Electric and gas bills frequently add up to 5%, 10% or even 20% of the income of many Arkansans.
Even though rates are regulated by the state government, you will never see or hear much of the information that determines how much of a rate increase you pay. That is because it is legally kept secret on the theory that publishing it could hurt the competitive position of the electric or gas company.
Still, there are private individuals and companies that get to see the utility company books and argue for lower rates. They get special permission from the state government if they can prove they have a legitimate reason, and if they promise not to disclose utility company secrets. Usually, only a few big businesses and state officials participate.
Recently, SWEPCO, which sells electricity to the western part of Arkansas, has asked for a rate increase of over $50 million per year. The state government has agreed to let Wal-Mart and a group of other large Arkansas businesses help look into whether the rate increase is justified.
In what may be a first in several decades in Arkansas, two environmental groups and a group of concerned citizens and small businesses have asked permission to participate. While the large businesses were let in without any opposition, Audubon Arkansas, Sierra Club, and northwest-Arkansas-based Citizens Advancing Reasonable Rates (CARR) have spent the last several weeks waiting for a decision and battling utility company and government opposition. At a hearing today at the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the state will hear arguments from both sides to render a final decision.
SWEPCO and some state officials have argued that the citizen and environmental groups have no legitimate purpose looking into the rate increase and would just bog down the proceedings.
SWEPCO particularly doesn’t want any opponents of its new coal-fired power plant to be able to investigate the details of its requested rate increase, even though it says that about half of the increase is needed to begin paying for the new plant. So far, no one who opposed the plant has been given permission to be a part of the investigation.
The citizen and environmental groups argue that there are several reasons they should be allowed to help review SWEPCO finances before a significant rate increase, any one of which could justify their participation. Some government officials counter that state experts can take care of all of the citizen concerns without actually letting them participate.
The Arkansas Public Service Commission will hold a hearing todayat 1:30 p.m. to decide whether the citizen and environmental will be allowed to be a part of the investigation into what promises to be the first of several utility rate increases over the next few years.