FRANKFORT — A House panel passed a bill Monday that would study whether it was appropriate to elect the state's utility regulators, who set rates for most utility companies.
The House Tourism Development and Energy Committee voted unanimously Monday to pass Senate Bill 151 after it was changed to propose a study of energy rates in states that have elected public service commissioners versus those that have appointed public service commissioners.
The bill, as originally written and approved by the Senate, called for the election of public service commissioners. In Kentucky, the governor appoints and the Senate confirms the three members of the Kentucky Public Service Commission.
The vote came after testimony from Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne Rutherford and others from Pike County who said they have suffered from repeated rate increases during the past four years. The increases mean that many elderly and disabled people cannot afford to pay for their heat, Rutherford said.
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Rutherford said the latest increase — nearly 17 percent in 2010 — is too much for the people of Pike County, particularly those on fixed incomes.
"I don't know what's going to happen to these people," he said.
SB151 has been altered multiple times during the past few weeks as it made its way through the state Senate and House. In a Senate committee, the bill was changed to include a study, but the full Senate later voted on the original bill.
Last week, the state Chamber of Commerce and other business and environmental groups publicly opposed the election of public service commissioners, saying it might not be the answer to skyrocketing rate increases. Utility companies might be able to gain influence over politicians with campaign donations, they warned.
Some House members on Monday expressed reservations about voting for the bill and said they would vote in favor of the measure only if it remained a study.
Rep. Thomas Kerr, R-Taylor Mill, said some studies have shown that utility companies have a difficult time getting financing for expansions under an elected-commissioner system. Moreover, some states might have cheaper utility rates because they have cheaper energy sources.
"Some of them have hydro power, which is practically free," Kerr said.
Rep. Keith Hall, who is sponsoring the bill on the House floor, said after Monday's vote that he plans to keep the measure a study. A task force set up by the bill would include three House members and three Senate members, although Hall said he might propose expanding the group's makeup to include other constituencies.
Hall said sponsors decided to change the measure back to a study because there were not enough votes in the House to pass the bill as originally proposed. The committee substitute calls for the task force to have its work completed by Dec. 15, in time for the next legislative session.