North Dallas resident Mary Lou Garcia runs fans and wraps herself and a severely retarded son in wet towels to scrimp on air conditioning. Still, she begged a charity for help to avoid having her electricity shut off this week. Ms. Garcia, who quit her job as a DISD translator to care for her son, said getting by on a monthly $603 disability check is tough – especially when it's over 100 degrees outside and she wants to switch on the air. "Then I think about what I'm going to have to pay next month," she said.
This has prompted calls for action to prevent power providers from shutting off the power when bills go past due:
Advocates for the poor and elderly say rising electric rates, hot weather and lawmakers' decision to gut an assistance program have conspired to put Ms. Garcia and thousands more Texans in danger this summer. They'll ask the Texas Public Utility Commission today for emergency action that bars electricity providers from cutting off elderly customers and others who fall behind on their payments this summer. Twenty-six state lawmakers have backed the petition. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said electric companies are flush with profits from Texas' 1999 deregulation bill, so they can absorb the moratorium. Lack of state action could kill Texans, he said. "The only issue is whether or not we're going to wait until emergency vehicles are called to the homes of people across this state to bail people out or whether we're going to be prudent here and do something," he said.
Power companies (whose profits are way up, by the way) do not believe this is necessary. In fact, they have highly altruistic reasons for opposing just such a program:
The industry, which was working on a possible last-minute compromise with the PUC's in-house consumer advocate, warned that some customers might stop paying bills and end up owing staggering amounts this fall. "You want to try to do something that gives relief and yet doesn't dig a hole so deep that ratepayers just can't get out of it," Mr. Fainter said. "A lot of times, if they get so deep in debt, they just walk off from it, and that causes some problems getting connected later on."
That can be true. Though I imagine many consumers, if given the choice as to when they would have to live without power, would choose September or October over July or August.
Texas actually has a program to assist consumers in paying high electric bills, and it was well-funded until last year. Where did that money go?
Supporters of the emergency request say the situation was worsened when the Legislature last year grabbed $427 million – taxed over two years from electric consumers' payments to help the poor pay their bills – to help balance the state budget.
That's the same budget in which $6 billion in tax cuts was provided to Texas homeowners, in case you're wondering (though not everybody would benefit from even that amount of money.)
The result is a hodge-podge of charitable organizations scraping up the money to keep some poor Texan's power on:
"Often, we have to make ... 15 phone calls to piece together a solution for someone," said Lue Taff, director of elder support programs at The Senior Source, a social service agency for the elderly in the Dallas area. "It's getting more and more difficult."
To be clear, this ban will not make any provisions to provide for assistance with a big electricity bill. It will simply prevent the power companies from shutting the power off, and perhaps allow for more time to pay off large balances that consumers will rack up during the hot months.
If you'd like to show your support for this action, let the Public Utility Commission of Texas know how you feel. Their contact information is here. And it wouldn't hurt to email Rep. Turner and let him know you support what he and others are trying to do.
Update: A note from Nat-Wu...
"TexPIRG (Texas Public Interest Research Group) has a form letter you can fill out here in support of the ban, which will be sent to the Public Utility Commission. "