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BILL AS INTRODUCED 2007-2008

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S.189

Introduced by Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs

Date:

Subject:  Public service; regulation of corporations; universal service fund and payment program

Statement of purpose:  This bill proposes to create a statewide electric bill payment assistance program for retired and lower income residential customers.

AN ACT RELATING TO AFFORDABLE ELECTRIC RATES FOR RETIRED AND LOWER INCOME VERMONTERS

It is hereby enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont:

Sec. 1.  FINDINGS

The general assembly finds:

(1)  The department of public service 2005 Vermont Electric Plan stated: “The impact of Vermont’s high electricity prices is especially great on people with low incomes because home energy as a whole presents a crippling financial burden.”

(2)  The plan also stated that:  “The consequences of unaffordable energy bills are serious. . . .  Health impacts included 22 percent of LIHEAP recipients reporting they went without food for at least one day, 38 percent without medical or dental care, and 30 percent without filling a prescription or taking the full dose prescribed. 21 percent got sick because their homes were too

cold . . .  28 percent failed to make a rent or mortgage payment, 9 percent reporting they moved in with family or friends, 4 percent experiencing eviction, and 4 percent becoming homeless.”

(3)  The plan also stated that the Vermont shut-off protections “have significant costs for utilities and their ratepayers in terms of collections expenses, arrearages, and write-offs.  These are hidden costs borne by all ratepayers in the form of higher rates.”

(4)  Pursuant to Act No. 208 of 2006, the public service board, with the aid of a collaborative composed of representatives from the electric utilities, residential customers, consumer representatives, low income program representatives, elderly program representatives, the department of public service, the department of human services, and other stakeholders, designed an electric affordability program.

(5)  During the deliberations of the collaborative, the department of public service proposed the flat rate per electric meter fee included in this act.

(6)  People living at the 2007 federal 125 percent of poverty level have an income of $12,250.00 for one person and $25,000.00 for a family of four. There are senior citizens on fixed incomes who fall within and below these income guidelines.

(7)  Vermont industrial electric customers have the ability to negotiate lower rates in the form of economic development rates.

(8)  This program will be modeled after the Universal Service Fund that places a charge on telecommunications service customers’ bills to pay for the Vermont Lifeline Program and to keep basic telecommunications service affordable, thereby maintaining universal service for lower income Vermonters, including many senior citizens.

(9)  Likewise, the program will be modeled after the existing gross receipts tax on fuel oil which is used to fund an existing and successful  program of weatherization of residences owned by lower income Vermonters, including many senior citizens.

Sec. 2.  30 V.S.A. § 209c is amended to read:

§ 209c.  ELECTRICITY AFFORDABILITY PROGRAM LOW INCOME

              ELECTRIC ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

(a)  The board of public service shall design a proposed electricity affordability program in the form of draft legislation.  The program shall be developed with the aid of an electricity affordability program collaborative.  The collaborative, composed of representatives from the electric utilities, residential customers, consumer representatives, low income program representatives, elderly program representatives, the department of public service, the department of human services, and other stakeholders identified by the board, shall aid in the development of an electricity affordability program, as well as requirements for the implementation and funding of the program.  The proposed electricity affordability program will be presented to the Vermont general assembly in the form of draft legislation for consideration in January 2007.

(b)  The proposed electricity affordability program shall provide assistance in the payment of electricity bills for eligible low income residential customers served by electric companies subject to the jurisdiction of the board.

(c)  In developing the electricity affordability program, the board shall review the successes and administrative burdens of similar programs in operation in other states and consider the following goals, which shall be afforded equal weight in formulating the program:

(1)  The need to provide payment assistance to low-income customers at and below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level;

(2)  The need for automatic screening and enrollment methods of eligible customers by means of information obtained from existing means-tested financial assistance programs administered by other Vermont agencies such as food stamps, Medicaid, LIHEAP or TANF; and

(3)  The need to design a program that is funded by all customer classes in an equitable and reasonable manner and that results in the reimbursement of net incremental costs incurred by electric utilities to implement the program, taking into consideration the benefits as well as the costs.

(a)  Purpose.  It is the purpose of this section to:

(1)  Recognize that electricity is a basic necessity to which all residents of the state should have access;

(2)  Provide payment assistance to residential consumers whose electricity bills represent a disproportionate share of household income in comparison to the statewide average and who qualify based on income; and

(3)  Encourage participating customers to use electricity efficiently and participate in conservation and energy efficiency measures that reduce the customers’ bills and payment requirements.

(b)  Definitions.  For the purposes of this section:

(1)  “Amount overdue” means the amount that an electric company has properly billed to a customer that has not been paid by the due date of the bill or by a date otherwise agreed upon.

(2)  “Eligible customer” means any residential customer of an electric company who is taking, or seeks to establish, residential service, not including seasonal service; and who meets one of the following requirements:

(A)  The customer’s household receives assistance from any program administered by the agency of human services for which eligibility is based on a means-test with a threshold at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines as defined annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; or

(B)  The customer’s household income is at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines as defined annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and certified by the office of economic opportunity.

