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Utahns rally to save panel
Leavitt urged to veto bill axing consumer group

The Legislature gave, and now a dozen consumer advocacy groups hope Gov. Mike Leavitt will taketh away.

And so the receptionists who answer telephones in the governor's office are busy, logging feedback from callers who want the state's chief executive to use his powers to veto a number of bills, including a utility-driven piece of legislation critics say is sure to drive up rates for phones, heat and electricity."I've never worked this hard on anything since my beginning as a watchdog," said citizen activist Claire Geddes.

"I haven't stopped since the Legislature ended," Geddes said. "We've got to get this thing turned around."

And nearly a dozen groups agree: HB320, a bill spearheaded by natural gas utility Questar Corp. that does away with a state consumer committee, must be vetoed.

The League of Women Voters is involved, so are the American Association of Retired Persons, the Utah Catholic Diocese, a coalition of religious groups, Utah Community Action, the Coalition of Utah Independent Internet Service Providers, the NAACP, Utahns Against Hunger, Utah Issues, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Salt Lake Vest Pocket Business Coalition and the Crossroads Urban Center.

"This piece of garbage is so bad it almost automatically means we will see significant rate increases in all of our monopoly utilities," said Jeff Fox, utility analyst for the Crossroads Urban Center, who said he has never lobbied the governor to veto any piece of legislation.

Chad Jones, a spokesman for Questar, said the company would be surprised if the governor vetos the bill. "The legislature has taken action. We don't have a contingency plan for if he doesn't sign it," Jones said. "We expect him to sign it."

The bill is a wholesale gutting of the structure and function of the Committee of Consumer Services, he said. "It's a classic example of undue influence of lobbyists over the legislative process."

A hand-drawn tally sheet of "constituent calls" shows 67 people registered their wishes for the governor to veto HB320 by noon Wednesday, far above those who called in asking the governor to veto other bills.

By noon Wednesday, 44 people had called urging a veto of HB411, the "sex education" bill; 46 callers want a veto on HB103, which amends adoption policies within the child welfare law; and 27 people want a veto on HB176, which outlines weapons restrictions for the mentally ill. A handful of people called in on other bills.

Leavitt said Thursday he has 400 bills to address, about 350 of which are non-controversial, and he hasn't decided yet which ones to veto. That won't come until much later in the month, he said.

The bills are each screened by the governor's staff and state departments, and "problem" bills are set aside. He has identified some problem bills but doesn't want to highlight them now.

Leavitt does take calls into consideration but says his actions are not dictated by how many people call in. "If people call and give me a comment, yes, we record them. and those bills need to be reviewed."

Fox says Leavitt sends a powerful message if he ignores consumers' veto pleas. "This is one of the most anti-consumer pieces of legislation to pass his desk. It will serve as a test of his commitment to the people of Utah as opposed to the monopoly utilities."

Utility companies always give big to politicians.

In 1999, Questar's Better Government Committee gave $2,000 to Leavitt's political action groups. The committee gave $3,000 in 1998. Telecommunications companies contribute more. AT&T gave the governor $34,900 in 1999; Qwest, which is merging with US WEST, gave $13,500. PacifiCorp gave $17,000.

Advocates have also pointed out that Leavitt's father, Dixie Leavitt, is a member of Questar's board of directors. The governor said Thursday that will not affect his decision.

HB320, introduced by House Majority Whip Dave Ure in the session's final days, repealed the Committee of Consumer Services, which has direct input into rulings by the Public Service Commission about whether utility companies can raise their rates to consumers. The legislation also repealed the Division of Public Utilities.

Although the bill also sets firmer guidelines to which the PSC must adhere, much criticism centers on changes to the consumer committee established 23 years ago by statute to assess the impact of utility rate change on the average Utahn.

As it stands, the consumer services committee is independent of the PSC and evaluates each rate request solely from the perspective of how it will affect the group it defines as consumers: farmers, small businesses and residential users. Instead, the bill creates the Office of the Advocate, a hybrid Division of Public Utilities. In the new structure, the office may still weigh in on rate change requests but must factor consequences to both consumers and utilities. "We aren't talking about a small issue here. We're talking about essential life services. Things that affect peoples'people's daily lives -- their electricity, their heat and their phone bills," said Betsy Wolf, a consumer advocate and utility analyst.