Avista Corp. and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission brought legislation today to allow utilities to voluntarily provide assistance to struggling low-income customers, and seek approval from the PUC to adjust their rates to cover the cost. “The need is urgent - it’s real,” Neil Colwell, lobbyist for Avista, told senators this morning. As of last May, 16 percent of all utility customers in the state had past-due accounts, he said, and with the economic downturn, that’s likely worsened. Most states already have such programs, Colwell said; Avista operates them in Washington and Oregon. But Idaho’s law banning discrimination in utility rates prevents the firm from offering that type of assistance program here.
Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, was wary. “This looks like a back-door approach to an additional tax,” he said. “Let’s say the recession deepens, and pretty soon 20 percent of utility bills are not being paid.” Everyone else could see big increases, he said. But Colwell said, “When people fail to pay their bills and we write those off, those costs go into the … rates” right now. The idea with the new legislation is to prevent that from happening, to “help customers before they get in so deep they can’t pay.” In Washington and Oregon, he said, “It imposes a small cost on customer bills … generally, you’re talking pennies on the total bill.” The Senate State Affairs Committee then voted unanimously to introduce the bill, which means it can proceed to full hearings.