Malloy promises consumer protections — details to come

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen outline consumer protections.

CT Mirror

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen outline consumer protections.

Consumer advocates responded cautiously Tuesday to a promise by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other top Democrats to deliver far-reaching consumer protections to thwart misleading marketing by electric suppliers.

At a senior center in Hartford’s South End, the governor joined Attorney General George Jepsen, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Consumer Advocate Elin Katz in outlining legislation that will meet the demands of advocates.

“What we’re doing today is announcing nothing less than a consumer bill of rights when it comes to procurement of electrical rates in the state of Connecticut,” Malloy said.

Some third-party electric suppliers have been enticing customers with teaser rates that quickly exceed the standard offer available from the state’s two major electric utilities, Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating. Advocates say fraud and misleading marketing is rampant, costing consumers millions of dollars.

“It is clear that greater disclosure in the electric supply market is necessary not only to protect consumers from bad actors but also to ensure that electric suppliers better inform customers about the rates they will be paying each month – and about the risks,” Malloy said. “Consumers need timely and accurate information.”

Jepsen said the legislation would require electric bills of third-party suppliers to show a comparison every month of their rates and those of the standard offer. Introductory rates would have to be fixed for at least three months. Consumers would be able to switch back to standard service within 48 hours.

Williams said he was a victim of a supplier who offered him a cheap variable rate, then never could be reached to cancel his contract when the rate jumped sharply, consuming his original savings. “It essentially doubled,” he said.

Jepsen said the legislation would bar such practices and give the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority increased staff and authority to penalize unscrupulous suppliers. Some of the details were scant. On enforcement, an outline released by the leaders only said, “Make funds available to PURA to increase enforcement staff.”

Officials at AARP and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG), who have been pressing to see legislative language as the annual session inches toward adjournment May 7, say the concepts outlined Tuesday can’t be judged without the details.

“The most obvious thing we did not see there was enforcement. What are the mechanisms and resources for enforcement?” asked Tom Swan, CCAG’s executive director. “Details within that building matter a lot.”

Nora Duncan, the state director of AARP Connecticut, said the advocates want to see a sustainable source of revenue for the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to hire enforcement staff to monitor electric suppliers.

“The bottom line is we want to see actual language. We want to be at the table,” Duncan said. “We want them to move forward in as open a way as possible. There is one chance to get this right this session. I really want to get it right.”

The announcement Tuesday came one day after the advocates staged a press conference to pressure legislators to deliver on their promise of consumer reforms. Last month, the legislature’s Energy and Public Utilities Committee sent to the Senate floor a shell bill — details to come later as the bill is negotiated.

Legislators led by Williams, and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, lined up with AARP members at the Capitol in January to endorse stronger regulation of third-party electric suppliers, a frequent source of consumer complaints to PURA.

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