Businesses Love to Hate the Hawaii PUC

But there's a plan to build a better regulator

(page 2 of 2)

Buying a Plan

The real issue is money. The PUC is mostly funded by fees collected from the utilities it regulates. This special fund should be more than adequate for the commission’s regulatory duties, but it doesn’t actually get all the money.

“In 2009, we collected $17.6 million in revenues, most of which are from the public utilities,” Caliboso says. “At the same time, our expenditures were only about $8.2 million, $2.9 million of which went to the consumer advocate. That means about $9.4 million went back to the general fund. So, the money is there. The problem, as far as money goes, is that a lot of it is being used for something other than regulatory purposes.”

Money also plays a role in another challenge facing the commission: attracting quality staff. PUC positions go unfilled for so long partly because the pay isn’t competitive with private industry. As one industry insider put it, it’s not uncommon for commission attorneys to be sitting across the table from utility attorneys making four or five times more money. This is a national problem, but, even so, according to Sen. Baker, the disparity in Hawaii is larger.

“We did a study where we looked around the country,” she says, “and other state salaries, almost without exception, are higher than ours.” Similarly, other states pillage utility commission revenues, just not so wantonly.

Utility professionals routinely complain about the underfunding of the commission. In her 2004 report on the PUC, the state auditor recommended the commission undertake serious strategic planning, pointing specifically at the agency’s deficiencies in personnel management. In 2006, the Legislature passed Act 143, which required the PUC and the consumer advocate to prepare a reorganization plan specifying their budget, resource and manpower needs. The following year, Acts 177 and 183 approved and funded most of the commission’s requests. The PUC’s reorganization plan included:

• Increasing the staff level to 62 for the PUC and 15 for the Division for Consumer Advocacy;
• Redescribing several positions to better reflect new responsibilities;
• Restructuring the agencies’ hierarchy to improve organizational effectiveness, especially by creating an Office of Policy and Research to better address highly technical policy issues; and
• Relocating the PUC offices to accommodate the larger staff and new organization.

Nothing happened as planned. In 2008, the Legislature reduced the commission’s budget again, removing nine existing positions, and not funding two new positions or the agency’s relocation. The following year, the consumer advocate lost eight positions and other new positions went unfunded. Yet, even with funding and legislative approval, the commission still can’t reorganize on its own. It needs approval from the Department of Budget and Finance to release the funds, and the Department of Human Resources and Development has to rewrite job descriptions. Both departments presented roadblocks to the PUC’s reorganization.

Finally, in the 2010 session, the Legislature relented, passing Act 130, which acknowledged that the PUC’s reorganization was essential, especially to “successfully implement meaningful energy policy reform.” Act 130 puts numbers to that, noting that the commission regulates “electric and telecommunications services worth between $3 billion and $4 billion annually.” The legislation also notes that the potential savings from appropriate regulation may save the state more than the cost of fully funding the reorganization. Put another way, a well-run PUC is good business.

Caliboso highlights the value of effective regulation differently. “Another way to think about it is to look at how much is being invested in energy,” he says. “The cost rate base for the utility – or the money they’ve invested in energy infrastructure – is almost $2 billion.” Viewed in the context of protecting that investment, the PUC budget starts to look trifling.

Similarly, Caliboso says, you can look at the state’s regulatory costs in comparison with the aims of the state’s Clean Energy Initiative. “When you think of how much we should be investing to achieve our policy goals of getting us off oil and achieving energy security, which could help both in addressing price volatility and in securing our supply of energy, the cost of (better regulation), that’s not that much more to invest.”

More of the Same?

The remarkable thing about this ebb and flow of funding is that the PUC’s reorganization isn’t controversial. “Everyone knows it should happen,” Freeman says. “Everyone agrees. Everyone is supportive.” But he acknowledges that might not be enough. After all, he points out, funding for the reorganization has been given and taken away several times. “The question is: Is the Legislature just going to wipe it out again?”

     Last month, Gov Neil Abercrombie nominated Rep. Hermina
     Morita, as the new PUC chair.
     Photo: Courtesy of Representative Hermina Morita

Gov. Neil Abercrombie seemed to address some of these questions in February by appointing the former chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, Rep. Hermina Morita, to the commission, filling the seat vacated by Leslie Kondo, and replacing Caliboso as chair.

Morita had long been the most knowledgeable supporter of renewable energy in the House and a vocal advocate for increased PUC funding. Even so, it’s not clear the PUC’s reorganization will survive the legislative session. “I would like to say, ‘Yes,’ ” Morita confided, shortly before her appointment, “but I’m only confident if the other legislators fully understand that this is a critical part of our economic recovery and our economic development.”
In fact, Morita’s appointment may add to the uncertainty surrounding the reorganization. Although she’s widely admired among PUC observers, particularly those in the energy sector, her departure from the House will deprive the commission of a powerful legislative advocate at a critical moment. She may also stir things up within the commission itself, where, as chair, Morita will have an opportunity to reshuffle PUC staff.

Some legislators simply aren’t convinced that the commission is properly structured in the first place. “I just don’t think we have the appropriate expertise on the PUC,” said Baker, shortly before Kondo's departure. “We have two government attorneys and one private-sector attorney. We don’t have anybody with any kind of engineering expertise, accounting expertise, or financial or business expertise. We don’t even have anybody with any energy background. They don’t have to have worked for a utility, but just to understand some of the technical dynamics.”

Baker is also concerned about the PUC's demographics. “I don’t want to impugn the background or integrity of anybody, but the commission just is not diverse. For example, there are no members from the Neighbor Islands.” She acknowledges that the addition of Morita, who is from Kauai, will alleviate some concerns, but she believes the PUC needs structural changes.

Which brings us back to the PUC’s Pasha decision. In the wake of the flack following that ruling, Baker has proposed legislation that will further complicate the PUC reorganization. “I have a bill that tries to professionalize the staff and adds two more commissioners, so there would be a total of five,” she says. This would simplify adding a requirement that the commission include Neighbor Island representation. And, according to Baker, it would also allow PUC staff to specialize. “The bill also creates two panels,” she says. “One to deal with energy and private water systems – because that’s a big piece of what the commission does – and the other would deal with water carriers, motor carriers and warehousing. That way, you’ve got some specialization, so both the commissioners and the staff can zero in.”

It seems like a good plan. But you have to wonder if the added uncertainty introduced by the bill will kill the PUC’s reorganization in the Legislature again. That’s a fate Caliboso knows is all too possible.

“Is it a done deal, pau, don’t worry about it?” he asks. “No, they could always take it away again.”

 

Regulatory Commission Staffing

     Click to enlarge image.

  

Major Policy Dockets

Within the electric industry, the PUC undertook more major public policy initiatives under the Caliboso administration than the previous three administrations combined.

     Click to enlarge image.

 

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