Gov. Lamont announces electric bill relief as lawmakers vote on gas, home heating help
Relief is headed to Connecticut consumers struggling with soaring inflation. On Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced a modest "relief plan" for electric customers facing an unwelcome New Year's present – a huge jump in their bills. Hours later, state lawmakers passed a package to help homeowners, drivers and pandemic essential workers.
Eversource and United Illuminating bills will go up an average of $80 per month beginning in January. It's a "supply charge" that utilities pay for electricity, passed along directly to customers. Both companies blame a sharp rise in natural gas prices – fueled by the war in Ukraine and shipping slowdowns.
State regulators have little authority to stop the increase. Instead, Lamont spent the holiday weekend negotiating concessions from Eversource and UI.
"I think it's really important you step up as a good faith effort for the ratepayers as well," Lamont said at a morning news conference.
Customers will get a $10 a month credit on their power bills from January until April. Ratepayers were entitled to the money anyway as part of a deal to buy power from the Millstone nuclear plant, but pending regulatory approval, they'll get it sooner. The utilities are also contributing at least $13 million dollars to help additional people heat their homes this winter, including programs like Operation Fuel.
"We can't control the cost of electricity on the supply side of our customer bills, but it is critically important to us to uncover any and all options to provide relief for our customers," Eversource Connecticut president Steve Sullivan said in a statement.
UI president and CEO Frank Reynolds added, "While we don't have the ability to control the cost of the energy generation supply, we are here to help our customers above all."
State Attorney General William Tong asked the power companies to contribute even more – almost $50 million combined.
"I have asked them to contribute a percentage of shareholder earnings commensurate with the percentage increase their customers will pay this winter to keep their lights and heat on," said Tong, a Democrat. "To date, they have refused."
Monday evening, state lawmakers passed an emergency bill allocating an extra $30 million to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The additional money is coming from the American Rescue Plan funds from Congress.
"LIHEAP is going to be a way that we can provide significant savings to Connecticut ratepayers earning up to about $75,000 a year," said Lamont.
But with applications for help already up 17%, will it be enough?
"It's going to be like throwing bread into a duck pond, the way they've set this up," said state Rep. Vin Candelora (R-North Branford), the Connecticut House GOP leader.
The emergency package also extends the state "gas tax holiday." Without legislative action, gas prices would jump 25 cents on Thursday. Instead, the tax will now phase back in, at five cents per month, starting in January.
Republicans say it's too soon to phase the tax back in.
"They should do what's right -- take the tax cut all the way to the end of the fiscal year," said state Sen. Kevin Kelly (R-Stratford), the Senate's top Republican.
But Lamont and Democratic leaders argue that the gas tax is needed to secure billions of federal highway dollars.
"If we get into January or February, and there's a major change in the price of gasoline, we can look at the [Special Transportation Fund] – see where we are," said state Rep. Matt Ritter (D-Hartford), the Connecticut House speaker.
If you don't drive, there's help for you too. The plan extends free bus fares through April 2023.
Also on the agenda? Changes to badly underfunded pandemic "hero pay" bonuses for frontline workers. Now, anyone who made up to $50,000 will get the full $1,000 bonus that was promised. Amounts drop by $200 for every $10,000 in salary up to $100,000. Workers making between $100,000 and $150,000 only get a $100 bonus.
"When we had to compromise, we made sure that it was a priority for everybody to make sure that the people who made the lowest were getting the most amount of payment for this, because that's the people that need the help the most," said state Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-Guilford), who just elected state comptroller.
The Connecticut House overwhelmingly approved the emergency bill Monday afternoon. The state Senate passed the bill Monday evening.