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The Oregon Senate vote sends legislation to Gov. Brown; fund guarantees advocacy in ratemaking proceedings.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission will be empowered to approve discounted utility rates for low-income customers under a bill that is headed to Gov. Kate Brown.

House Bill 2475, which the Senate approved without amendment on an 18-11 vote Thursday, May 13, also allows access to a fund by advocates of low-income households or communities disproportionately affected by environmental pollution that participate in PUC proceedings. The fund is capped at $500,000 annually.

A coalition known as Oregon Clean Energy Opportunity supports the bill to help energy-burdened consumers, defined as low-income households that pay 6% or more of their monthly income on electric and gas service.

One of them is Maria Dolores Torres, a 25-year resident of Beaverton and a mother of three.

"As I was raising my children, many times I had to choose between giving them healthy foods or maintaining a warm home," she said in a statement the coalition released after the Senate vote. "It was very difficult to pay high electric bills and on top of that pay other utilities as well as keeping up with monthly rent. This bill will help change that."

Sen. Lee Beyer, a Democrat from Springfield, was the bill's floor manager. Between stints in the Legislature — from 2001 to 2010 — he was one of the three members of the PUC, which regulates Oregon's investor-owned utilities.

For electricity, Portland General Electric, Pacific Power and Idaho Power serve about 75% of Oregon utility customers. For natural gas, the primary utilities are NW Natural, Avista and Cascade Natural Gas. The rest of the state is served by consumer-owned utilities, most of which have their own elected boards.

Beyer said the bill emerged from 2017 legislation that required the PUC to review its work and propose changes.

The Senate, on a party-line vote, rejected a substitute that would have guaranteed a small-business advocate in rate proceedings. PUC proceedings already include the Citizens Utility Board, which voters created in 1984 to represent residential ratepayers, and the Alliance of Western Energy Consumers, which represent industrial customers large enough to buy power directly from sources.

"We need to ensure that small business is included in that process," Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said. "They are just as affected by energy policy as others. But they have no voice."

But Beyer said there is nothing that blocks advocacy on behalf of small business at PUC proceedings.

"I have never been able to get an organization to step forward and take that issue on in PUC proceedings. So the process is there now," Beyer said. "This bill is just adding to that specifically for lower-income groups that have an issue."

He said the $500,000 cap mirrors a similar amount that the PUC set in 2003 for CUB.

Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, distributed a letter with numerous endorsements for the bill.

"This is not just an urban issue. It is a statewide issue," he said. "I ask you to support more affordable energy bills for your constituents in need."

One Republican, Tim Knopp of Bend, joined 17 Democrats in support. One Democrat, Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, joined nine Republicans and an independent in opposition. One Republican was absent.

The House passed the original bill on a 36-20 vote March 16. Two Republicans joined all the Democrats present to vote for it; no Democrat opposed it.

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