Virginia Beach Residents Fighting Wind Project Cables

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Opposition to offshore wind is stirring in Virginia Beach, but the focus is on a North Carolina proposal that will bring its power ashore at Sandbridge Beach, not the Dominion Energy Virginia project which is adjacent to the state’s largest city.

Private energy developer Avangrid Renewables LLC still needs a key easement from Virginia Beach City Council to proceed with its plans.  That vote was delayed earlier this year and the company was asked to increase its local outreach and engagement.  A key meeting in that effort will take place Thursday, May 4 at Municipal Center Building 1.

An information session will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by a public hearing at 6:30 p.m.  Representatives of the company will be present to address questions and concerns about the Kitty Hawk Wind (KWH) proposal, which is not as far along in the review process as Dominion’s larger Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind.

No purchase agreement for the project’s power output has been announced, for example.  Unless it has turned up recently, no application has been filed with Virginia’s State Corporation Commission.  There is a construction and operations plan filed last September with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management which describes up to 69 turbines of up to 1,042 feet in height.

The Protect Sandbridge Beach Coalition plans to be at the hearing and is actively recruiting local members, with a petition and membership portal on its website.  Its leadership recently reached out to coordinate with a national umbrella group, American Coalition for Ocean Protection, which includes the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy among its affiliates.  ACOP is participating in a lawsuit challenging the first of the large Biden Administration-blessed projects, Vineyard Wind off Nantucket, Massachusetts.

The flyer Protect Sandbridge Beach it is circulating to drum up attendance next week cites a number of concerns among its bullet points, starting with the years-long disruption to tourism activity the transmission construction project would create.  It cites: “No net benefit to the most impacted communities, only risk of impacting property values, tax revenues, rate increases and tourism. What are the unknown unintended consequences to our vital beach nourishment program and the environment?”

Beyond the specific Sandbridge local impact, Sandbridge resident Joe Bourne says the group’s members are expressing “a general concern about the pace of offshore wind development.”  Bourne is a retired DuPont executive who worked for years in Scotland, and his impression is the wind projects in the North Sea have not lived up to their promises.

He can see Dominion’s two test turbines more than 25 miles from his home’s porch, clearly enough some nights to see the rotation of lights on the blade tips.  “If the claim is you can’t see it, that’s not true,” he said.  The next 170 turbines Dominion will build will be far taller than the first two, with wider arcs, very visible from the main Virginia Beach tourist area, especially from the upper hotel floors.

Concerns about the visual impact on North Carolina tourism have drawn fire from the John Locke Foundation in that state.  Projects further south than Kitty Hawk Wind are much closer to shore.

Avangrid’s proposed first phase, Kitty Hawk North, is expected to have a nameplate capacity of 800 megawatts.  It is about 27 miles off the Outer Banks, but the high voltage transmission cables to Sandbridge would be 36 miles long and come ashore right in the large parking lot at the north end of the complex, where the shopping and restaurants are located.

From there, power lines would extend to Corporate Landing for a connection to the main electrical grid’s backbone.  The preferred power line route in the filed plan follows Sandbridge Road.  Construction is slated to begin in early 2027.

Dominion’s wind power will come ashore on state property away from homes and businesses, creating less disruption.  But its plans to connect to the grid are more detailed now, and its miles of major overhead lines are drawing local opposition.  Bourne gives Dominion high marks for public engagement, and for making some adjustments to its design.  Avangrid has not been as responsive, he said.  That was one reason Virginia Beach City Council punted on the easement request in February.

If its website is up to date, the last time the region’s newspaper wrote about the opposition to the project was last summer, before the updated construction plan was filed and before the first discussion at Virginia Beach City Council.   The region’s governments and business community still have high hopes of becoming the construction and operations hub for many offshore wind complexes, which has been the focus of multiple supportive comments filed with BOEM about the Dominion project.

Bourne said he and others are going group by group to present the case that offshore wind is not going to be a boon and has major drawbacks.  Ultimately, he thinks that the longer the build-out takes, the more financial support may dry up.  Several of the wind developers are showing signs of financial stress.  Avangrid is one of the firms seeking to renegotiate previously made U.S. power purchase deals.

