more aggressive approach toward regulated utilities.

Under the reorganization outlined in the bill, Senate Bill 7, the governor is authorized to appoint the chair, which is currently Gillett, every two years. It also gives the chair more power and allows them to assign a case to a commissioner who could be the sole decision maker on rates that impact a large number of ratepayers in the state.

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“This process could have a single commissioner decide that,” Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said. “No law should be made on personality. No law should be made based on the inclination of a particular commissioner that you might agree with today.”

He said the bill was a “dangerous road to go down.” 

“This is not in the interest of Connecticut ratepayers and not in the interest of our state,” Fonfara added, even though he voted for the bill.

The bill comes at a critical juncture on the heels of a Superior Court judge’s decision that indefinitely blocked PURA’s enforcement of a rate cut for customers of the Aquarion Water Company, which is owned by Eversource.

The decision sparked concern among Wall Street analysts and resulted in a downgrade of Aquarion’s credit outlook from stable to negative by Moody’s, based on a more challenging, less credit-supportive regulatory environment. As of Friday, the judge had stayed the decision while the utility appeals, concluding “that the risk of harmful rating stock to Aquarion customers would be too great if the court were to fail to grant a stay.”

The legislation also says any lobbying or marketing costs should be borne by shareholders and not ratepayers, which was part of the reason for the Aquarion rate reduction case.

Needleman said the bill “ties regulations to the quality of service providers give their customers, keeping them honest. It closes loopholes that will prevent companies from charging ratepayers for lobbying. It provides consumers with new resources to make their voices heard during rate hearings.”

“I just feel and I’ve felt for a long time, that the ratepayers of the state of Connecticut deserve the best value that they can get for their money,” Needleman said. 

The fate of the bill in the House remains uncertain, as some members feel they were left out of negotiations on the bill. 

The approved bill is seen as an extension of the Take Back Our Grid Act passed after Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020. That legislation mandated PURA to develop performance-based regulation linked to specific goals and metrics, rather than service provision costs.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, noted that more steps are needed to build on the act’s progress. A bipartisan amendment sponsored by 33 of the 36 senators was added to the bill, endorsing Gillett’s preference for comprehensive rate cases over settlements.

Senate President Martin Looney commended Needleman for his bipartisan efforts to fortify the state’s energy interests.