Fox may bring back defeated National Grid bill if Senate OKs it

By Ted Nesi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Gordon Fox suffered a rare floor defeat Thursday on a bill to change how National Grid deals with customer defaults, but a spokesman says the Democratic leader is brushing off the bungle and may still push it into law.

“There were some misstatements given by opponents,” House spokesman Larry Berman told “This was definitely not a leadership-type vote, where some people are saying this was anti-leadership. There were a lot of people who didn’t like the bill in the first place and they voted against this.”

The House voted 28-37 on Thursday to defeat a bill sponsored by state Rep. Scott Slater [pdf] and backed by Fox’s leadership team that would have amended the 2011 Henry Shelton Act to let National Grid recoup losses from low-income residents’ unpaid bills by charging other ratepayers. Under current law, the utility writes off losses as bad debt.

“That was something that National Grid asked us if we could change,” Berman said. “This language was supposed to be in the original bill, and that’s how it was described on the floor last year. But for whatever reason it wasn’t in the final bill, so what we told National Grid was we would clarify it this year.”

The Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday afternoon on an identical bill [pdf] sponsored by state Sen. Joshua Miller. Senate spokesman Greg Pare did not respond to a question about whether the Senate would still take the vote despite what happened in the House. If the Senate passes Miller’s bill, the House could still make the change by passing the Senate legislation even though Slater’s bill died.

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who helped muster opposition to the Slater bill, described Berman’s legislative history as “irrelevant.” Bad debt is tax deductible, which means the utility would effectively recoup its losses from federal taxpayers, while this bill would make Rhode Islanders alone foot the bill, he said.

“It puts more of the burden on Rhode Island ratepayers – that’s the fundamental issue,” Newberry, R-North Smithfield, told “Grid gets paid either way. A vote in favor of the legislation would be a vote to increase the rates of Rhode Island ratepayers more so than they would have increased anyway.”

Berman disagreed. “Most of the people who are now repaying 50% [under the Shelton Act program] – they didn’t pay anything before, so we don’t anticipate that there would be anything passed onto the companies, because the companies were getting zero before. … It was just a confluence of people who didn’t understand the change and the people who opposed it in the first place who wanted to kill the program.”

Berman called the Shelton Act “one of the major victories of last session” though it only created “a very small program” that has been used by nearly 700 households so far. Eligibility tracks the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which has an annual income cap of $52,601 for families of four.

The original Henry Shelton Act passed the House by an overwhelming 49-19 margin in 2011, but 19 lawmakers who supported it last year switched sides Thursday and voted against Slater’s proposed change.

Those 19 who split were state Reps. Samuel Azzinaro, John Carnevale, Elaine Coderre, Spencer Dickinson, Raymond Hull, Raymond Johnston Jr., Peter Martin, James McLaughlin, Leo Medina, Mary Messier, Patricia Morgan, Eileen Naughton, Peter Palumbo, Deborah Ruggiero, Teresa Tanzi, Michael Tarro, Lisa Tomasso, Joe Trillo and Donna Walsh. Another 10 House lawmakers missed Thursday’s vote.

• Related: Rare event at the General Assembly: bill gets killed on the floor (April 5)

(photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)

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