Some senators resisted a bill that could change the way the state sets Duke Energy’s rates, seeing it as a path to higher electricity bills for customers.
“I see this as a green light to raise rates,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican. “Something doesn’t smell right.” He asked for changes to Senate Bill 559, which he did not get.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill in a split vote Tuesday. Next is a vote of the full Senate.
The proposal will allow the state Utilities Commission to set rates in five year blocks, rather than year by year.
In a phone call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat and one of the bill’s main sponsors, said it will allow the Utilities Commission to do its work more efficiently while retaining the ability to protect the public interest and hold companies accountable.
“It does not raise rates,” Blue said of the bill. “It does not give sole benefit to Duke Energy. If you take Duke Energy out of the equation, you probably wouldn’t have this discussion. Duke Energy may be controversial. The concepts in this bill are not controversial at all.”
Environmental groups Appalachian Voices and NC WARN focused criticism on Blue with full-page newspaper ads in the News & Observer on Sunday and Tuesday.
The bill’s opponents, which include manufacturers in the state, some of its largest employers, and environmental and consumer advocacy groups, say the proposal is a way for the company to pad its profits. Duke Energy says the change will help improve planning.
“From Duke Energy’s perspective, we believe this entire bill is good for North Carolina,” said Bo Somers, the company’s deputy general counsel.
A lobbyist for GlaxoSmithKline, which appeared as a signatory on a letter delivered to senators Monday objecting to the bill, told the committee the company did not have a position on it. The president of the N.C. Manufacturers Alliance, Preston Howard, said GSK ended up on the letter as a result of miscommunication between the company and the Manufacturers Alliance.
Members of the public did have opinions, and none were positive. They said senators were putting Duke Energy’s interests over those of consumers.
Coal ash from the company’s ponds has damaged communities, said Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition. “The last thing these communities want is for this company to have greater authority over North Carolina citizens than they already have,” said Jones, a Goldsboro resident.
“Who are your constituents?” he added. “Are they the people who duly elected this body? Clearly, they did not elect you to represent Duke Energy.”
Blue, head of a family law firm in Raleigh, said in the afternoon phone call that one of his sons is working on condemnation cases for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Duke Energy is a partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline company.
Blue said he does not get a financial benefit from Duke Energy.
“Duke has not hired my firm,” he said. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a separate legal entity. Duke may be a shareholder. That does not mean I get some direct benefit from it.”