Rep. Jonathan Steinberg Credit: Hugh McQuaid photo

“Accountability, transparency, value. This is what SB 7 is all about,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg said when introducing a controversial proposal to change how utilities are regulated. 

He said after each storm Connecticut ratepayers are outraged about extended outages and “we expect our utilities to take care of us. Every time there’s an inherent fallacy, weakness.”

“Our utilities are owned by profit-making, multi-state corporations, which are beholden to shareholders” Steinberg said.

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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.

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. More than a week ago, 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.

“By holding the utilities accountable, a shift in the regulatory paradigm,” Steinberg said. “Providing PURA with the tools it needs to enhance this regime.” 

Rep. Bill Buckbee pointed out that there’s nothing in the bill that will help immediately lower the cost of energy. 

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-Groton, said this may create more transparency and accountability, but is it actually going to lower people’s energy bills? She said there are good elements but a bill that creates a more difficult government bureaucracy won’t lower rates. 

The bill eventually passed 115 to 33 with bipartisan support and is headed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk.