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Bill would give watchdog group a say on Ohio utility commission

State Rep. Laura Lanese (R-Grove City) during a House session on April 11, 2018.
Ohio House

Two of Ohio's Republican House of Representatives are sponsoring the effort to reform how the state appoints regulators to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. The bill follows investigations into the way regulators, lawmakers and utility companies engaged during the nuclear bailout scandal that took out former Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.

But, as the year begins to dwindle away, it's unclear if the bill will move forward before this session of the General Assembly comes to end in December.

House Bill 690 would allow the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel to nominate members to the commission overseeing utility rates in Ohio, the Public Utility Commission of Ohio, something that already occurs on the state’s board overseeing utility construction, the Ohio Power Siting Board, Rep. Laura Lanese (R-Grove City) said.

“One of the things that the attention surrounding House Bill 6 did was to shine a spotlight on how a lot of those costs can be contained with the right people making those decisions,” she said.

The goal of the bill Lanese introduced with Rep. Gayle Manning (R-North Ridgeville) is to start making changes that protect consumers in Ohio’s utility regulation process, Lanese said,

“It's fallout from (the nuclear bailout scandal), to make sure that we have an energy policy that is fair to consumers, as well as trying to make sure that we don't let what happened in House Bill 6 to happened again,” Lanese said.

The bill would require nominations from the OCC and require that at least one of those choices to be selected. Now, a nominating council makes recommendations to the governor, who appoints people to serve on the commission.

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel supports the bill. Mike Haugh is the director of analytical services for the counsel and is responsible for advocating for residential utility customers. He said this is something that they have asked for a say in the past.

“We think that the consumer representative should be considered for one of the seats,” Haugh said.

Plenty of commission members have had connections to the utility industry, so consumers should have a direct line, too, he said.

The PUCO declined to take a position on the legislation.

Lanese said this bill has support from a bipartisan swath of lawmakers, but there may not be enough time to see it passed before the General Assembly comes to an end in December. It was introduced in May just before the summer break and hasn’t moved out of committee.

But, Lanese said if she and her bi-partisan cohort of sponsors have their way, the bill would just be the start of reforms to utility regulation in Ohio following the nuclear bailout scandal which prompted federal and state investigations.

“I think it's a strong start, I think we have a long way to go before we can prevent situations like the bribery scandal. But I think this is a really good start to make sure that consumers do have a voice," Lanese said.

She introduced a billthat would fully repeal HB 6. Though lawmakers repealed the part of the bill connected to the nuclear bailout, elements granting coal subsidies and stalling alternative energy are still active

But House Bill 18 hasn’t moved since it was referred to committee a day after being introduced in February 2021. That was a reintroduction of a bill Lanese introduced in August 2020 that didn’t move past a referral to the Select Committee on Energy Policy and Oversight, though it had 20 cosponsors and several committee hearings.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.