Colorado editorials: We should elect Public Utilities Commission |

Colorado editorials: We should elect Public Utilities Commission

We should elect Public Utilities Commission

The state Legislature could help consumers, corporations and the economy by creating an elected Public Utilities Commission that answers to the public.

Under Colorado Revised Statute 40-2-101, the governor nominates all three members of the commission and each is confirmed by the state Senate. The commission’s mission statement says commissioners are to serve the public interest “by effectively regulating utilities and facilities so that the people of Colorado receive safe, reliable and reasonably priced services consistent with the economic, environmental and social values of our state.”

Colorado’s aggressive environmental energy mandates, under what former Gov. Bill Ritter called the New Energy Economy, have revolutionized the state’s utilities industry for providers and consumers alike. In a rush to abandon coal plants and build gas, solar and wind assets, Colorado’s two publicly traded utility monopolies have sought rate hikes and boosted asset valuations on which they earn returns.

Along the way, consumer advocates and utility executives have questioned the objectivity of the PUC.

In Pueblo, Black Hills Energy has increased its base rate by more than 20 percent since 2010. Fighting for their most recent rate hike, company executives questioned the objectivity of Denver attorney and Public Utilities Commissioner Frances Koncilja after she said Black Hills wanted to “plunder” Pueblo by putting a “turd in the pocket of ratepayers.”

Koncilja and other advocates of Black Hills customers question the objectivity of Public Utilities Commissioner Wendy Moser, who worked as an attorney for Black Hills.

The controversies raise serious questions about two-thirds of the Public Utilities Commission.

“The regulatory space at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission is the playground of corporate lawyers, unelected bureaucrats, and well-funded special interest groups. They have ‘stakeholder’ meetings that include only themselves,” wrote Amy Oliver Cooke, a member of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team and executive vice president and director of the Independence Institute’s Energy and Environmental Policy Center.

Regulation of monopolies cannot be taken lightly and should never become inside ball.

Although we do not question the integrity of our PUC members, a system made up of three appointees lacks adequate checks and balances.

The Legislature could fix it by empowering the public to elect each member of a seven-member Public Utilities Commission, as we elect members of the Colorado State Board of Education. Elect a member from each congressional district, in conjunction with each congressional election. Or, structure it like the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents. It consists of a member from each congressional district and two elected statewide.

The law should forbid companies regulated by the PUC from funding commissioner campaigns or political action committees that advocate for PUC candidates.

An elected board would answer to the people served by regulated industries. A law that regionalizes representation would protect all areas of the state.

Of 12 states that elect public service regulators, 11 have electric rates lower than the average throughout Colorado. Two of them, Louisiana and Oklahoma, have the second and third lowest rates in the country.

As Colorado revolutionizes energy production, consumer protection and industry oversight become increasingly important for providers and consumers. It may be time for a Public Utilities Commission chosen by the public it serves.

The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Oct. 11

Denver Scholarship Fund’s growing success inspires

Eleven years ago an ambitious program was born to help low-income Denver Public Schools students pay for higher education. In that time, the story of the Denver Scholarship Foundation has been one of increasing success. Thousands of low-income high school graduates have been able to subsidize educations. Students now have the chance to choose from 31 Colorado technical and community colleges and universities. In the last school year, 75 percent of the program’s recipients either remained enrolled in college or had graduated.

We mention it because the program’s longtime chief executive, Nate Easley, is moving on. It’s time to stop and reflect on what this program has meant, and why it works.

The Denver Scholarship Foundation was set up in 2006 after John Hickenlooper — then Denver’s mayor — made it a priority to give low-income students and students from families that hadn’t gone to college a fighting chance. Denver oilman Tim Marquez and his wife, Bernadette, donated $50 million to get things going. DPS partnered with the fund to cover its administration, ensuring that future donations would go to students. In 2016, the scholarship fund helped more than 5,000 students go to college.

