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Legislative hearings are still plodding along

Electric power deregulation goes on and on and…

For manufacturers, deregulation of the electric power industry can’t come too soon. For utility companies, it can’t be delayed long enough. Meanwhile, legislative hearings are still plodding along.

“Everyone would like to see our rates go down — business and residential,” said Sen. Vince Scoper (R-Laurel), a public utilities committee member in the Mississippi Senate. “But what I hear from other senators is not to rush anything because once decisions are made regarding electricity deregulation, it will be almost impossible to go back and make changes if we do make a mistake.”

Donald E. Meiners, president and chief operating officer of Entergy Mississippi in Jackson, said there is no question whether or not electricity deregulation will occur. It’s only a matter of time.

“We’re laying the groundwork now by going through a series of hearings at the commission,” Meiners said. “The Legislature will probably begin to review it and possibly pass legislation in 2000 or 2001. Even Congress is looking at it. A lot of planning is going into effect for how the business will be run in the future.”

Whether of not legislative action takes place in 2000 or 2001 depends on experience from similar states, Scoper said.

“What I would like to see is some experience from other states with

similar factors such as population and industry rather than comparing it to states like California, New York, New Jersey or Massachusetts,” he said. “Before we make changes, I’d like to make sure of what the outcome will be. That’s why I’m very much interested in these hearings and have been trying to learn as much as I can about it.”

For example, consumers in Georgia are now choosing marketers in recently signed natural gas deregulation bill.

“I’ve been real close attention to what’s going on in Georgia with natural gas deregulation,” said Phil Hardwick, spokesman for Mississippi Valley Gas. “In Georgia, they had one type of deregulation plan. In California, they had another. Pennsylvania had yet another plan. So it wasn’t a question of whether or not to deregulate, but how to deregulate.”

Since the Public Service Commission in Georgia served notice to Atlanta Gas Light Co. customers to choose a supplier by Aug. 11 or have one randomly assigned to them, almost 50% have signed up, more than most industry observers had predicted at this point.

Hardwick said he has been very impressed with the manner in which legislators have tackled the deregulation issue.

“Some states have jumped too fast and others have moved too slow,” Hardwick said. “I think we’re going at just about the right pace. There’s a learning curve and educational process that must be considered and so far, Mississippi legislators have been very thorough.”

Hobson Waits, executive vice president of Electric Power Associations of Mississippi, a statewide organization of Mississippi’s 26 electric power association’s cooperative systems, said “nothing I’ve heard in the hearings has convinced me that what they’re talking about is going to be good for rural residential customers.”

“You hear a lot of wild promises and pipe dreams, but nobody has ever said rural residential consumers will get anything out of this,” Waits said.

In testimony presented to the joint public utility committees on March 23, Waits said competitors would be allowed to “cherry pick” electric power association’s most attractive customers.

“When we get into full-fledged competition five or 10 years down the road, possibly the residential consumer can get something out of it,” Waits said.

Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said the 1700-member organization did not get much support from Senate leaders to have a resolution passed that would allow a committee of seven senators to study deregulation during the summer.

“House Speaker (Tim) Ford indicated he would appoint a study committee during the summer,” McBride said. “We’re still hopeful that the Lt. Governor will appoint some members for the study committee in the senate.”

Deregulation hearings are progressing as expected, said public service commissioner Neilsen Cochran.

“Two days of hearings are scheduled (this) week to review issues relating to operating companies and holding companies in a deregulated environment,” he said.

Holding companies for Entergy Mississippi, Inc. and Mississippi Power Co. are, respectively, Entergy, Inc. and The Southern Co.

“A cost of service hearing for Mississippi Power Co. is scheduled for May 3 and will be identical to one held last month for Entergy Mississippi,” he said. “We’re looking at how to unbundle the costs per kilowatt hour and what services need to be priced individually and reflected separately on the customer’s bill – like transmission, distribution and substation maintenance. Those cost services are currently reflected as one cost item on your bill.”

About Lynne W. Jeter

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