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Our Opinion: Distressed by scuttled hearing

Our Opinion: Distressed by scuttled hearing

March 29th, 2013 in News

Sound the retreat.

The Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) has backed off its plan to hold a public hearing on a utility surcharge proposal being considered by lawmakers.

Last Thursday in this forum, we commended the PSC for reviving a 1939 authorization to receive public testimony on this controversial issue.

The PSC reversal of the planned hearing followed a letter from Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, who questioned a procedural point.

The nearly 75-year-old authorization requires a hearing request to be submitted by "the legislature or either branch thereof." The PSC set the hearing at the request of a single lawmaker, which Dempsey said would set a precedent.

He strongly encouraged the PSC to reconsider its decision.

The commission not only reconsidered, it retreated.

That's too bad.

The utility surcharge proposal is among the more hotly contested issues this legislative session.

The proposal would permit investor-owned utilities - Ameren Missouri, KCP&L and Empire District - to repair infrastructure using money collected from a surcharge on customers' bills prior to comprehensive PSC action and approval of the fee.

Supporters and opponents have lined up to advance their arguments.

Supporters say the infrastructure system repair surcharge, or ISRS, would expedite repair of aging infrastructure. They point out an abbreviated PSC analysis would be required to impose the fee, which also would be subject to a comprehensive rate case at a later date.

Opponents cite the cascade of rate increases borne by customers and characterize the surcharge as unnecessary and unfair.

We support a hearing before the PSC, because of its dual allegiance to customers and utility investors. The commission's stated mission is "to ensure Missouri consumers have access to safe, reliable and reasonably priced utility service while allowing those utility companies under our jurisdiction an opportunity to earn a reasonable return on their investment."

We understand the procedural objections, as well as reservations about holding a hearing and receiving recommendations this late in the legislative session.

But the magnitude of controversy on an issue deserves to be directly proportional to the scrutiny.

A PSC hearing on the issue may be a late arrival to the party, but its presence would be welcome. After all, how could it hurt?