“People lie, governments lie, but the money tells the truth”, Bourne said.  Money is the “unbiased referee.”

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Government Protects Itself from Inflation, But Not You

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Virginia motor fuel taxes will rise again July 1, to just over 39 cents per gallon on gasoline and just over 40 cents per gallon on diesel. This will be the second automatic increase in gas taxes since the 2020 General Assembly voted to index the gas tax to inflation.

Add the retail gasoline tax and storage tank fee in the first table to the wholesale gasoline tax in the second table to get the total tax per gallon. Do the same for diesel. Source, Virginia Petroleum and Convenience Marketers Association.

This is the all-in combined tax, including the retail tax (29.8 cents as of July 1), the separate wholesale tax that is often forgotten (8.8 cents as of July 1), and a 0.6-cent per gallon tax for a fund dealing with abandoned underground tanks.  The way Virginia splits up the fuels tax and tries to hide the totals has been addressed before. (Also here.) It all ends up in the pump price.

This will also increase the highway user fee (HUF), the alternative to gas taxes imposed on electric cars and hybrids in Virginia. Details on how that works are below, along with how it is cheaper than the gas tax.

The 2023 figures come from the Virginia Petroleum and Convenience Marketers Association, which shared them with its members after it received notice from the state. They put it all in one chart with the details (see above, or here). The indexing provision has added about 15% over two years, or 5.1 cents per gallon, to the state’s gasoline tax. It went to 34.1 cents per gallon on July 1, 2021, 36.8 cents per gallon July 1, 2022 and will be 39.2 cents per gallon this July.

A busy family using 1,000 gallons of fuel a year will be paying $50 more per year in tax than two years earlier. They will pay $392 in total taxes. Keep that number in mind for the discussion on HUF below.

For more than a year the painful impact of high inflation on all commodities and services has been driven home to Virginians, but it remains the most effective and sneaky way for government to pad its coffers. Sales taxes go up with prices, and property taxes go up with assessments. But until recently, Virginia’s fuel taxes were a fixed amount per gallon and inflation effectively eroded them.

So, the 2020 Virginia General Assembly added inflation indexing for fuel taxes, something it also did for the state’s minimum wage. The idea of giving taxpayers a break by indexing the income tax deductions and brackets to inflation has proven a non-starter, however. This year Democratic legislators are also balking at another increase in the standard deduction, which can be viewed as an inflation hedge.

Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) tried to persuade the 2022 General Assembly to offer a break on the fuel taxes, but Democrats voted it down. Gas tax relief was not included in his tax package for the 2023 session.

Increasing the gasoline tax also triggers an increase in the highway users fee which is assessed both on electric vehicles which use no motor fuels and on gasoline or diesel vehicles with high mileage ratings. The HUF as it is known was also established just three years ago as a mechanism to protect transportation revenues from erosion as electric, hybrid or high efficiency motor fuel engines become more popular.

The complicated HUF provision in the law is here. The HUF, paid annually when the vehicle is registered or has its registration renewed, is based only on the retail portion of the tax. The separate wholesale tax and underground tank tax are not calculated into the HUF. So, for the year beginning July 1, the HUF will be based on 29.8 cents per gallon, not the full 39.2 cents per gallon paid on motor fuels.

Actually, the HUF is only 85% of that rate, so will be about 25.3 cents per gallon. And since nobody is tracking and reporting the actual mileage of these vehicles, the tax is calculated on the average vehicle miles traveled for Virginia. For this year, that has been 11,600 miles of use. The calculation formula also includes the average miles per gallon for fueled vehicles in Virginia, 23.7 mpg.

So, an all-electric vehicle will pay about $124 of HUF for a year, in lieu of motor fuel taxes, no matter how few or many miles it drives. That will be an increase from the current $116.50.

For the “fuel efficient” gasoline, diesel or hybrid vehicles, the annual HUF will be some lower amount based on their advertised miles per gallon rating. The higher it is, the more HUF will be imposed. Again, it will tick up just a bit with the higher retail gas tax on July 1.

