TRENTON – Legislators have started discussing a proposal to expand the focus of its ratepayer advocate to also consider the environment and climate change.

The change, which wouldn’t be voted on until the new legislative session that starts in mid-January, might run counter to the post-election mantra at the Statehouse emphasizing affordability, as the state Division of Rate Counsel assesses all rate proposals by utilities and often negotiates to scale them back.

Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, the chairman of the Senate environment committee, said the rate counsel’s position was developed at a time in the 20th century when the feeling was that utilities had a monopoly that needed a countervailing force.

“What is different in the 21st century is that our planet and our population are facing new challenges, and sometimes that means that you have to take other things into consideration,” Smith said.

Rate Counsel Brian Lipman said utilities are still a monopoly and that while reducing carbon emissions is a shared goal, someone needs to advocate for how the costs get distributed.

“In utility matters, there is no other advocate aside from rate counsel who is charged with advocating the economic interest of New Jersey’s ratepayers,” Lipman said.

“At this particular moment in time, when we have over 800,000 customers in arrears and unable to pay their utility bills, someone needs to be in the business of protecting ratepayers’ financial interests,” he said.

The potential change worries businesses, who say the move toward renewables have pushed energy costs to 50% above the national average for manufacturers in New Jersey.

“If this bill were to pass, the ratepayer advocate would no longer be serving the function of protecting ratepayers in the state of New Jersey and taking that unbiased viewpoint and making the arguments that no one else in the room is going to make,” said Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said Gov. Phil Murphy and Democratic lawmakers are "cooking the books" to hide the cost impact of the state's energy master plan.

"Gov. Murphy knows that his absurdly expensive green energy plan would be dead in the water if New Jerseyans ever learned the true cost," Bucco said. "That’s why he’s rigging the system to ensure that homeowners and ratepayers never have a fair chance to fight back.”

Environmentalists say more must go into the analysis than simply the utility rates.

“The public interest is obviously more than just rates,” said David Pringle of Empower New Jersey. “In fact, rates matter less than – people don’t really care about the rate they pay for electricity, they care about their total bill. Rate is a factor of that, but how much electricity you use is a big factor, too. Things like conservation and efficiency matter as much if not more than the actual rate.”

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Eric Miller, New Jersey energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it can be tough to get approval for utility-run energy-efficiency programs with a tight focus on affordability.

“And because it doesn’t perfectly pencil out or we might not be valuing the impact on public health to the level we should be, sometimes it’s hard to make the case for deeper programs that get at more of the structural inequities in our utilities,” Miller said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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