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Lawmakers Plan To File Legislation To Stave Off Huge Utility Bills After February Storms

Oklahoma Department of Transportation

State lawmakers say they are filing legislation to guard against massive utility bills in the wake of winter storms that put Oklahoma in the deep freeze in February.

Sen. James Leewright (R-Bristow) said the measures will set up a process for utility companies to package and sell off their debt from spiking natural gas costs, limiting how much of the impact can be passed along to consumers.

"If we do nothing ... families, seniors on fixed incomes, single working families could be strapped with bills they struggle to pay, leaving them to choose between paying for necessities or paying the electric and gas bill. Businesses still reeling from the effects of the pandemic could be forced to make cutbacks, layoffs to pay off these high utility bills," Leewright said. "Both of these scenarios will have rippling scenarios throughout our economy."

The plan involves the Oklahoma Development Finance Authority selling bonds to pay off utilities' debts from increased fuel costs. Utilities would then charge customers a fee to help pay back ODFA, but the costs will be spread out over a longer time and charged a lower interest rate.

Brandy Wreath oversees the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s public utility division. He said the average gas customer’s monthly bill is $100. With typical regulatory action, bills could go up to $1,200 for several months. Wreath said lawmakers’ proposal would take the average bill to $158.

"It is still higher than the original $100 bill. These charges are not going to go away, but this is a way through extraordinary relief to bring that per customer impact down significantly," Wreath said.

Oklahoma Municipal League Executive Director Mike Fina said there are small towns in desperate need.

"We're to a point where some of these bills are exceeding these small communities' annual budget," Fina said.

Leewright and House Utilities Committee Chair Garry Mize (R-Guthrie) said they'll file legislation Tuesday or Wednesday. If the securitization proposal passes, utilities will have to opt into the program. They’re carrying an estimated $4.5 billion in debt related to February's winter storms.

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