Of course, their owners are also still buying fuel and there is no 11,600 miles per year cap on that for them. It is that cap that really opens up the wide disparity and provides a subsidy for the EVs.

If that family mentioned above using 1,000 gallons a year has a high-mileage vehicle or two, add some HUF to that $392 in gas taxes.

If you are curious about the spread of EVs and hybrids in the overall vehicle fleet, the HUF is an excellent proxy for their growth to watch. For the current fiscal year it is projected to produce $61 million in revenue. The traditional motor fuels taxes collect closer to $1.5 billion.

If Virginia does indeed see an explosion in EV use, and the federal government is deploying every carrot and stick in its arsenal to force us to buy electric cars, then the HUF is going to have to go up. It will need to be based on the full tax paid on motor fuels. The 15% discount will have to go away and so must the cap created by assuming only 11,600 annual miles of usage.

But right now hiding the true cost of this EV conversion from consumers is the goal of our governments. The lower tax paid by EV users through HUF is just one more inducement before the bait turns into the switch.

A version of this commentary originally appeared April 26 in the online Bacon’s Rebellion

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Welcome, Dr. Coons! Let’s Talk Math

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In K-12 education, can Virginia lead the nation?  If that’s the goal, in my view as a career educator, Dr. Lisa Coons is the best possible choice as our new state Superintendent. As Chief Academic Officer in Tennessee, the programs she guided to help teachers improve reading instruction are among the best in the nation.

But in Virginia, challenge #1 is mathematics. The department Dr. Coons now leads is tentatively scheduled in June to submit to the state Board of Education a proposed revision of our K-12 math Standards of Learning (SOLs).  Workforce math skills are vital for our nation’s prosperity and defense, but current standards, in both our state and nation, are failing to teach mathematics effectively.

The evidence?   On national standards, much of it can be found in the International Journal of Mathematics Education, among other places.

  • Since 2012?  In national NAEP LTT testing in January 2020, before the U.S. arrival of Covid-19, math scores were lower than in 2012 for nearly every student group.
  • As noted by columnist George Will, “About 76,000 students each year receive from U.S. universities advanced degrees in engineering disciplines …. Of those graduates, about 43 percent are U.S. citizens….”
  • Electrical engineering (EE) is an especially important field in the competitive world economy.  Of EE doctorates awarded by U.S. universities, the proportion going to non-U.S. citizens rose from 62% in 2010 to 70% in 2019.  Almost as many U.S. EE Ph.D.’s went to citizens of China as to U.S. citizens.

Many of these “best and brightest” from around the globe stay in the U.S. and contribute disproportionately to our economy.  But one wonders:  How long will U.S. taxpayers support higher education their children are not being prepared to enter?

gure 1. Average scores in numeracy for age 16-34 (bars) and age 16-24 (red dots): OECD PIAAC 2012. (From Goodman et al. 2015, Data © OECD 2012. Used with permission.)

What Went Wrong

As a major factor explaining these results, scientists who study learning have found that in teaching mathematics, the methods required by U.S. K-12 standards have proven to be inefficient and/or ineffective.

Historically to learn math, students had no choice but to memorize fundamental facts and procedures.  Change arrived in the 1980’s as low-cost calculators to solve arithmetic became available.

Another change was a 1989 agreement by state governors to adopt “standards” to direct K-12 instruction.  By 2003, all states had adopted standards.  As Tom Loveless points out in Stability and Change in American Education, for guidance in math, most relied on standards proposed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), an organization heavily influenced by professors in schools of education.

The NCTM standards called for “calculator use at all grade levels” and for students to “create” procedures to solve arithmetic rather than be taught a standard procedure. “Decreased attention” was recommended for “memorizing” and “rote practice.”

The NCTM had impact. By 2003, most states required teachers to prepare students to use calculators to solve arithmetic on 3rd grade state testing.  As textbooks changed, parents complained their children’s ‘create math’ homework did not work. And it turned out parents were right.

What Science Says

Starting in the 1990’s, with help from new technologies, scientists were investigating how the brain learns mathematics.  By 2008, cognitive scientists had discovered that because of its structure, the human brain is very good at solving problems when needed information can be quickly retrieved from memory — but is very limited when needed information cannot be quickly recalled.