“I always joke that when I started, ROI meant Righteousness of Intent,” Easley tells us. “It was righteous work. It would help low-income kids. It was the right thing to do.”

But Easley said he quickly learned that the fund’s Return on Investment focus meant quantifiably helping students succeed. To that end, the public-private partnership keeps close track of its scholars, provides ongoing education and career counseling and requires that students report on progress each semester to keep the money coming. The result is the 75 percent persistence rate mentioned earlier.

“That’s the expectation, so no excuses,” Easley said. “I can honestly say that (75 percent) may be impressive when you look at it relative to how the urban school graduates are doing when they’re mostly Latino, African-American, low-income and first generation, but we’re going to do better than that. We’re going to absolutely do better than that. And that’s where the momentum is leading us.”

Fueling the momentum are a dozen centers the program operates for the district’s 21 high schools. Incoming freshmen learn about the centers early on. Experts work with students and their families to demystify the complex challenges of applying for scholarships, as well as state and federal assistance.

The foundation likes to say it leverages its grants — which can be up to $4,000 a year for four-year programs — by requiring applicants to also apply for other scholarships and assistance programs.

“The fund has been such an extraordinary source of opportunity and support for Denver’s students,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg tells us. “If you look back since the beginning of the fund, we have nearly doubled the number of students going to college.”

And while the money has been key, Boasberg says, the counseling and support from the program’s experts has proved to be “a lifeline to the future.”

Denver should be proud to have such a program, and Easley can certainly be proud to have led the fund to its current success.

The Denver Post, Oct. 10

Special session: Hospital district, regional transit victims of partisan legislative games

Last week’s special legislative session, aimed at correcting a marijuana tax error, accomplished exactly nothing good, and the stubbornness of a few GOP committee members will mean some Colorado special districts will continue to go without money that was fully intended for them.

Last summer when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 267, which increases revenue for infrastructure projects within the state, the bill was intended to remove a statewide sales tax on marijuana. A provision in the bill allowed cities and counties to continue to levy sales taxes on retail marijuana sales, but special districts were accidentally omitted. That tax was being collected before the bill took effect, and no one intended it to stop. The problem was simply the erroneous omission of a few words.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who apparently misread the amount of opposition to a special session, called lawmakers back to fix the problem. Some GOP legislators were already irritated at the passage of SB 267, and they disapproved of the cost of the session. Wait for the regular session that begins in January, they said.

Some held that because the tax had been allowed — however unintentionally — to expire, reinstating it requires voter approval under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Others believed that a longstanding Colorado Supreme Court ruling would allow the change.

Regardless, the fix didn’t make it past the three Republican members of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sens. Randy Baumgardner, John Cooke and Ray Scott. Other lawmakers went home without being able to vote on a straightforward measure that had the votes to pass.

The big losers include the Regional Transportation District, which provides bus and rail service to the Denver/Boulder area, and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District that includes the Denver Zoo, museums and performance venues.

Locally, the error affects the San Miguel Regional Transit Authority to the tune of $10,000 in the remainder of this fiscal year alone, and the Montezuma County Hospital District, which is losing out on approximately $7,200 in revenue each month just as it is in the middle of a big construction project.

That money cannot be collected retroactively. It’s just gone. These amounts may seem inconsequential to lawmakers in Denver, and it is not a large figure even in Cortez, but every penny matters, as does the principle.

Ironically, one purpose of SB 267 was to shore up revenues for rural hospitals. That’s a goal some lawmakers apparently fail to take seriously.

Their beef wasn’t with the local hospital district or the other special districts that were harmed by the mistake, and that makes their vote even more disturbing. Although the intent was always clear and the provision relating to the taxing authority of special districts was not controversial, some GOP legislators chose to play politics rather than allow a few special districts to resume tax collections on recreational marijuana purchases.

We expect more from our state legislators. Those who kept a fix from even coming up for a floor vote have caused real harm when a simple solution was available.

The Cortez Journal, Oct. 9

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