(3)  “Fiscal agent” means an entity selected by the public service board to receive and disburse funds under this section.

(4)  “Low income electric assistance program” (LEAP) is a statewide program to assist eligible customers in paying their electric bills.

(5)  “LIHEAP” means “low income home energy assistance program,” which is a federally funded program that provides financial assistance grants to needy households for home energy bills and is implemented by the office of economic opportunity.

(6)  “Participating customer” means a customer who has applied and has been determined to be eligible for LEAP by the office of economic opportunity.

(7)  “Program administrator” means the office of economic opportunity.

(8)  “Pre-program arrears” means a customer’s electric service account amount overdue at the time the customer is determined to be eligible for LEAP.  This amount may consist of a customer’s overdue amount that is currently billed on the customer’s electric service account and any other prior unpaid bill for residential electric service that is owed by the customer to the same electric company. 

(9)  “Residential customer” means any person who seeks to establish or is receiving residential service from an electric company.

(c)  The department of public service and the office of economic opportunity shall organize a program-coordinating committee, including the program administrator, the fiscal agent, and the electric distribution utilities to develop a memorandum of understanding establishing the policies and procedures of the program.  Any dispute may be submitted to the board for resolution.  The program-coordinating committee shall set out the procedures for a LEAP that:

(1)  Shall be available to eligible customers served or seeking to be served by electric companies subject to the jurisdiction of the board.

(2)  Shall utilize the office of economic opportunity to screen and prioritize program applicants for participation in LEAP.

(3)  Shall be funded by an assessment on the customers of all electric distribution companies subject to the jurisdiction of the board.  The funding amount shall be available for LEAP benefits, including arrears forgiveness payments, and reimbursement of incremental administrative costs incurred by the electric utilities and the program administrator.  Costs of the fiscal agent and the evaluations required by subsection (o) of this section shall also be paid from the LEAP assessment.  Any material changes in the program design, customer assessment or budget for LEAP shall be adopted through the process described in this subsection, and shall ensure that the program is consistent with the needs of participating customers and that all reasonable costs of the program will be reflected in the assessment to be charged to the customers of all electric distribution companies.  Electric distribution companies shall pay the gross receipts tax required by section 22 of this title and the fuel gross receipts tax required by 33 V.S.A. § 2503 on all funds received from LEAP in payment of participating customers’ electric bills, but shall not pay the taxes on amounts collected in the form of the affordability program charge. 

(4)  Shall establish a tiered discount program which shall include two or more income tiers.  Within each tier, an “affordable” payment amount shall be calculated based on six percent of income for the average household within the tier.  For each tier, one-twelfth of the difference between the average household’s calculated “affordable” payment and the statewide average annual residential cost of electric service shall constitute the maximum monthly LEAP credit.  The annual total credit shall not exceed the actual annual electric charges for the individual participating customer.  Any applicable seasonal fuel benefit for the customer’s electric service shall be subtracted from the total amount of the otherwise applicable fixed credit.  Any other emergency or crisis assistance LIHEAP payment shall not be subtracted from the amount of the fixed credit, but shall be applied to the customer’s account in the normal course of the administration of such emergency or crisis benefit programs.  A participating customer is responsible for all actual charges for electric service in excess of the fixed monthly credit.  Notwithstanding the annual calculation method described in this section, the board may establish an alternative monthly method of calculation that otherwise conforms to this section if it finds that applying an annual method may result in participating customers receiving benefits in excess of the cost of their actual electric usage.

(5)  Shall require the customer to enter into a budget-billing plan.

(6)  Shall include a pre-program arrears forgiveness component to ensure participants are able to afford current bills under the program.  During each participant’s first term of LEAP with a particular electric distribution company, that company shall offer the participating customer an option to obtain forgiveness of the customer’s arrears balance pursuant to an arrears forgiveness program.  The opportunity for arrears forgiveness shall apply only to arrears accumulated prior to the date on which the customer first enrolls in LEAP in any electric distribution company’s service territory, and shall be available to each customer only once within any given utility service territory. Forgiveness of the customer arrears balance ends if the customer fails to pay the monthly electric bill.

(7)  Shall ensure that as a condition of program enrollment, a LEAP participant shall accept no-cost or low-cost, demand-side management measures and programs that are available to the participant’s dwelling or rental unit, unless the participant is a renter and the owner or landlord withholds the required consent.

(d)  It is the intent of the legislature that LEAP assistance will not be counted as income or as a resource in other means-tested assistance programs for low income households.  LEAP shall therefore be administered in a way that seeks to ensure that LEAP assistance will not result in the loss of other federal or state assistance dollars.

(e)  This section does not confer any automatic right or entitlement on any person.