As one example, scientists found as a foundation for learning mathematics, students need to thoroughly memorize all of the “basic facts of arithmetic, such as 9+6=15 and 56/8=7, as had been required pre-calculator.  In 2009, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham advised educators, “Automatic retrieval of basic math facts is critical to solving complex problems.”

Science also documented that in the limited instructional time available, achieving quick recall of the over 250 basic math facts requires ‘drill and practice’ such as flashcard use.

But the NCTM has continued its opposition to science. In a March 2023 “position paper,” the NCTM reiterated its claim students can avoid memorizing basic facts by applying complex and time-consuming “calculation strategies.”  At no point in the past 15 years has the NCTM addressed why their leaders believe verified findings of science should be denied.

Concerns about falling test scores led to drafting “Common Core Math Standards” (CCMS) in 2010. Unfortunately, among those asked to draft or vote to approve the new standards, none were cognitive scientists. At most points, the CCMS aligned with positions of the NCTM, and the CCMS were adopted by 45 states.

Virginia SOLs

For many years, Virginia’s students were fortunate.  As math supervisor and then Superintendent of the Virginia Department of Education, Dr. Patricia Wright listened to science. Between 1995 and 2015, our math SOLs called for helping students commit to memory all the basic math facts, and by the last year those standards were in place in Virginia classrooms, our scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (“main NAEP”) had risen to be in the top five states in the nation.

But after Dr. Wright’s retirement, new math SOLs were adopted in 2016 and implemented in 2019. At key points, the memorization of basics required by prior SOLs was replaced.  Substituted were the NCTM/Common Core “calculation strategies.”  The current SOLs do not ask that students know from memory any basic arithmetic facts.

The impact?  While much of it can be attributed to the effects of school shutdowns during Covid, Virginia’s 4th grade math scores on the 2022 NAEP showed the largest decline in the nation, dropping 11 points (vs. a national drop of five points), and eight points in 8th grade math.

All of us would hope memorization could be avoided, but science says in learning math, thorough memorization of basics is essential.  When state standards require instruction based on magical-thinking that denies science, what achievement should we expect?  What will be the consequences for our state and nation?

Going Forward

Superintendent Coons will submit revised SOLs to the state Board in June or thereafter, followed by public hearings, opportunity for public comment, and a final Board vote.

In December of 2022, I joined about 20 “stakeholders” invited to review a draft of the revised SOLs prepared by math staff of the Department of Education.  At many key points, the December draft called for the opposite of what science recommends.

Several of us wrote to staff and leaders detailing our concerns. Appointed leaders replied and stated their strong support for standards that were science-based. But at this point, the draft to be submitted for Board consideration has not been released.

From my personal readings in the science of learning, I can attest: How the brain learns is complex — and often counter-intuitive.  In June, our new Superintendent will have been on the job for only two months.  Department leaders have immense responsibilities for managing state education at all levels.

Governor Youngkin recently proposed a Numeracy Act similar to the 2022 Virginia Literacy Act (VLA) that passed the General Assembly unanimously.  The VLA emphasized: Instruction must be science-based.  The Numeracy Act will need a foundation of science-based SOLs.

In this SOL revision, I hope Department leaders will set as a goal writing math standards that can serve as a model for the nation. As one step in the process, a team of cognitive scientists should be asked to review the current draft and recommend changes if needed. The team might also include faculty from math “special education” who have experience applying the science of learning to improve instruction in real K-12 classrooms.  Virginia’s universities are home to many nationally recognized experts in both areas.

Our nation desperately needs math standards that work. Virginia can lead the way. Let’s base instruction for our children not on wishful thinking that has failed, but on tested strategies science says have proven to be effective.

Eric (Rick) Nelson is a Visiting Fellow with the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.  He served 28 years with the Fairfax County Public Schools teaching math-intensive chemistry and physics.  For more than 10 years, he was an elected president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers/AFT/AFL-CIO.  Currently, Rick works with college educators to publicize cognitive research on how students learn in math, sciences, and engineering.  He may be reached at [email protected]

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How Broken is Virginia’s Energy Regulatory System?

