In the news

The News & Record
By
Mark Binker

Even as issues of energy supplies and conservation have gained national and international importance, a legislative oversight committee responsible for keeping watch over the state’s utility regulators and power companies has met just once during the past six years.

The Joint Legislative Utility Review Committee has been dormant even as the state has enacted new and sometimes controversial laws to encourage conservation and new energy technologies.

Although the committee’s mission may be more important now than when it was formed in 1985, advocates and other legislators complain its co-chairmen have passed on exercising their oversight powers. And, they note, both chairmen are beneficiaries of campaign donations from the power industry and one of them now works for a power cooperative.

“There’s never been a more important time to be thoughtful about energy policy,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison , a Greensboro Democrat and one of the panel’s 10 members. “This committee is precisely situated to engage in that kind of discussion and oversight, and it’s very frustrating to me we’re not engaging in that.”

Aside from an April meeting when committee members looked at a dispute between Time Warner Cable and the NFL Network — ultimately deciding the state had no jurisdiction in the matter — legislative records show the last meeting of the Joint Legislative Utility Review Committee was in March of 2002.

The panel’s co-chairmen, who are responsible for calling meetings, say their mission is unclear and that there’s been no urgency to meet.

“I guess we’re there in case we are needed, if there’s an issue that comes up with the utilities,” said Sen. David Hoyle , who has co-chaired the group for the past six years with former Rep. Drew Saunders.

When pressed as to whether the committee should be meeting, Hoyle said that would be up to the two top leaders of the legislature, not him.

“Let me put it this way,” Hoyle said. “I don’t care. I’ve got plenty of other duties.” Hoyle is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and vice chairman of the Commerce Committee.

The statute that creates the committee gives it a list of eight specific assignments, including making sure regulators are acting in the public interest and tracking efforts “of the utility companies to encourage the conservation of energy.” The law also empowers the committee to meet any time regardless of whether the General Assembly is in or out of session and allows it to tap the legislature’s subpoena powers.

Nobody has alleged anything has gone awry as a result of the committee’s lack of oversight. And companies that fall under the committee’s purview say North Carolina has a robust regulatory system that is working well.

“We all benefit from the fact that this is already a very public process already,” said Duke Power spokeswoman Paige Sheehan.

That said, she added, “Duke is happy to work in whatever regulatory framework is deemed best. We already work on a regular basis with members of the General Assembly.”

The committee is also supposed to check in on the activities of the Utilities Commission’s Public Staff, a group of publicly funded workers who are supposed to advocate on behalf of those who pay utility rates.

Robert Grubar , the longtime leader of the public staff, said his agency provides regular reports to the General Assembly, although he couldn’t say whether anyone read them. He added that his work had not been hampered by not hearing from the committee.

Still, advocates such as Shana Becker , a lawyer who works for the N.C. Public Interest Research Group, say the committee could be looking for ways to improve energy-efficiency efforts at the same time it keeps watch over Grubar and the five utilities commissioners, all of whom are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature.

“It’s important to know where the checks and balance are, but that’s not clear,” Becker said. She notes that the only way commission decisions are ever reviewed is if they’re appealed to court, a costly and time-consuming process.

Legislators and advocates interviewed for this story noted that both Hoyle and Saunders had reputations as some of the General Assembly’s more business-friendly members. And Hoyle and Saunders received numerous campaign donations from Duke Power, Progress Energy and other utility providers in recent election cycles, although those contributions were not out of line with those given by other corporate interests.

Hoyle, for example, received $54,400 from political action committees associated with Duke Power, Progress Energy and Electricities since 2002, according to State Board of Election Records. That does not include contributions from executives of those companies or other utility interests.

Also notable: Saunders left his post in the legislature this fall to take a job with Electricities, an umbrella group for the state’s city-owned electric utilities and one of the groups the committee is responsible for overseeing. His current job, Saunders said, entails building up Electricities’ political action committee.

When asked whether citizens should be troubled by his switch in role from oversight chairman to employee of the industry, Saunders said, “I really don’t think so. I really don’t see a conflict there at all. Even being co-chair, I was still a customer of Electricities.”

Saunders said he had a long affiliation with the group, including a stint as mayor of Huntersville, whose residents are Electricities customers.

Still, it’s natural for lawmakers’ connections to donors and employers to raise questions, said Damon Circosta , director of policy for the N.C. Center for Voter Education. He could not speak to the particulars of Saunders’ or Hoyle’s cases but said the public can be skeptical when politicians raise money from those they are supposed to regulate.

“There’s always going to be this perception and these kinds of questions when you have money going to politicians tasked with overseeing any industry,” Circosta said.

According to legislative staffers, lawmakers originally created the committee in response to the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s.

The law making the committee permanent passed in 1985 when deregulation of the state’s utilities was a hot topic. In the 1990s, telecommunications occupied much of the committee’s work. Records show it met regularly up until March 2002.

“There’s no good reason why the utilities review committee is not meeting,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat and a House Finance chairman. Committees, he said, don’t just take their lead from the House speaker or Senate president pro tempore. Rather, he said, it’s up to the chairmen to make them work.

“I would prefer that committee be more active,” said House Speaker Joe Hackney. He said he has been trying to “elevate” issues surrounding energy and noted he would be able to appoint a new chairman in January or February.

The House speaker and Senate president pro tempore reappoint chairmen and members of committees at the beginning of every legislative session.

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