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3/7/2022 Providence legislators introduce bills to protect low-income utility ratepayers
STATE HOUSE – Providence representatives David Morales, Scott A. Slater and John J. Lombardi are sponsoring several bills focused on protecting utility customers from unaffordable rates.

The bills limit utility rate increases, create a program that would limit utility rates based on household income and extend the winter shutoff moratorium.

“Rising utility rates are a serious threat to the lives and health of many Rhode Islanders. Every year, utility rates, between natural gas and electricity, are rapidly increasing, forcing many of our working families to financially struggle, fall being on their utility bills, and experience the stress of possibly having their utility services terminated,” said Representative Morales (D-Dist. 7, Providence). “Whether it is National Grid or the PPL Corporation, the entities that oversee our public utility system have the responsibility of providing the public with affordable services. Similar to the basic amenities of food, shelter, and water, utility services are a human right that all Rhode Islanders, regardless of their socioeconomic status, deserve. Therefore, we need to pass legislation that protects working people and ensures access to heat and electricity.”

Representative Morales is sponsoring legislation (2022-H 7529), cosponsored by Representatives Slater and Lombardi, to limit rate increases by natural gas distribution companies to either 5.5% annually or w, whichever is less. Representative Lombardi is sponsoring a similar bill (2022-H 7015), cosponsored by Representative Morales, imposing the same limits on electric utilities. Both bills include a provision that would require General Assembly approval for any higher increase.

“With the recent decision by the Public Utilities Commission to approve the sale of National Grid’s Rhode Island electric and natural gas operations to Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp. — which is being appealed by Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, and is on hold due to a stay imposed on a related decision­­­ in Massachusetts ­— it is more important than ever to establish strong protections for Rhode Island ratepayers,” said Representative Lombardi (D-Dist. 8, Providence). “Ratepayers, particularly low-income families, just cannot absorb steep utility rate increases year after year. This bill sets an upper limit on how far the rates can go at any one time, to prevent them from growing significantly faster than family incomes.”

Representative Slater is sponsoring legislation (2022-H 7530), cosponsored by Representative Morales, to establish an income-sensitive tiered subsidy program to ensure that home energy utility costs are affordable for eligible low-income households. Known as a “percentage of income payment program” (PIPP), the bill would apply to electric and natural gas utilities serving more than 100,000 customers. It would allow those whose household income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level and who are eligible to receive assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) or are enrolled in Medicaid, to pay a discounted rate based on their income levels, regardless of whether the utility has proposed such rates. The rate would be capped at 3% of the customer’s income for electricity or gas, or 6% on electricity if it is the customer’s primary source of heat.

“The issue of utility affordability goes hand in hand with our affordable housing crisis here in Rhode Island. It is a basic cost of living whose rising rates have significantly outpaced income growth, particularly for people at the low end of the income range. Our state needs stronger protections for low-income ratepayers because utilities are a necessity, not a luxury,” said Representative Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence).

The George Wiley Center, a grassroots agency focused on advocating for ratepayers, supports all four utility protection bills.

“Rhode Island needs to urgently implement solutions that improve access and affordability for utilities. Combined with the increasing instability in energy markets along with the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment, inequality, and illness, our communities are struggling to afford basic utilities. Through the passage of these concrete lifesaving policies, we will reduce the costs to taxpayers and ratepayers who for too long have been forced to pay for the social consequences of unfair utility terminations. Unfair utility terminations drive up costs to taxpayers when children are separated from parents, when seniors are prematurely pushed into nursing homes, when people are pushed onto the streets, or when people resort to emergency rooms because utility services have been shut off. Now is the time we reduce the burden of utility costs on working people,” said Camilo Viveiros, Executive Director of the George Wiley Center.

The final bill (2022-H 7476), sponsored by Representative Morales, would extend the winter utility shutoff moratorium from April 15 to May 1 each year to provide greater protection against the cold for struggling households. The bill includes a provision protecting any extension granted as a result of the COVID-19 emergency.

Three of the bills, 2022-H 7529, 2022-H 7476 and 2022-H 7530, will be heard by the House Corporations Committee tomorrow, Tuesday, March 8, at the rise of the House session (sometime after 4:30 p.m.) in Room 101 on the first floor of the State House. 

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923