Douglas to oppose electric bill subsidy program

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(Host) The Douglas Administration says it will oppose a plan to create a subsidy program to help low income Vermonters pay their electric bills.

Backers of the proposal says it’s needed because Vermont ranks 50th in the country in the affordability of electricity for low income households.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Under this plan, low income individuals and families would pay their electric bills based on a percentage of their income and the state would provide a subsidy to utilities to cover the rest of the cost.

The legislation is a top priority for Vermont AARP.

Policy director Philene Taormina says the legislation is a critical part of the organization’s efforts to help older Vermonters remain independent.

Eligibility for the program would be set at roughly 150% of poverty. That’s about $15,000 dollars a year for an individual and $30,000 for a family of four.

Taormina says the price tag for the program would be roughly $5 million if electric bills were capped at 10% of a person’s income. The cost to other ratepayers would be about $6 a year.

(Taormina) “There are models out there, there are 26 states and many more on the way that are doing electric bill assistance programs and we know they’re effective at making people who can’t afford to pay able to pay. And that’s the real concept in here, is that these people aren’t paying because they want to sit in the dark. They’re not paying because they can’t afford to or they’re making really bad choices in order to keep their electric and heat on during the winter.”

(Kinzel) Public Service Department commissioner David O’Brien says he’s sympathetic to the need for the program but he argues it’s wrong to ask ratepayers to finance it.

(O’Brien) “I think what we’re trying to do is be very careful about charging captive ratepayers for a social program. I think there’s the basic principle of not charging utility customers and creating this cross subsidy. That’s a principle that we really try to hold closely.”

(Kinzel) Essex Orleans senator Vincent Illuzzi is the chairman of the Senate’s Economic Development committee.

He supports the bill and isn’t convinced it will cost ratepayers much additional money:

(Illuzzi) “A lot of rate shifting takes place anyway because a lot of those bills are uncollectable so why not help people up front to pay their electric bills and reduce the utilities cost of doing business. And yes there’s going to be a rate shift but perhaps not more than we’re seeing now by default when folks can’t pay their bills and the accounts are written off.”

(Kinzel) Illuzzi is hoping that his committee will vote to support the bill in the next few weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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