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Watchdog group will go to bat for Utah consumers

Founders attack utilities bill and call for activism

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HB320 put some people over the edge.

Some say the sweeping utilities legislation was the most damaging to consumers in years, and a group of citizen activists has formed a new organization — Utah Legislative Watch — in hopes to prevent something like HB320 from happening again.

"We want to bring the public back into the system," said Claire Geddes, a consumer rights advocate formerly the head of Utah's United We Stand, a citizens' group started by 1992 presidential hopeful Ross Perot.

"We intend to be a very activist organization in regard to the citizen as consumers and as taxpayers — issues that affect people's pocketbook — not social issues," said Charles Johnson, a utilities consultant who is involved in Utah Legislative Watch. "We would like to believe we will have widespread support for the positions we take."

The group will target utilities and regulation concerns at first, Geddes said.

"HB320 was really the impetus for me deciding to do this," she said. "It really made a lot of us step back and notice the size of the void."

Geddes is speaking of the difference between the size of the consumer voice on Utah's Capitol Hill versus the formidable lobbying effort exerted primarily by Questar during last winter's legislative session.

"HB320 was so heavily lobbied," she said. "We have to bring more people into the process. People have left government. They don't trust it. They don't think it represents them."

If unchanged, HB320 will change the way utilities are regulated in Utah. Effective next summer, it will repeal the Committee of Consumer Services, the independent watchdog agency charged with looking out for the interests of residential, small-business and agricultural utilities users.

In its place will rise the controversial Office of the Advocate, a hybrid organization obliged to balance the interests of consumers and businesses in matters before the Public Service Commission — though HB320 enthusiasts point out the Office of the Advocate includes separate staff and budget provisions to ensure consumers are protected. Opponents maintain the new office gives undue weight to corporate interests, rendering small consumers powerless against rate hikes and declining quality of service.

The bill also further defines the way rate cases are adjudicated, forcing the PSC to consider projected data in its "test year" analysis. Historically, the PSC has decided rate cases based on a utility's performance in years past. HB320 requires the agency to include projected data, ostensibly to make rates more reflective of current market and business climates.

And, though HB320 preserves the requirement that rate hearings be open to the public, consumer groups have expressed concern about other provisions encouraging parties to reach informal "settlements," which process need not be open to public input.

Although Johnson, Geddes and representatives of many other groups testified against HB320, consumer advocates felt they were no match for more than 30 lobbyists.

"I thought it was the worst example of legislative action that I have seen this Legislature undertake," Johnson said.

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, acknowledged in May the legislation goes too far, and a legislative utilities committee has spent nearly all of its time since the session tangled in discussion of the issue.

Gov. Mike Leavitt allowed the bill to become law without his signature but did not veto the bill as some had hoped.

Leavitt also has come under criticism after reports that his father — former state Sen. Dixie Leavitt — sits on the board of Questar, the state's primary natural gas utility and main force behind the bill, and owns more than $600,000 worth of Questar stock. The governor said his father's assets had nothing to do with his decision on HB320.

"For the governor to sign it and say we'll fix it later was, I think, just stupid," Johnson said.

Geddes will lead the organization but will not be paid. The group will ask members for a $15 contribution. Students will get a discount. Utah Legislative Watch eventually will have a Web site where people can go for information and instructions.

"I think it's wonderful," Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, said of the new group. "The more people we have involved in the legislative process the better result we'll have with legislation and also with activities and the way we conduct ourselves."

Becker and Rep. Chad Bennion, R-Murray, both sit on the legislative utilities committee and fought against the bill. Bennion welcomes whatever benefit can come from the new group. He's not sure if the group would have made a difference with HB320. "It was such a well-lobbied effort, it would have been hard to facilitate change . . . but anything to generate momentum in the opposite direction — to bring a different perspective on the issue, is good," he said.

Lobbying groups like the Utah Eagle Forum have had great lobbying success with powerful e-mail networks to lawmakers and government officials. Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah Eagle Forum, has it easy, says Geddes. "She has hot-button issues. They are things people feel strongly about," Geddes said, referring to the Eagle Forum's strong stand on conservative social issues such as sex education, parental rights and birth control.

"We have complex issues that take more than two sentences to explain, so it will be important to have the Web site as a place for people to go."

Utah Legislative Watch will create a permanent, structured place for people to go to volunteer. It will foster activism and be a place for people to mentor others who want to get involved.

Johnson has watched Utah lawmakers for several years and says in many cases the Legislature has taken action the public would never support if it was aware of the ramifications. "It's difficult for people to follow what the Legislature does and keep tabs on things," he said. "We want to put together a membership group with enough participation to have enough people lobbying to make a difference."

Those interested in the new group can e-mail Johnson at: cjohnson@ieee.org.

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com