boston globe

Note: bold by MAMEC

Shocking electric rates

April 8, 2006

THE JOLT from recent hikes in many electric bills across Massachusetts should spur residents to ask why the Legislature is burying consumer-friendly efforts that could ease the way for cities and towns to own and operate their own municipal light companies. In terms of price and service, these ''munis" routinely outshine NStar and other investor-owned utilities.

Last month, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy plunged two promising bills in the inky depths of a study committee. One was a home rule petition from Lexington seeking to buy NStar's poles and wires at fair value for the purpose of establishing a light company similar to the one in neighboring Concord. Current law allows for such transactions but gives utilities unlimited power to reject reasonable offers. Since 1926, not a single municipal light company has been added to the current field of 41.

Few lobbies on Beacon Hill have more juice than the electric utilities. But public frustration with the power companies could grow. ln 2004, the average NStar household paid 27 percent more than customers in communities with municipal light companies. In January of this year, that monthly gap jumped to 70 percent. In 1997, deregulation advocates promised a brighter day through competition. Benefits for ratepayers never materialized. Instead, customers of big utilities got burned in the selloff of power plants. Now the Legislature is adding to the pain by blocking ''municipalization."

Things don't look so gloomy for some legislators. Representative Brian Dempsey of Haverhill saw a significant boost in campaign contributions from utility executives last year when he assumed the chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee. In 2005, he raised $53,332 in campaign contributions, about $8,000 more than the previous year. Roughly three-quarters of that increase, according to a review of campaign disclosure reports, came from electric utility executives.

''It's a significant sum," says Pam Wilmot, director of Massachusetts Common Cause. Especially in the case of chairmen, she says, such donations can raise the appearance of excessive influence.

Town officials in Lexington have spent long years researching and preparing for a town-run light company. Neither money in politics nor giant utilities should eclipse such efforts.

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Source: Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co.