clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Debate on utility reform bill ends abruptly with its repeal

Activists said it would have hurt consumers' voice

Lawmakers passed HB320 on the final day of the 2000 legislative session, but the debate over the controversial utility reform bill waged on for nearly a year and was expected to continue this session.

But in the middle of the session's second week — poof! — it was repealed by both houses within three hours. The repeal subsequently was signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Consumer advocates had said HB320, which would have become effective this summer, would have diminished the consumer voice in utility rate cases being considered by the Public Service Commission. Utilities, primarily Questar Corp., said the bill eliminated duplication and an adversarial atmosphere in rate cases.

HB320's sponsor, House Majority Whip David Ure, R-Kamas, quickly became the target of consumer advocates. He abandoned his efforts to fix HB320 in January when he floated the draft of new legislation, only to find that consumer groups hated that document even more than HB320.

In emotional remarks in the House, Ure called for HB320's repeal.

House colleagues adamantly defended Ure and his efforts to reform the regulatory system. They also joined Ure in blaming HB320 critics and a willing media in their attempts to tie HB320 to higher gas and electricity bills, Questar Corp.'s rising stock prices, and troubles other states have faced with electrical deregulation. The fact was, they said, that HB320 never went into effect.

The consumer advocates hailed the repeal, and Questar Gas President and Chief Executive Officer D.N. "Nick" Rose criticized "continual misstatements and misrepresentations from groups and individuals motivated by personal and political agendas, and dutifully reported by the news media."

Rose said any streamlining of government and bureaucracy would be a task that "falls to someone else." Ure later said he would not be the point man for future regulatory reform legislation.

HB320 had been troublesome for politicians from the moment consumer groups became aware of its passage.

HB320 called for the merging of the Committee of Consumer Services with the Division of Public Utilities into a new Office of Public Advocate. But critics decried both the bill's substance and Questar attorneys' involvement in writing it.

Leavitt also drew fire when he let the bill become law without his signature. Opponents wondered if the governor had a conflict of interest because his father, former state Sen. Dixie Leavitt, is a stockholder and member of the board of directors of Questar Corp.

The governor, however, said he knew the bill was flawed and called on lawmakers to rework it. But months of legislative task force meetings produced no agreement on how to do it.

With no replacement legislation on hand, Leavitt threatened before this year's session to call a special session this year to get HB320 fixed.

Ure tried. He floated a draft that would have kept the Committee of Consumer Services intact but combined the Public Service Commission with the Division of Public Utilities. Consumer groups still weren't satisfied. They said the draft's provision of adding two new members to the commission could result in that organization being stacked with pro-utility members.

That's when Ure relented.


E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com