Utility reform bill sparked by storm outages heads to Lamont
Hartford — Legislation that could ultimately base electric rates on a utility's performance, the General Assembly's initial response to thousands of frustrated Eversource customers left without power for about a week or more in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias, is headed to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont's desk.
Dubbed the “Take Back Our Grid Act," lawmakers repeatedly called the legislation a “first step,” with some expressing concern about having a multistate corporation as the state's largest electric utility.
“It won’t be the final iteration of what happens or what we try and do, because this is complicated. We want to see rates stabilize. We want to see rates go down. And we want to see a better customer service experience for our constituents around the state of Connecticut,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “But we have to start somewhere.”
The bill passed the Senate on a 35-0 vote Thursday, a day after the House of Representatives approved the same legislation, 136-4. It's one of nearly a dozen disparate bills, including legislation to give local election officials more time to begin processing large numbers of anticipated absentee ballots for the general election, that lawmakers were taking up during the General Assembly's second special legislative session during the coronavirus pandemic.
The absentee ballot legislation will give cities and towns the option of opening the outer envelope of the absentee ballots and verifying the voter signed the inner envelope, beginning at 5 p.m. on Oct. 30. The inner envelope that contains the ballot may not be opened, however, until Election Day. The bill passed the Senate, 35-1, and now awaits Lamont's signature.
While some Republican senators, the minority party in the legislature, suggested the utility reform legislation had been rushed and might not satisfy the concerns of ratepayers, they still voted for it. The General Assembly is up for reelection in November and many lawmakers acknowledged hearing from constituents upset by a lack of communication from Eversource following the August storm and long outages, which had come on the heels of a controversial rate increase during a pandemic.
Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said in some parts of Connecticut, including the northwestern communities he represents, the impact of Tropical Storm Isaias was equal or greater than any other storm that has hit the state. And he said every municipal leader and local public works official he spoke with said Eversource didn't have enough staffing. He noted that in tiny Warren, “no one touched a wire or a branch for five days.”
Eversource CEO Jim Judge told state legislators in August that he understood many customers were frustrated by the company’s response and lengthy outages, especially given the pandemic, but insisted the company was well-prepared for the storm. He said Eversource has made numerous improvements over the years that have resulted in improved service and reliability.
The bill requires Connecticut regulators to begin the process of adopting a framework for a performance-based system for determining rates for electric distribution companies by 2022. It also raises the limit for civil penalties for electric distribution companies and gas companies that fail to comply with standards for emergency preparation or service restoration and requires customers to be credited $25 a day and reimbursed $250 in compensation for spoiled food and medication during lengthy outages of 96 consecutive hours after an emergency. That would have amounted to $19 million for the 255,000 customers left without power after four days, lawmakers said.
By early Thursday evening, the Senate approved four judicial nominations, including Appellate Judge Christine Keller, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s choice to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court, with scant debate.
Lawmakers also extended rules for hemp growers and manufacturers that were set to expire and clarified that condominium associations are eligible to apply for a supplemental loan program to cover certain expenses related to remediating crumbling foundations, a problem that has affected both condos and individual homes in eastern Connecticut.
Among other bills, senators were expected to still approve a bill that streamlines a state law regulating the transfer of certain polluted properties and legislation that authorizes funding for school construction projects.
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