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Published: Friday, 4/20/2012

Help for consumers

Gov. John Kasich and Republican lawmakers don't appear inclined to restore state funding to the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, a watchdog group that for years has stood up for the state's 4.5 million residential ratepayers in matters that involve public utilities. They should reconsider.

The two-year state budget that took effect last year slashed funding to the counsel's office. Critics assert that the counsel merely duplicates efforts of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

PUCO is essentially a rate-hike referee, not a consumer advocate. Ratepayers' need for stronger advocacy is illustrated by a case last fall, when American Electric Power struck a deal with PUCO to keep its base rates the same while charging a separate fee for system maintenance. A month later, average residential bills for AEP customers rose 5 percent.

Such inability to rein in utility rates does more than reduce consumers' spending power. It also obstructs the state's efforts to attract business.

The counsel's office last month named Bruce Weston its fourth director in its 35-year history. But the state budget gutted aid to the office so much -- from $8.5 million last fiscal year to $5.6 million this year -- that Mr. Weston's predecessor had to lay off half her staff. The counsel's funding is scheduled to fall again next year, to $4.1 million.

The Consumers' Counsel is not funded by taxes. Before the budget slash, it received fees from utilities that cost the typical household about $1 a year. It's time for the governor and legislature to restore that money to one of Ohio's most effective consumer advocates.

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