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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Water utility purchase bill is Democratic power grab

    Government ownership of utility companies can work in the public interest, at least where government wants to work in the public interest. Whether it wants to is always a fair question in Connecticut.

    The General Assembly again failed the public interest the other day when it abruptly jammed a weighty bill onto its agenda for a special session that was supposed to address only a few technical matters. The weighty matter was a proposal to authorize the South Central Regional Water Authority to make a bid for Aquarion Water Co., which serves 72 municipalities, all but 13 in Connecticut. Aquarion is owned by Eversource Energy, which may sell the company to raise cash.

    The bill passed easily, mainly with Democratic support.

    Connecticut has a few small municipally owned electric companies that perform well but don't generate their own power; they just deliver power. Their success is no guarantee that government's acquisition and operation of a major utility would work.

    Many basic questions about government's acquisition of Aquarion were not answered before the legislature approved the legislation, because the legislature didn't even try to answer them. The bill got no public hearing and little research.

    The bill's advocates said no one should worry, because if the water authority acquired Aquarion, it would hold public hearings then, and residents of the authority's 20 member towns could participate.

    But the new law may be seen as setting a precedent involving the whole state — government acquisition of a major utility. Settling such a substantial issue without any public participation is a bad habit of the legislature's seemingly eternal Democratic majority, which often stuffs into unrelated bills matters that got no hearing and that, indeed, one Democrat or another wanted to sneak into law.

    One such bill, couched in vague language that only its supporters knew was meant to be construed to give unemployment benefits to strikers, passed the legislature in its recent regular session but was vetoed by Gov. Ned Lamont in large part because of the deception in which many legislators of his own party engaged.

    Besides, few people in the 20 towns served by the regional water authority know much about the authority and who their representatives on its board are. But some people in those towns are familiar with their state legislators and turn to them about important state and regional issues.

    In their special session a few legislators saw important issues in the water authority's bid for Aquarion. Among them:

    — Aquarion is said to be weak financially, so to keep it solvent the water authority might need to raise Aquarion's prices for water.

    — Since the authority is a government agency, rate increases for former Aquarion customers would be exempt from regulation by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

    — Under the authority, Aquarion's property would become exempt from municipal property taxes, causing revenue losses to the authority's member towns.

    — Where would the authority get the money to purchase Aquarion? Since Eversource paid almost $1.7 billion for Aquarion in 2017 and the company is much bigger than the authority itself, the authority would need a lot of money to purchase it and could do so only by selling bonds or having state government sell bonds to raise the money.

    Advocates of the legislation argued that it was urgent to act because Aquarion might be sold by Eversource to private investors at any moment. This was nonsense.

    For even under new ownership by private investors, Aquarion would remain a public utility and state government could legislate it out of business, acquiring it through eminent domain by paying its owners a fair-market price.

    No, the only urgency of the Aquarion legislation seems to have been that Democratic legislative leaders saw an unexpected opportunity to make government bigger and grab more power and patronage. Sure enough, after the bill passed Mike Cerulli of CTCapitolReport.com disclosed that the former chief of staff for the state Senate's Democratic majority, New Haven Democratic Chairman Vincent Mauro Jr., had just registered as a lobbyist for the water authority.

    Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. He can be reached at CPowell@cox.net.

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