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Let Us Count the Ways

How badly broken is Virginia’s energy regulatory system? One recent State Corporation Commission decision on Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed next wave of solar projects illustrates several of the problems. The projects are unimportant, routine. What matters are the policy failures revealed.

Only the rich can look at the future and yawn.

Virtually all of the participants in the case other than the utility itself, including consumer advocates and customers themselves, complained that the projects the utility wanted to build on its own were too costly, especially compared to alternative choices offered to Dominion by independent developers. The Attorney General’s Consumer Counsel was particularly aggressive. Even the Commission’s own hearing examiner agreed that two of the projects should be rejected over cost.

The Commission approved them all. So there is problem one: the Commission no longer has any real authority to decide what is reasonable and prudent and to deny projects on the basis of cost.

Virtually all of the participants in the case argued that Dominion is misreading the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which set the share of wind and solar energy to be provided by outside sources under power purchase agreements at 35%. They argued that 35% is a floor but a higher percentage of energy could come from outside providers, especially if the costs were significantly lower that way.

The Commission, which had punted on the same question in earlier cases, came down firmly in favor of Dominion’s interpretation that the 65-35% split written into the law is not a floor but a mandate. Dominion is just getting started on building all the generation needed to satisfy the massive goals of VCEA, so the cost impact of this decision will grow. There is problem two: the General Assembly put a fixed limit into law on how much generation the utility must offload to less expensive providers.

The third glaring problem highlighted by this case, not a new issue but a basic one, is the level of secrecy surrounding the data.  Just how much cheaper electricity from the independent solar providers would have been has not been made public, and in arguing their points the advocates for competition couldn’t cite the hard numbers. They could only hint at the disparity, which will really add up over decades.

The SCC staff analysis once again is honeycombed with omissions and redactions, and entire testimony files are marked as too sensitive for the public to read.  The staff concluded many of the projects were not economical and would not normally make sense if not required by the VCEA. Their cost-benefit analysis is also highly dependent on future estimated costs for renewable energy credits, with those projections also marked secret and not disclosed.

The SCC staff analysis also illustrated problem number four. In drafting the VCEA, Dominion invented a cash penalty ($45 per megawatt hour) it would face for failing to meet VCEA targets. Having invented the fine out of thin air, it then uses avoiding the fine as a “benefit” to consumers in running the cost-benefit analysis on these projects. It also inserts into the calculation a social cost of carbon, an equally arbitrary number with no basis in real world costs.

So problem four is how the economic decisions on energy choices are now based on imaginary numbers, what others might deem to be fudge factors.  They make more expensive alternatives to reliable fossil fuel or nuclear generation seem to be of similar or lower cost, when in reality they are not.

Problem five is the remaining and seemingly persistent vacancies on the Commission itself, and the political stalemate that represents. The regulatory body is unable to perform its constitutional duty. This leaves the General Assembly in an even more dominant position.

This decision was signed by the panel’s only sitting member, Commissioner Jehmal Hudson. He was joined by former Commissioner Patricia West, sitting in as a substitute judge despite being intentionally removed by Democrats in the General Assembly a few years ago. The 2023 General Assembly has come and gone without filling two vacant seats, and any temporary appointment made by Governor Glenn Youngkin might last only until the General Assembly returns next January.

To recap:

1) The regulatory body lacks the authority to say no to a monopoly utility on the basis of excess cost, not if the projects are needed to comply with VCEA.

2) The General Assembly has locked in a guarantee that the utility will own 65% of the solar, battery and onshore wind projects and reap profits on billions extracted from ratepayers over decades. Dominion is developing 100% of the offshore wind, the main cost driver. Governor Glenn Youngkin’s recent effort to create competitive bidding for offshore wind was summarily executed by legislators.

3) The key financial analyses and comparisons are secret for no valid reason.

4) The key financial analyses are heavily tilted in favor of utility-owned wind, solar and battery and against fossil fuel or nuclear power by the invention of an arbitrary cash penalty for failing to meet the VCEA’s renewable energy goals and imposition of an arbitrary social cost of carbon. The majority Democrats in the Virginia Senate have killed efforts to include nuclear power as renewable.

