Though observers expected the money to run out after lawmakers declined to extend the program’s funding source three years ago, advocates are concerned that long-time beneficiaries will be blindsided when their assistance vanishes.
“We’re very worried,” said Lynda Ender, a program director at Senior Source, a nonprofit that provides services to elderly folks in Dallas. “We expect to have a flood of calls.”
About 700,000 households relied on the program in 2015, according to the Public Utility Commission, with state subsidies reducing their electric bills (anywhere) from 25-31%.
The commission instructed electric providers to notify customers of the program’s demise – by mailing fliers along with utility bills. But Ender and other advocates worry that some former beneficiaries will still be caught off guard.
“People that do need assistance from time to time – sadly they’re in a reaction mode,” she said. “They don’t have the luxury of planning ahead.”
Lawmakers created the program, funded by electric ratepayers across Texas, in 1999 to help poor Texans pay their utility bills in the state’s newly deregulated electricity market.
Texans who were eligible for food stamps or Medicaid qualified for the program. The discount did not apply to people living in noncompetitive Texas electric markets, like Austin and San Antonio, or customers not served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. But some utilities offer their own help for qualifying ratepayers.
The program doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, even as lawmakers occasionally tapped its funding source – called the System Benefit Fund – to prop up the state’s budget.
In 2013, Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Democrat who is now Houston’s mayor, led an effort to force lawmakers to use the money as it was intended. He succeeded, though lawmakers also ended the surcharge of 65 cents per megawatt-hour that fueled the fund, which reached more than $800 million in 2013.
With roughly $350 million left over during the 2015 session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that extended the program’s life until the fund was tapped.
Analysis of that legislation suggested the discounts could continue through August of 2017.
But the bill gave the Public Utility Commission broad latitude to set the discounts, and regulators chose to drain the fund this year — spending as much on discounts as possible without going into the red.
“We scaled the discount, keeping roughly in line what it had been previously,” said spokesman Mike Hoke. “It’s kind of a Price is Right rule.”
A small sum remaining in the account will rollover into the state’s general revenue, he added.
Ender said her group is starting to get calls from concerned clients as “word is spreading through the grapevine.” She expects to get plenty more as folks start seeing bills without the discount.
Carol Biedrzycki, director of the Texas Ratepayers Organization to Save Energy, said she was saddened that no lawmaker is trying to resurrect the program or championing its cause.
“This program worked really well,” she said. “It’s very disappointing to me that no one has recognized this as an issue and stepped forward.”
As the program ends, so will the relationship between the Public Utility Commission and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which had determined eligibility for the discounts.
That has prompted questions at the utility commission about how it will keep its list of low-income Texans up to date. The agency needs that data to determine who can get other privileges: waivers for late fees and the ability to pay deposits in installments, for instance.
The commissioners have asked the legislature for guidance.
Read more related Tribune coverage:
- Donna Nelson, who chairs the Texas Public Utility Commission, is trying to crack down on deceptive electricity providers and make it easier for Texans to shop for electricity.
- “Politicians shouldn’t mess with churches or farmers, and this is a church full of farmers,” says Janey Burke of Roscoe’s Champion Baptist Church, whose congregation can be counted among those outraged by Sharyland Utilities’ bills.
- Paul Chu, founding director and chief scientist at the University of Houston’s Texas Center for Superconductivity, discusses how energy storage could revolutionize the grid, and how Texas plays a role in advancing the technology.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Top image: Graphic by Todd Wiseman for the Texas Tribune.