CHEYENNE — It's rare to see consumer group AARP and utility companies on the same side of a regulatory issue.
But that's what the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions saw Tuesday when it unanimously voted to recommend extending the life of the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate another decade.
"I can't say we always support what they do, but we support the function that they do," said Bruce Asay, a Cheyenne attorney representing Montana-Dakota Utilities Co.
The Office of Consumer Advocate provides expert witnesses and exhibits before the Wyoming Public Service Commission on behalf of all Wyoming ratepayers.
"We believe the function is necessary," Asay said.
"AARP strongly supports the bill," said Dale Cottam, a Cheyenne attorney representing the consumer advocate organization. "The function of the OCA is very important to Wyoming consumers."
Senate File 6 would extend the agency's sunset until 2023 and make the governor's appointment of a director contingent on Senate approval. Without renewal the agency disappears July 1.
SF 6 passed the Senate 25-5. It needs to pass three readings in the House to make its way to the governor's desk.
Diverse groups, including the Black Hills Corp., Rocky Mountain Power, the League of Women Voters, the Wyoming Outdoors Council, as well as the AARP and Montana-Dakota Utilities, supported the bill with no one speaking in opposition.
The committee also voted to support Senate File 37, which would allow the Public Service Commission to have a staff member represent consumer interests when the Office of Consumer Advocate is not involved in a case.
"The PSC can't do anything without a record," said Sen. Cale Case. The Republican from Lander chairs the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions.
The Senate voted 29-1 to pass SF 37, and it too must pass three readings in the House and be signed by the governor to become law.
Asay said that other states have dual ratepayer representatives.
"What we found is there is a lot of duplication and additional expense to the applicant and the commission," he said.
Jody Levin, a Cheyenne-based lobbyist representing Rocky Mountain Power, said the company has concerns about SF 37, as well. The company is worried about duplication and confusion should consumer representatives disagree with each other.
"Anything that adds additional support or another voice for consumers is good," Cottam said. So, AARP supports the bill.
PSC chairman Alan Minier said there is only one ratepayer advocate for each case.
"I don't mean that as a critique of OCA," Minier said. "I don't think it's necessary or helpful to make them appear for every case."
Some of PSC cases are routine or somewhat trivial, he said, yet a record is needed.
The agency has six employees, including the director, and its budget is $1.9 million for the two-year cycle of 2012-2014. The budget is supported by a tax on public utilities that consumers ultimately pay. The PSC had used its own staff before the agency was created by the legislature in 2003.
Bryce Freeman, the OCA administrator, said the agency does not support or oppose the legislation.
"I don't think there is anything in the bill that would be particularly problematic to the OCA," Freeman added.
"We look at all the cases that are filed with the commission, and we look at those to assess whether we need to be in the cases," he said. "And later the commission might find we need a complete record."
While the bills are moving through the legislature rather easily so far, Case said there are some who feel the agency should be eliminated and there are some who think its performance can improve.
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