FRANKFORT — Bombarded with complaints from hundreds of Eastern Kentucky residents about soaring electric bills, state Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, persuaded the Senate on Friday to approve a proposal that would let voters elect state utility regulators.
Senate Bill 151 would expand membership of the Public Service Commission from three to seven and require their election by the people for staggered four-year terms, beginning in 2012. There would be one commissioner from each of the state's six congressional districts and one at-large member from the state.
Currently, the governor appoints the three-member commission and they are confirmed by the Senate.
The Senate approved Jones' bill on a 29-5 vote and sent it to the House.
Jones said thousands of American Electric Power customers are upset that the PSC approved a 17 percent rate increase for the company's Kentucky Power division last summer.
"The system we have now has failed the vast people of Eastern Kentucky," Jones said.
Ronn Robinson, a spokesman for Kentucky Power, said his company is neutral on Jones' bill.
"We will abide by whatever standards the state sets," he said.
He said cold winter weather has drawn attention to the rate increase, which took effect June 29.
"People seem more concerned about it now because their usage has sometimes doubled or tripled during this very cold winter, one of the coldest on record," Robinson said.
Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for the state Public Service Commission, said the agency has not taken a position on Jones' bill.
Before the Senate voted on the measure, Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, successfully made a motion to withdraw a committee-approved substitute that called for studying whether electing the PSC would be a good deal for utility ratepayers.
Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, said the substitute approved earlier this week by the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee should have been considered by the entire Senate.
"I don't see the advantage of having an elected PSC," he said.
Several Republican senators spoke in favor of Jones' bill.
Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, said the utility increase in Eastern Kentucky "has overwhelmed us."
"People are demanding accountability," said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.
Opponents of the bill raised questions about the negative influences politics might have on utility rates.
Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown, said in voting against the bill that he is "not sure politicizing members of the Public Service Commission is the right answer."
In testimony earlier this week, some industry representatives said they fear electing commissioners would allow utility companies to influence the process through campaign donations, possibly leading to even more rate increases.
Jones said he is confident that voters would not keep in office any commissioner who sides with a 17 percent utility rate increase.