The Ohio Supreme Court issued a ruling this spring that should have ended the debate over the Ohio Consumers' Counsel budget.
The court unanimously sided with the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel on three challenges to Ohio Public Utilities Commission decisions. The court said the commission acted unlawfully by allowing American Electric Power to charge customers $63 million in retroactive rate increases. It also said the commission acted improperly when it approved $457 million in unjustified AEP charges, and another $330 million for past environmental programs. The court sent the latter two issues back to the commission for consideration.
After this ruling, one would think that Gov. John Kasich would have withdrawn his proposal to cut the Office of Consumers' Counsel budget by 50 percent. Surely, this ruling shows why we need it.
Unfortunately, the governor's proposal passed the Ohio House and is pending before the state Senate. It is up to the legislators to fix it.
Kasich has offered two justifications for the cut.
First, according to Kasich's press secretary Rob Nichols, "To fill an $8 billion budget hole, we need to make difficult decisions." While difficult decisions are necessary, they must also be rational decisions, and this one wasn't.
The Office of Consumers' Counsel is funded by a small assessment on utilities. It receives no tax dollars at all, so cutting its budget would do nothing to solve state budget problems. At the same time, cutting the budget would hurt residential utility ratepayers who count on the counsel to represent our interests in the AEP case and dozens of other cases.
Second, Kasich's budget proposal says the cuts are proposed to "avoid strategic redundancy with the mission of other agencies." Translated into English, this means that since the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio represents everyone - utilities, industrial customers, commercial customers and residential customers - the consumers' counsel is unnecessary.
That's not how utility regulation works. The Public Utilities Commission is not an advocacy group. The commissioners act as judges over rate cases and other proceedings.
Each of the parties is represented by counsel who advocate for their interests, and then the commissioners render their judgment. Prior to 1976, residential taxpayers had no one to represent them. That's why the Legislature created the Office of Consumers' Counsel.
What if one of the parties in a criminal or civil court case was told that since the judge represented everyone's interests, they wouldn't be allowed to have counsel? No one would stand for it.
You don't need to take my word for how bad this idea is. Kasich's proposal to cut the officer has been picked to pieces in editorials by the Toledo Blade, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Beacon Journal, Dayton Daily News and Tiffin Advertiser-Tribune, and a column by Tom Suddes in the Columbus Dispatch.
There was only one way Ohio consumers could win in the state Supreme Court. The PUCO was not going to appeal its own decision. AEP was not going to tell the justices it didn't deserve higher rates. We won because our voice was heard, through the Ohio Consumers' Counsel.
The state Legislature must restore full funding to the Office of Consumers' Counsel in the budget.
(Buchanan is executive director of the 80,000-member Ohio Citizen Action.)