Whitesburg KY

The fight for fair power rates

For most of us, the first thing we consider when buying something is the price. If it’s too high, we keep searching, or we do without.

That process works well for most things — from groceries to our houses and vehicles — but it breaks down when we need something and only one company sells it. In those cases, it is vital that we have rules in place so that the monopoly does not take unfair advantage of its customers.

There’s no better example of that here at home than electricity. Unfortunately, the rate increases we’ve endured in recent years show that the rules now in place are not enough.

That’s why Representative Chris Harris, Attorney General Andy Beshear and many others have joined with me to try to make needed changes. All we are asking for is to add just one more word to the list of things the Public Service Commission considers when deciding whether to approve a rate increase: Affordability.

Based on the debate last week in the Kentucky House of Representatives, you would think we were asking for the moon. It didn’t seem to matter that our region’s electrical rates are much higher than the rest of the state, or that American Electric Power’s stock price has risen more than 60 percent during the past five years alone. We proudly say coal keeps the lights on, but if this situation doesn’t improve soon, far too many of us are going to be left in the cold and dark.

What made the Kentucky House’s lack of action last week on this important issue even worse is that, only a day later, it couldn’t wait to pass another bill that will give electric companies much more authority over who benefits from solar energy. Assuming this becomes law, what has been a quite-literal bright spot for many trying to lower their electric bills will become a lot dimmer.

This “net metering” bill, as it’s called, did away with a compromise that the House had tentatively reached earlier in the legislative session. Because of that, future residential customers will now face much longer times to recoup what they pay for their rooftop panels. Instead of getting full credit for their excess energy, they will now get much less, meaning fewer people will buy the panels in the first place.

There is hope that the recently announced solar farm for Pike County will help keep solar energy afloat here, but it would have been even better if the “net metering” bill had failed.

As challenging as last week was on energy matters, there was some good news to come out of what was an extremely busy four days.

The most consequential is the restoration of tax exemptions that our nonprofit organizations had lost over the past year. Part of that was due to a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling, and part was because of unintended consequences in last year’s tax overhaul, which I opposed because it raised taxes on most working families while giving hundreds of millions of dollars to large corporations.

The nonprofit tax fix means these organizations will be able to dedicate more funds to their local causes, as it should be.

Also in the same tax bill was some financial relief for low-income families negatively affected by last year’s tax changes. Those who do such things as mow lawns on the side will no longer have to collect sales tax, either, as long as they earn a relatively little amount.

In other good news, teachers appear to be successful in blocking two bills they and many of us in the legislature opposed. The first would have greatly reduced teachers’ ability to nominate seven of the 11 members governing the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, which is one of the bestrun systems of its size in the country. The second could have cost the state $25 million in tax credits to help students whose families otherwise could not afford private school tuition. At a time when public and postsecondary schools are underfunded, we do not have and should not use state resources to also help private schools.

There were many other significant bills — both good and worrisome — to clear the General Assembly this year, and I will cover more of those next week. Legislators will return to the Capitol on March 28 for one final day, which will be dedicated to considering any vetoes the governor might issue.

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