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Judge tosses water association suit against state regulation

JACKSON water2— A federal judge has dismissed a suit that sought to stop the Mississippi Public Service Commission from regulating certain aspects of rural water associations and electric cooperatives. The Mississippi Rural Water Association sought to void a rule that requires a 60-day delay in utility deposits for domestic violence victims, claiming the commission overstepped its authority and conflicted with federal law.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Jordan III, in a Jan. 12 order, dismissed the case brought by the association, which has more than 1,000 member utilities. Jordan found that the rule didn’t conflict with part of federal law meant to protect rural water groups’ revenue while they are repaying federal loans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jordan also ruled that the state couldn’t be sued because it has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, meaning the state must grant permission before suits can be filed on many topics.

The ruling could enhance part of the commission’s authority that had been in question. Commission intervention in a dispute at the North Lee Water Association led to lawmakers passing a law in 2013 saying the commission had no power to regulate internal affairs of any water association, electric cooperative or municipal utility.

Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, who pushed for the rule after Louisiana and Texas took broader measures, hailed the victory.

“I am pleased to see that the cloud of uncertainty for victims this lawsuit presented is now gone,” Presley said in a statement. “I hope that now our focus can be on implementing the rule so victims can have the opportunity for a fresh start,” Presley said.

To take advantage of the waiver, someone must be certified as a domestic violence victim by a shelter.

It was the latest in a series of clashes between the commission and nonprofit utilities. Presley demanded that the commission examine whether the state’s 25 electrical cooperatives were holding spare money that should be refunded to customers, an inquiry that ended with the conclusion that most cooperatives were not flush with cash.

The Public Service Commission has also clashed with cooperatives in recent months over requiring energy efficiency programs. The 14 cooperatives that buy power from the Tennessee Valley Authority say that federal power provider is their sole regulator and that the commission has little power over them. A 2012 lawsuit concerning commission authority over TVA cooperatives was settled before a judge could rule conclusively on the issue.

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