(f)  The board shall establish annually by order or rule a flat fee system for the support of LEAP.  The monthly charge shall be $1.00 per meter for residential customers, $3.00 per meter for commercial customers and $100.00 per meter for industrial customers.  The charge shall be known as the affordability program charge, shall be shown separately on each customer's bill, and shall be collected and remitted to the fiscal agent by the electric distribution utility.  When such a charge is shown, notice as to how to obtain information about LEAP shall be provided in a manner directed by the board. Balances in the fund shall be ratepayer funds, shall be used to support the activities authorized in this section, and shall be carried forward and remain in the fund at the end of each fiscal year.  These monies shall not be available to meet the general obligations of the state.  Interest earned shall remain in the fund.

(g)  Program funding associated with the costs of LEAP, including the arrearage forgiveness component, shall be recovered from all customers of each electric distribution company by means of affordability program charges.  In any year in which the cost of the program exceeds the revenue from the affordability program charges, the office of economic opportunity shall prioritize enrollment on the basis of income.

(h)  The board shall require electric distribution companies to maintain sufficient data on participating customers so that the costs of and savings associated with the program can be determined, including participating customer arrearages, incidence of nonpayment, disconnection of service, reconnection of service, frequency of bill payment, overdue balances incurred, write-off of uncollectible expense, LEAP customer contacts and disputes, payment arrangement terms, and other relevant electric company operations and maintenance expenses, and impacts on electric company cash and working capital. 

(i)  The program administrator shall implement LEAP in coordination with the delivery of LIHEAP and the weatherization assistance program, other statewide financial assistance programs, and community-based organizations that already have a significant role in the implementation of energy and financial assistance programs for low income households to assure the most efficient determination of eligibility and the benefit amount in coordination with existing programs in this state. 

(j)  The fiscal agent shall be selected by the board after competitive bidding. The duties of the fiscal agent shall be established by a contract with a term of not greater than five years.

(k)  During each program year, the program administrator and the fiscal agent shall track and monitor all funding, benefits, and expenses of the program.  The fiscal agent shall provide the board and the program administrator with monthly reports in electronic data format.  The board and the program administrator shall annually provide the senate committees on economic development, housing and general affairs and finance and the house committees on ways and means and general, housing and military affairs with a report detailing the revenues collected and the expenditures made for LEAP under this section.

(l)  The program administrator shall be entitled to receive actual incremental administrative costs associated with the implementation of LEAP, including reimbursement of actual incremental costs incurred by any local community-based organizations.  The fiscal agent shall reimburse electric companies for their actual reasonable incremental costs associated with the implementation and administration of LEAP.

(m)  The program administrator shall develop an automatic enrollment method such that potentially eligible participants are identified by the administrator and enrolled in LEAP.  The board shall require that any entity that obtains access to customer-specific account and income information shall assure that such information remains private, and that the entity’s use of this private information will be limited to the implementation and goals of LEAP.  The efficiency utility established under section 209 of this title shall be informed of all participants in the home heating fuel assistance program and the LEAP.  The transmittal of customer-specific information designed to screen electric customers for enrollment in LEAP is intended to implement an additional benefit within the meaning of the consumer privacy policies of the federal Social Security Act.

(n)  The administrator shall inform customers who are automatically screened and enrolled in LEAP through the data matching process in subsection (m) of this section of their enrollment in the program, the amount of the fixed credit that will appear on the customer’s electric bill, how to participate in the arrears forgiveness program, and the customer’s obligation to participate in no-cost or low-cost energy management services.  Each customer shall also be offered an option to forego participation in or to opt out of the program. 

(o)  The program administrator shall contract with an independent,

third-party entity every two years to conduct an evaluation of the process and impact of LEAP, which shall analyze and determine the impact of the program on program participants and their ability to pay for and retain electric service, the efficiency and effectiveness of the administration of the program, the impact of the program on electric company credit and collection expenses, including cash working capital and uncollectible expense, and generally assess the costs and benefits of the program.  The reasonable costs of the evaluation required under this section shall be reimbursed from LEAP funds.

(p)  The program administrator, the board, the department of public service, and the electric companies shall work together to identify cost-effective ways to transfer information electronically and to employ available protocols that will minimize administrative costs.

(q)  The electric companies shall bill and collect the monthly bill of a LEAP customer pursuant to the same terms and conditions that are applicable to residential customers generally.

(r)  Each electric distribution company shall file quarterly and annual reports with the program administrator, the board and the department of public service that cumulatively summarize and update program information as directed by the board.

Sec. 3.  30 V.S.A. § 209(b)(4) is added to read:

(4)  Prescribe a monthly and rolling 12-month cumulative reporting requirement for electric distribution companies that may include information on disconnection of service, reconnection of service, deposits, payment arrangements, and other indicia of electric company credit and collection programs.  Such reporting requirements shall require that, with respect to residential customer class information, the reporting data be reported separately for residential customers as a whole and for those customers identified in the electric company’s records as low income residential customers as indicated by receipt of financial and energy assistance applied to the customer’s account. 

Sec. 4.  EFFECTIVE DATE

This act shall take effect upon passage, and the LEAP shall be implemented on or before July 1, 2009.




Published by:

The Vermont General Assembly
115 State Street
Montpelier, Vermont


www.leg.state.vt.us