City groups warned that pending legislation at the state Capitol would lessen customer protections for ratepayers.

Legislation in Austin could weaken customer protections.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it — that was the message delivered to Texas lawmakers this week regarding proposals to undermine a system whereby cities defend their citizens against unfair rate hikes.

Under current law, Texas cities have partial jurisdiction over the prudence of electric distribution and gas rates charged within city limits. Cities also have the right to defend local ratepayers at the state level. This system has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings for gas and electric customers over the last decade.

But House Bills 1148 and 1149 would deprive cities of much of that authority, and also make it difficult for cities to pay the expense of defending their citizens in rate cases. Both bills are top priorities for CenterPoint Energy, a Houston utility that would benefit if HB 1148 and HB 1149 becomes law. 

About a dozen city representatives expressed opposition to HB 1148 and 1149 during a March 6 public hearing of the House State Affairs Committee in Austin. Across five hours of testimony, the only opposition that emerged was from a single CenterPoint vice president and from one official with an Austin think tank supported by the energy industry.

Jay Doegey, Steering Committee of Cities Served by Oncor

Jay Doegey

Under the terms of HB 1148, gas utilities could take action that would deprive cities of their ability to consider a company’s rate filings at the city level. Opponents at the commitee hearing noted that the legislation would deprive cities of local control and make it difficult for cities and utilities to work together to settle rate cases. 

“If you want to drive up the costs of utilities in the state of Texas, pass House Bill 1149,” said Jim Gerlt, the Lubbock city council member.

Similarly, House Bill1148 would make it much more difficult for cities to collect reimbursements for the expense of defending their citizens in electric and gas rate cases. But one city official cited data showing that cities have helped save gas utility customers more than $430 million over a 10-year period, but with only $12.7 million in rate case expenses. Jay Doegey, chairman of the Steering Committee of Cities Served by Oncor, also noted that cities helped save customers in  north Texas more than $1 billion as a result of a single regulatory settlement. 

House Bills 1148 and 1149 were left pending in committee.

— R.A. Dyer