5) The Commission itself is hamstrung by having two of its three seats vacant, leaving the legislature dominant. The blunt message of who is charge has been reinforced by the partisan removal of two duly elected SCC members, one rejected by Democrats and one by Republicans.

There are other problems, but those five are major.  Barring a course change, Virginia’s next decade will be dominated by an expensive, forced transition from reliable and diverse energy sources to almost totally electrified transportation, home and office heating and cooking, with more electricity drawn from unreliable, intermittent generation.

Working folks and the poor will feel real pain. Only the rich can look at the future and yawn.

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Youngkin Energy Reforms Killed Without Votes

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Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to ensure that any future wave of wind turbines built off Virginia must follow a real competitive bid process ended up dead as a beached whale. The General Assembly didn’t just kill his proposed amendment during its reconvened session April 12, it refused to even take up the matter.

Both the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and Democrat-controlled Senate voted to “pass by” the substitutes. They then died when the motion to adjourn was approved at the end of the day. Such a motion is often used to avoid a recorded vote loaded with political risk.

Rejection of the amendments, first discussed here, leaves Youngkin (R) free to veto the underlying bill (actually two identical bills, one in each chamber), but his argument was not with the underlying bills themselves. He was just trying to weaken Dominion Energy Virginia’s control over the wind development process, which has led to Virginia building the first and only $10 billion project with all the cost and risk on its ratepayers. At this point, any second phase will likely be the same.

The gubernatorial amendment on competitive bidding for offshore wind was injecting a new issue in the last stage of the 2023 session. Youngkin offered other amendments which constituted repeat efforts to pass things rejected during the regular part of the session. They met the same fate, some also by motions to pass by supported by his own party.

Again using identical House and Senate bills, Youngkin sought to revive a requirement that a more careful review of system reliability precede any decision to close a fossil fuel generation plant, meaning perhaps the plants would survive. (See amendments 2 and 3 here.) This would be a serious change in the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which sets a deadline for those retirements. Concerns over future reliability are growing as the U.S. power grid becomes more dependent upon intermittent solar and wind generation.

A partisan divide on that issue was expected, with Senate Democrats having the votes to kill the idea, but the hope was that one or more of them might break with the pack since the issue never actually was voted on in the full Senate. A straight yea or nay vote on that issue would at least provide a roll call for use in the coming election campaigns.

The Senate cooperated to that extent, and a roll call vote was held on those amendments, made in the Senate to Senate Bill 1231. The vote to reject the extra reviews on reliability was indeed totally partisan, with the 22 Democrats voting against and 18 Republicans voting for. The same vote also killed an amendment to recognize nuclear and hydrogen generated power as qualifying as renewable under that same Virginia Clean Economy Act.

But on the House side, the same set of amendments offered to House Bill 2026 never faced a vote. It died on the same motion to “pass by” that killed the offshore wind amendment, a motion made by Republican Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott County). No clean roll call on the reliability issue was produced for later use.

There was a bill dealing with plans to place a major transmission line underground, an expensive approach that always ends up padding all consumer bills through higher transmission charges. House Bill 1637, sponsored by Delegate Michael Webert (R-Fauquier County), also had a matching Senate version. The Governor’s substitute suffered the same fate, passed by on the same joint motion from Kilgore and a similar motion in the Senate.

Northern Virginia loves to protect its viewsheds with underground 230 volt lines by sending the bill to the rest of Virginia’s Dominion Energy ratepayers. This deserves a deeper dive at another time. Such lines are going to multiply incredibly in the all-electric future envisioned for Virginia.

Youngkin was successful with a series of amendments to the proposal to re-energize a legislative Commission on Electric Utility Regulation. His amendments added the Attorney General or a member of his Consumer Counsel staff as ex-officio members, required that citizen members have a history of sticking up for ratepayers, and authorized the commission to start issuing estimates of how legislative proposals would affect electric rates.

Given the harsh treatment afforded the Governor’s other amendments, and the total lack of any debate or even explanation before the votes went down, handing more information and authority to legislators in this realm may not prove of benefit to consumers.

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