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Consumer office will likely die

Some 18 consumer and small-business advocates met with Gov. Mike Leavitt and came away convinced he would sign a bill that would disband a state office that represents consumers in utility rate cases.

The advocates met with Leavitt on Friday to urge him to veto the bill that would eliminate the Committee of Consumer Services, which advocates say blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges to ratepayers in the last decade."When he signs, it will let everyone know he sides with the utilities and his own family's interest against Utah consumers," said Claire Geddes, an independent utilities watchdog.

HB320 was primarily drafted by Questar Corp. whose subsidiary, Questar Gas, provides most Utah residents with natural gas.

Questar pushed the bill through the Legislature after the consumer committee opposed its plan to have Utah ratepayers pay more than $7 million for a natural gas processing plant near Price.

Leavitt's father, Dixie Leavitt, is on Questar's board of directors and owns company stock worth about $1 million.

In addition to eliminating the Committee of Consumer Services, the bill "represents a wholesale restructuring of utility regulation in the state," said Jeff Fox, a utilities analyst for the Crossroads Urban Center.

Utility lobbyists and legislators who backed the bill contend the current utility regulatory system is too adversarial and slow-moving to accommodate the fast-changing marketplace.

Leavitt, who told the advocates he will "probably" sign the bill, noted that the changes would not go into effect until mid-2001, after the next legislative session, which allows continued debate on the merits of the legislation.