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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Muzzling a watchdog

Gov. John Kasich's proposal to gut the operating budget of Ohio's consumer advocate for utility issues seems aimed less at achieving necessary economies than rewarding interests that supported his campaign. It shouldn't happen.

The proposal in the governor's budget to cut funding for the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel by more than half can't be justified as a move to shrink the projected state revenue shortfall. The agency is funded entirely through a fee levied on utilities — electric, telephone, gas, and water. It gets nothing from the state's general fund.

Cutting the agency's funding from $8.5 million this year to $4.1 million in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, as Mr. Kasich proposes, would erode its ability to fight for Ohio's 4.5 million residential utility customers.

Consumers' Counsel officials say that over the past two years, the agency has saved customers about $54 million — far more than its budget. Its staff of about 75 employees reviews utility rate increases, practices, and accountability to ensure that consumers get cost-effective and satisfactory service.

The agency also maintains a toll-free hot line that helps customers with potential disconnections and billing disputes, and provides credible information on complex utility issues. Cutting its budget in half obviously would require big reductions in staff and operations.

Kasich administration officials say the governor wants to eliminate bureaucratic overlap between the consumer counsel's office and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which also operates a call center. But while PUCO represents the interests of utilities as well as their customers, the OCC exclusively advocates the interests of consumers who pay utility bills.

The proposed cutback would cripple the agency's ability to keep an eye on regulated utilities. The General Assembly should maintain full funding for the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel.

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