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House endorses bill to aid utility customers

A chain link fence and “No Trespassing” signs surround the Roundhouse this session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The state House passed a bill Tuesday intended to keep the lights on for utility customers unable to pay because of economic hardship inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation, House Bill 206, would require public utilities to offer residential customers who are behind on their payments the chance to participate in an installment program to pay what they owe, without late fees.

Utilities would also face new restrictions on when they can disconnect a customer's service.

The bill would create a broader relief program for low-income families, too. In some cases, a customer could have half their debt incurred during the pandemic wiped off the books.

“This bill helps people who have experienced great economic hardship and who are in debt because of COVID-19,” Democratic Rep. Kristina Ortez of Taos said, “and it helps us ensure it doesn't happen again. This is unprecedented, what we're experiencing.”

Opponents assailed the bill as overreaching and said it would interfere with emergency measures already taken by the state Public Regulation Commission.

Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said the legislation would “socialize the utility industry in New Mexico.” Good intentions aside, he said, the bill will simply shift costs from some customers to others.

“I'm not a believer in a free lunch,” Scott said. “Somebody will have to pick up the tab.”

Under the bill, a utility could recover its costs through PRC-approved changes to its rates, applications for federal funding or other measures.

The bill would also establish a block grant program for energy-efficiency projects in lower-income communities and authorize the PRC to approve discounted rates for low-income families.

The bill won approval 39-31 Tuesday and now heads to the Senate with just 17 days left in the 60-day session. It must win Senate approval by March 20 to reach the governor's desk.

Ortez, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the measure would provide more relief than what the PRC is authorized to do on its own, such as the provision for debt forgiveness.

“Our low-income families need this support,” Ortez said. “We've never been in a crisis like this before.”

Six Democrats crossed party lines to vote against the bill, joining one independent and all Republicans.

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