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Rep. Johnson seeks rejection of rate hike

OLYMPIA - Rep. Norm Johnson (R-Yakima) says an electrical rate increase proposal by Pacific Power and Light Company would be devastating to local citizens throughout Yakima County, forcing them to further lower their thermostats, and cut back on groceries or prescription drugs.

The utility company has asked the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to approve a 4.3 percent increase, which it says is the result of expiring hydropower contracts that must be renewed at higher rates.

In addition, Pacific Power says higher coal costs used to fire its plants are contributing to the need for the increase. Commission staff recommended a 1.1 percent increase, which Johnson feels is still too much given the problems with the economy.

During a public hearing earlier this week in Olympia, UTC commissioners gave Johnson special permission to testify.

"Let me tell you about the area I represent that is served by Pacific Power and Light. Across the state, the total cumulative unemployment rate is 8.5 percent. In Yakima County, it is 12 percent," Johnson told commissioners. "A rising number of discouraged workers and baby boomers being forced into early retirement caused Yakima County's labor force to decline from just over 127,000 workers to less than 123,000 between 2010 and 2011. We have 13,790 people out of work in Yakima County."

Johnson said one thing businesses and families have in common and must depend upon is electricity. He told commissioners that local residents have already cut back their spending on groceries and medical bills, and have lowered their thermostats following a 12 percent rate increase approved last year. He also noted that since 2000, the UTC has approved nine separate rate increases for Pacific Power and Light.

"Our people are hurting and this economy is still very fragile. So when Pacific Power and Light comes to you to ask for a rate increase, after you already approved a staggering 12 percent rate increase last year, even 1.1 percent will be devastating to our local citizens," said Johnson. "How much colder must our families be in their homes? What will they have to exclude from their budgets to pay for the increased power rates? Will senior citizens be forced to skip their prescription drugs?"

The 14th District lawmaker also voiced concerns that a rate increase could be the final straw for some businesses and farmers barely able to continue operations.

"Think of the jobs that will be lost if our local businesses can no longer absorb these increases," Johnson added.

He said he understands why the utility company is seeking the rate increase, but he urged commissioners to deny the request.

"It will add further injury to a wounded economy," he said. "Now is not the time to be adding costs to struggling families and businesses."

Pacific Power and Light has 130,000 customers in Yakima and four other counties in southeast Washington. If the rate increase is approved, it would likely take effect in May.

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