March 25, 2021 | Tammy Fiebelkorn
The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) is disappointed in the 2021 New Mexico State Legislature’s failure to pass House Bill 206 (HB206), the Utility Affordability and Relief Act. Despite receiving full support of many lawmakers, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) Chair, low-income advocates, social justice organizations, and environmental groups, the Senate Finance Committee refused to hold a hearing on the bill. After passing two committees in the House, the House floor, and another committee in the Senate, this refusal to hear the bill was unexpected and disheartening.
Despite the failure of this bill, SWEEP would like to thank the very strong and supportive sponsors: Representatives Kristina Ortez (D-42), Joanne Ferrary (D-37), Angelica Rubio (D-35), Andrea Romero (D-46), and Melanie Stansbury (D-28). These Representatives fought hard to pass HB206 which was aimed at helping thousands of New Mexico families who have fallen behind on paying their utility bills during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early numbers have indicated that more than 57,000 families face disconnection from electricity and more than 27,000 families face natural gas service disconnection.
HB206 would have given low-income New Mexicans a way out of the utility debt brought on by COVID by providing payment plans, partial arrears forgiveness, and long-term solutions such as increased access to energy efficiency to reduce their bills in the future.
It’s heartbreaking to know that we were so close to providing relief to tens of thousands of our most vulnerable New Mexican neighbors. The low-income arrears partial forgiveness in this bill was so important. Equally important were the provisions that address long-term affordability for low-income New Mexicans. COVID’s impacts will be felt for a long time, at least several years. As these low-income families dig themselves out of their financial holes — which were created through no fault of their own — we need to do everything we can to reduce their energy burden and keep utility bills manageable.
HB206 offered immediate assistance with past due utility bills incurred during the COVID public health crisis:
- Everyone with arrears from the COVID public health crisis would have gotten a reasonable payment plan to pay back their debt. For each month past due, a payment plan of two months would have been provided.
- For low-income New Mexicans, a partial arrears forgiveness program could have been entered into which will provide a payment plan and up to 50% forgiveness of arrears incurred during COVID.
- For low-income New Mexicans experiencing hardship due to COVID, a four-month deferral or full forgiveness may have been given if they are unable to make payments on their payment plan.
- The cost of arrears forgiveness would have been covered by federal and philanthropic funds, a reduction in the PRC fee paid by electric coops and any remaining costs would have been recovered by utilities in rates.
HB206 also offered a set of long-term solutions to high energy burdens for low-income New Mexicans:
- The Community Energy Efficiency Development fund, established at EMRND, would have provided block grants to local and Tribal governments to make targeted energy efficiency improvements in underserved communities in partnership with local community organizations.
- Reporting requirements for utilities. Too many New Mexicans don’t have consistent access to electricity or water — and we don’t even know how many. This bill would have required reporting on utility arrears, disconnections, and access, and requires the PRC to hold hearings and take action to increase affordability and access.
- Energy efficiency and affordability for all. PRC action would have been set in motion to move towards the goal of achieving 100% energy affordability for all low-income New Mexicans by 2050.
- Low-income rates authorized. The PRC would have been given authority to approve low-income rates, providing another tool for increased energy affordability long term.
This bill had it all: short-term help for everyone affected by COVID, long-term help for low-income New Mexicans, support of five amazing powerhouse sponsors, and support from so many organizations that I can’t even list them all in this space. It’s such a shame that one Senator has the power to keep a bill like this from passing by simply refusing to schedule it for a hearing. That is simply not how the system is supposed to work. Low-income and vulnerable New Mexicans are hurting and they deserve better than this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tammy Fiebelkorn is New Mexico Representative at SWEEP. She is a consistent force on environmental policy, advocacy, and legislative analysis in the state.