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Bill would give utility customers the power to appeal

“You can’t fight city hall,” goes the old adage. But, in Minnesota, you can’t fight your public utilities, either.

That’s the reason Rep. Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids) sponsors HF393, a bill that, as amended, would create a procedure to resolve disputes between public utilities and residential customers.

On Tuesday, the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee approved and re-referred the bill to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.

Under current state law, when a utility determines that a customer’s heat or power should be turned off, the customer is left with few alternatives. According to Ron Elwood, supervising attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Minnesota is the only state in which a utility customer has no path to appeal an informal determination by the Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Affairs Office, unless they can get 49 other customers to join them in the same complaint.

“A strange confluence of current statute and rule essentially creates an impenetrable barrier,” Elwood said. “The rules and law currently conspire against any consumer being able to bring that matter before the commission.”

For those disputing a decision their utility has made, the bill would bring about a complaint resolution procedure, a process for appealing the outcome of their complaint to the Public Utilities Commission, and a mechanism for seeking judicial review of the commission’s process. Elwood assured committee members this would not result in floods of complaints coming to the commission.

“Forty-nine states have exactly the same statute,” he said. “None of them has ever had any problems with an overwhelming group of people storming the gates.”

Elwood said the state’s utilities and the Public Utilities Commission are comfortable with the bill. Attorney General Keith Ellison also wrote a letter of support.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) asked if passage of the bill would have any effect on utility rates charged to customers. Elwood said it would not.

“We are the only state in the country that lacks this avenue for consumers,” Stephenson said. “I think Minnesota’s exceptional, but I don’t think we want to be exceptional for this reason.”

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