KAJX

Office Of Consumer Counsel's Future Hinges On Debate In The Final Day Of The Session

May 5, 2015

The debate over continuing the Office of Consumer Counsel won't be decided until the final day of the state's annual legislative session. The Office represents taxpayers when utility and telecom companies go to the state to ask for rate hikes. Without Senate Bill 271 [.pdf], the Office of Consumer Counsel would sunset and go away altogether.

Determining the scope of the office's role though has been contentious.

"I've been stunned that this hasn't been unanimously continued," said  Senate minority leader Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora).

She believes it's crucial to keep the OCC in place to advocate for consumers.

Created in the mid 1980s, the Office of Consumer Counsel was to be the public voice on discussions about gas, electric and telephone rates, rulemaking hearings and legal cases.

"The office helps regular people lobby before government," said Carroll. "This enables regular citizens to push back."

Republicans introduced a measure to continue the office, but they also want to scale it back. Under their proposal the office would no longer advocate on issues with telephone companies or landlines.

"We don't need to have this in OCC," said Senator Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling).

According to a non-partisan fiscal analysis, in the last ten years, the number of regulated landlines in the state has dropped from 2 million to 1 million. Republicans said because the state largely deregulated telecom in 2014, there's no need for the consumer counsel to advocate in that arena.

"The difference between telecommunications and utilities is competition, what we're talking about with telecommunications is they are competing with several other forms of communication that are not regulated, they deal with satellite, with VOIP or broadband," said Representative Jon Becker (R-Fort Morgan), a sponsor of the measure.

Democrats on the House Transportation and Energy committee amended the bill to add telecom back in.

"The last time I checked competition didn't result in decreased complaints against the telecommunications industry or companies," said Representative Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City).

Democrats also said the public needs an advocate for 9-1-1 surcharges and discussions around telecom deregulation. The measure still needs to clear the House. The Senate already rejected including telecom in the Office of Consumer Counsel. Any agreement between the two chambers will need to be reached on the last day of the session to preserve the office.

Copyright 2015 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://kunc.org.