Utilities should first prove need

By Walt Braun

It’s not hard to understand why Kansas natural gas utility companies want the Kansas Legislature to allow them to increase rates before the Kansas Corporation Commission approves the increases.

If a House bill granting that authority becomes law, the companies would get the additional money from consumers up to seven months earlier than they would under present law. That, they say, would improve efficiency and attract investors who might then inject more capital into the state.

Nor is it hard to understand why consumers might balk at what are called “interim” rate increases, which would take effect 30 days after the requests are filed with the KCC.

Customers would be advancing gas utilities money simply because they companies say they need it. Yes, customers would get refunds — with interest — if the KCC denies the utilities’ rate increase requests or approves increases smaller than the amount requested. But requiring consumers who may be struggling to make ends meet to make such loans unnecessarily burdens them.

The KCC, which rules on utility rate increase requests, is neutral on the question.

We’re not. We don’t think it’s a good idea.

Yes, under present law it can take eight months between the time a utility company requests a rate increase and the KCC issues a decision.That can be inconvenient for utility companies.

Yet utility companies have been operating under that policy in Kansas for years. They ought to be good enough at anticipating future funding needs to plan them accordingly and preventing new rate increases from immediately becoming “stale.” As for the argument that Nebraska, North Dakota and Iowa permit interim rates, it’s worth noting that lots of other states don’t.

Moreover, concerns by the Citizens Utility Ratepayer Board that approving the change for natural gas utility firms would lead to similar requests from other utility companies, including Westar Energy, are understandable.

Current law doesn’t make unreasonable demands on natural gas utility companies. It simply requires them to prove that their requests for rate increases are needed before they are granted.

That isn’t asking too much.

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