Politics & Government

Effort to allow three-year electric rate hikes clears NC Senate

Charlotte-based Duke Energy is backing legislation that would allow electric utilities to seek approval for up to three years of rate changes.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy is backing legislation that would allow electric utilities to seek approval for up to three years of rate changes.

Lawmakers have revived a controversial plan to change how electric rates are set, despite efforts in the House this summer to study the proposal instead.

The House and Senate had disagreed over Senate Bill 559, which is backed by Duke Energy and would allow utilities like Duke to request up to three years of rate hikes at once rather than seeking approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission more frequently, typically once a year.

The House had watered down the measure, calling for a study of the idea first, but the Senate disagreed, and key leaders from the two chambers have been negotiating a compromise since late August.

The compromise that emerged Wednesday afternoon — and was approved in the Senate minutes later — scraps the study and restores the multiyear rate hike option.

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick and sponsor of the bill, said the final version includes “safeguards” to address complaints that the measure might harm consumers. He said the approval process for multiyear rate hikes would include more opportunities for stakeholder groups to weigh in, and the Utilities Commission would hold public hearings.

The bill calls for the commission to “impose any or all conditions for approval ... to ensure that rates are just and reasonable, and are in the public interest, including periodic reviews to be held during the period that a multiyear rate plan may be in effect, with opportunities for public hearings during such periodic reviews.”

“We’ve done everything we could since last May to calm the waters and ease that” concern, Rabon said.

But several Democrats said that even with the revisions, the proposal could still prove harmful to consumers. “The changes that we’ve heard about today are a lot of window-dressing,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham.

The bill passed the Senate in a 26-16 vote Wednesday afternoon. Five Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, voted yes, while two Republicans — Sens. Rick Horner, R-Nash, and Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan — joined with the majority of Democrats in voting no.

The House is expected to vote on the compromise version when it returns to Raleigh next week. It’s unclear whether Gov. Roy Cooper will sign the measure. Asked if the governor supports the latest proposal, a Cooper spokesman would only say that he will review the bill.

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