PSC appeals would be streamlined; budget debate next week

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May 2, 2013 - 4:40pm

Despite criticism, Nebraska lawmakers moved Thursday toward streamlining appeals from decisions of the Public Service Commission.

When the Public Service Commission makes decisions like setting rates for natural gas service, those decisions can be appealed to the courts. Currently, those appeals start out in district court, and then can go to the Court of Appeals and the Nebraska Supreme Court. A bill by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, would eliminate the district court step.

Opening on her bill Wednesday, Dubas said it would increase efficiency. "Multiple steps of review aren’t always necessary. And re-litigation of the issues increases costs. The costs are fully borne by the ratepayers. The ratepayers pay for everything associate cost-wise with these types of appeals," Dubas said. "I certainly don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes due process. But by the same token if there are ways that can bring efficiencies into the process, so that we can reduce or minimize those costs for the average consumers, I think that’s a good thing."

Critics waged a two-day battle against the bill. They noted it was supported by some of the same industries regulated by the Public Service Commission, and suggested those industries wanted to reduce the chances of having a favorable decision overturned. On Thursday, Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus renewed his attack. "We do know that a ton – millions, hundreds of millions of dollars – are somehow in play in the regulatory process with the Public Service Commission. So one’s warning lights should go on, and anything to apply special rules to that environment should receive enhanced scrutiny," he said.

After eight hours of debate, senators voted 35-7 to cut off debate, and 33-8 to give the bill first round approval.

Budget next week

Lawmakers now have a four-day recess. When they return on Tuesday, they’ll begin debating budget bills. Under the spending plan recommended by the Appropriations Committee, state spending would total about $3.8 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and just under $4 billion the year after that, for an average annual increase of just over 5 percent.

Chairman Heath Mello of Omaha said the committee took a good starting recommendation by Gov. Dave Heineman and added some provisions. Those include funding for early childhood education and reducing the waiting list for services to developmentally disabled people.

Mello said the committee wants to save $53 million in increased revenue projected by the economic forecasting board last week, based on two assumptions. "One, we don’t understand what the impact the drought may have on our ag economy. And the second is the understanding that the Legislature is moving ahead with a tax modernization study," he said. "Ultimately I think if we’re going to do any bold tax reform proposals next year after that study releases recommendations, we need to have a cushion to be able to ensure that we can ease into those revenue losses."

Heineman has said the extra money should be used for tax relief.

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