You wouldn’t dare flout a court order, would you? But the Public Service Commission is doing so. The PSC Chairman says that–get this–the members don’t have the “legal authority” to obey the court order.
Say what? Picture a Jon Stewart deadpan. Right before he goes ballistic and screeches, “You don’t have the legal authority to ignore a court order. That’s what you don’t have the legal authority to do!”
A judge has directed the PSC to roll back the last rate increase it gave Ameren, and the commission members–three of the five are Democrats!–say, so sorry, but we really can’t.
The backstory is that Ameren just got its bazillionth rate increase in a row, but this time something unprecedented happened. Court decisions have never, ever, not once directed the PSC to roll back rates. In the past, court decisions have simply aimed to set precedents that might protect consumers in future rate hike cases. For once, though, a judge, Cole County Circuit Judge Paul Wilson, looked at a rate hike and said to the consumer advocates protesting it that they had not only got it right, but that they had got it so right that he was going to order a rollback of rates. And not just for the big industrial customers of Ameren but for ALL its customers. Obviously, Wilson knew Ameren would appeal his order, but he felt that until that appeal was ruled on, the rates should go back to their 2009 level.
The order was unambiguous. It said you shall suspend the rates now, not you might want to do it if you’re in the mood.
And yet PSC Chairman Kevin Gunn says the commission’s hands are tied. He insists that Lewis Mills, from the Office of Public Council, which represents ratepayers:
could have sought a court order directing the PSC to reduce rates before asking the commission to take action.
“They came to us when they should have been going to the upper courts.”
And furthermore, according to Kevin Gunn, Mills didn’t say “Simon says.”
A bit of speculation about why the PSC is stonewalling might be in order here. Ameren now has its bazillion and first rate case before the PSC, due to be ruled on sometime this summer, more than likely. And once that ruling is published, all previous rulings will be moot. That’s how it works. Perhaps the PSC is dragging its feet, then, because it doesn’t want to drop rates back to the 2009 level for a matter of weeks or months before raising them again higher than ever.
If the commission drags its feet, the consumer advocates will have no recourse except to file a write of mandamus in the Court of Appeals in Kansas City, asking the Court to enforce Judge Wilson’s ruling. But that will be time consuming. And expensive. The Office of Public Counsel is seriously underfunded–thus Ameren’s spectacular record of success at getting its rate hikes approved. (More on the topic of funding for the Office of Public Counsel in my next posting about Ameren.)
It’s the time consuming aspect, though, that is crucial in this case, because by the time the Appeals Court might issue a writ of mandamus, the next ruling on a rate hike would be only weeks away, and the PSC could delay a bit or expedite its ruling, thus making Judge Wilson’s order moot.
But maybe not entirely moot. At least the consumer advocates arguing this case could, and very well might, ask for a refund for all customers from February until the next ruling goes into effect. It would be a small victory, but a victory that might encourage the coalition of large industries like InBev and Noranda Aluminum, small businesses, and residential consumers represented by the Office of Public Counsel to continue banding together and putting up a united front in the fight against Ameren’s crusade to get ever richer.
All those groups opposing these constant rate increases should be making judges and the public aware that a for profit company that has been granted a monopoly does not, should not, have the right to gouge the consumers it is supposed to serve, especially not while we’re still roiled in the Great Recession. If Noranda Aluminum were to close its New Madrid plant because it can’t afford the huge amounts of power needed to run its factory, that would mean hundreds of jobs lost in one of the poorest areas of the state. And when those jobs are gone and those paychecks aren’t being spent, more jobs will be follow.
It’s wrong to the point of immoral for the PSC to grant upgrade after increase after hike to a corporation that is already making fat profits. The members of the commission might at least pretend they care about the state’s economy by not flouting the law.