In this issue of Lansing Update:
- MCC Appointed to Michigan Low-Income Energy Assistance Task Force
- Utility Shut-Off Protection Bills Move on to Full House
- Higher Education Budget Advances with Tuition Grant Secure
- Time Winding Down for Public Comments on HHS Conscience Rescission
Michigan Catholic Conference this week accepted an invitation from the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG) to serve on a Low-Income Energy Resources Task Force created [Link no longer available —Ed.] by the Michigan Public Service Commission.
The goals of the Task Force will be to examine low-income energy programs and policies, and to develop recommendations that make energy more affordable to low-income households. The Task Force will be divided into four separate works groups: Data Collection, Low-Income Rates (of which MCC will be a member), Process Issues and Available Assistance. The goals of the low-income rates group are to:
- Consider the impact of commodity price on low-income rates.
- Connect rates to usage/income (pros & cons of Ohio’s Percent of Income (PIP) program).
- Determine what the responsibility of the customer is if they receive a low-income rate.
- Determine what impact a special low-income rate may have on other customers (affordability to all customers).
- Consider how a low-income rate would lower utility company costs.
- Examine programs in other states (identify the pros & cons of program and the impact it has on arrears).
Each group within the task force also includes action items, and for the low-energy rates group those include:
- Determine what each utility charges for bill payment, reconnection of service, and late payments.
- What the utility company’s policies are related to deposit requirements and arrearage forgiveness.
- Research what type of low-income rate is offered in other states (pros & cons).
- Develop best practices and list the benefits and problems of each program.
An action plan, including key recommendations, will be filed with the Michigan Public Service Commission on June 1, 2009. Michigan Catholic Conference has historically engaged in energy utility regulation for the purpose of ensuring low-income individuals are not disproportionately affected by rate changes or adverse legislation.
Elderly and low-income citizens struggling to pay electric utility bills may soon have additional safeguards from harm after the House Energy and Technology Committee [Link no longer available —Ed.] this week passed measures that provide more consumer protection and state oversight of utility shut-offs.
Included in the legislative package are bills that would:
- Ban utility shut-offs between December 31 and March 31.
- Require an electric utility to include with or on any shut-off notice the telephone number of either the Department of Human Services energy assistance line or an operable 2-1-1 system.
- Prevent an electric utility from using electronic shut-off devices until the Public Service Commission issues uniform standards for such devices.
- Require a utility to contact a senior citizen three days after their utilities are shut-off, and mandates that any messages left must include a toll-free number on how the utility can be restored.
- Require the Department of Human Services to provide information about who is a recipient of public assistance to the utilities.
- Mandate reporting to the Public Service Commission of any shut-off-related deaths or injuries.
Michigan Catholic Conference has offered its support for the package of bills, as have Consumers Energy, Detroit Edison, Michigan Electric Co-Op Association, the Center for Civil Justice and Elder Law of Michigan. AARP has expressed its opposition to parts of the package that would limit the use of the service meters, saying it would prefer a total ban on such devices.
The legislation stems from a tragedy earlier this year in the Bay City-area when a 93-year old man froze to death [Link no longer available —Ed.] within days of his electric utility having been shut-off.
The 19-bill package now awaits consideration from the full House of Representatives.
The House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee this week passed its budget out to the full Appropriations Committee after preserving certain grant programs, including the Michigan Tuition Grant [Link no longer available —Ed.], despite being recommended for elimination by the administration.
Earlier this year the governor proposed in her executive budget recommendation to combine all state grant programs, including those that are specifically needs based, into one program called the Michigan College Access Grant. The governor’s proposal to reduce the overall amount of funding by nearly $20 million would have threatened the existence of several private universities whose students depend on the funding for tuition.
The Higher Education budget includes a three percent cut, but restores the funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus dollars), resulting in a net difference of zero for the coming fiscal year. The Michigan Tuition Grant will be funded at $56.67 million.
Michigan Catholic Conference annually seeks to protect the Tuition Grant program as it provides needs based tuition assistance to students who are attending Catholic colleges and universities, such as Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Madonna University, University of Detroit Mercy, Marygrove College, Sienna Heights University and Aquinas College.
Less than two weeks remain for public comments on a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposal to rescind critically important conscience protection regulations in health care. Michigan Catholic Conference has posted on its Catholic Legislative Advocacy Network an opportunity for Catholics to email [Link no longer available —Ed.] HHS and to learn more about the proposed rescission.
Last year the Bush administration placed guidelines in HHS regulations that protect the right of conscience for individuals and institutions in the health care field (nurses, doctors, hospitals, etc.). The guidelines reinforce federal statutes that protect an individual or institution’s freedom to choose not to participate in practices that they find morally or ethically unacceptable, such as abortion.
Earlier this year the Obama administration announced it was putting in motion plans to eliminate those protections. Information posted on the MCC’s legislative network includes the ability for a user to send a public comment email to HHS, to view YouTube videos produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and to read background information on this critical subject.
Final day for comment [Link no longer available —Ed.] is April 9.