This week, Paul Monies talks about how regulators and energy companies raised your utility bills in wake of the 2021 winter storm; Trevor Brown looks at dates and legislation that will influence how Oklahomans vote; and Keaton Ross reviews the most notable criminal justice bills before the legislature. Ted Streuli hosts.
Who Spiked Your Energy Bill
Ted Streuli: Welcome to Long Story Short, sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. I’m Ted Streuli, the executive director at Oklahoma Watch. We’re a statewide nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative reporting. You are listening to our weekly podcast, which lets you hear directly from our journalists as they provide deeper insight into their recently published stories. I’m here with Paul Monies, who covers state government for Oklahoma Watch. Paul, tell us about what happened last week with ONG — Oklahoma Natural Gas — and the Corporation Commission.
Paul Monies: Their final order came up before the three-member commission last week. And the commission voted 2-to-1 to approve their financing order, which would allow the state to sell bonds on behalf of the customers for about $1.4 billion for the storm cost from last February’s winter storm.
Ted Streuli: And is there still an exit fee for customers? You had that in an earlier story. That exit fee was for customers who want to switch from electric heaters and appliances and stop using natural gas service.
Paul Monies: That’s right. That was actually taken out in the final order. That was quite controversial when it was first proposed.But the commissioners did vote to take it out and that’s not gonna be in the final order.
Ted Streuli: Why are ONG’s fuel charges for the storm a fixed cost for every rate payer and not based on their usage at the time?
Paul Monies: That’s right. Yeah, that was basically the way that they wanted to structure the bonds and said that was an easier way to structure the bonds so that everyone was going to pay the same amount, no matter what kind of customer they were. I will say that there are three levels of residential customers. So they’re gonna be paying slightly different amounts during that time, and then industrial commercial customers would pay a different fixed amount too. But it is a fixed charge on the customers across their customer base and they have probably about 900,000 customers in Oklahoma.
Ted Streuli: So what’s next with the ONG case?
Paul Monies: This now goes over to the Oklahoma Supreme court for what’s called a validation hearing. It’s basically, so the court can bless the type of bonds that are gonna be used, and so that’s gonna be next. I will say that that’s already happened for another case for Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which the Corporation Commission approved in a 2-to-1 vote in December that came up before the (State) Supreme Court last week in a hearing before a referee. So they’re looking at just kind of the technical parts of that. That was also one of the last times that people could protest that securitization agreement for OG&E. And we had probably about two people present in person and another dozen or so provide written comment against the securitization proposal for OG&E.
Ted Streuli: What other similar cases has the Corporation Commission been working on to deal with the high fuel costs of that February storm from last year?
Paul Monies: There’s probably about maybe five or six regulated utilities that are having to deal with these storm costs of a really high natural gas prices. Like I said before, the Oklahoma Gas & Electric one is already through the Supreme Court and then it’s kind of the final part there. The ONG one is getting there soon and then still pending at the Corporation Commissioner one for Public Service Company of Oklahoma, which is mostly Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma electric customers. And also one for CenterPoint Energy, which has about 100,000 natural gas customers around Lawton in the southwest part of the state.
Ted Streuli: Who’s challenging the state’s storm cost securitization law?
Paul Monies: Well actually there’s a lawsuit being filed at the Oklahoma Supreme Court by a former lawmaker, Mike Reynolds. He said that basically the way they’ve structured these securitization bonds is unconstitutional and that they should go before a full vote of the people in an election.
Ted Streuli: And I think when there’s that much money involved, somebody profited from that storm last year. Who is it?
Paul Monies: Yeah, that’s the big question. We don’t know. The only people who do know are the people who are involved in the case: the regulators and the lawyers and attorneys in the case. That is usually kept secret in these types of cases. But people are arguing that this is such a huge cost, there should be some transparency and there’s not gonna be any kind of untoward bidding by knowing who was bidding for that natural gas when it got so high during the storm.
Ted Streuli: And so who’s standing up for consumers in this?
Paul Monies: Well, by law it’s the attorney general. And so the attorney general has actually signed off on each of the two securitization agreements that have been voted on by the Corporation Commission. The attorney general did do a lot of work behind the scenes for about six months. But also separately from the Corporation Commission’s actions, the A.G. is supposed to be investigating price gouging. That was mentioned by the previous A.G. Mike Hunter when the storm happened. But we haven’t had much updates from the new attorney general John O’Connor since that time period.
Ted Streuli: What drove the prices so high?
Paul Monies: It was unfortunately a combination of demand extreme cold and then kind of a pooling of the demand, both from residential for heating and from the electric sector to power natural gas plants. And at the same time supplies were diminished because a lot of the infrastructure was freezing or having problems producing in the first place.
Ted Streuli: What are regulators going to do to make sure we don’t end up in a similar situation next time around?
Paul Monies: Behind the scenes, the Corporation Commission has held a couple of study sessions with regulated utilities, kind of to talk about how they might winterize the equipment, how they can better coordinate gas supplies during times of emergency. Separately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is kind of still looking at some of the prices to see if there’s any manipulations in the markets at that time.
Ted Streuli: So, maybe just for listeners refresh their memories on what’s happened here. We’re talking about the outfall from a February 2021 winter storm when getting natural gas became extremely expensive for a little while. And the decision here is the customers of Oklahoma Natural Gas and OG&E and others are going to be paying off the cost of that gas for a long time to come. Can you give us a quick summary of that decision?
Paul Monies: So they thought the best way to do this was a process called securitization, which basically allows you to put those costs over a period of years, in this case 25, 28 years, (a) fixed price each month for customers. So it’s a small amount for customers rather than having that sticker shock right up front, where we were facing probably bills of $1,200, $1,400 a month per customer for the next year, if it was all paid at once. So basically the securitization process takes that debt off the utilities’ books and, um, let’s the state sell bonds that will then be paid back by customer bills and charges on their bills.
Ted Streuli: And that’s going to cost the average customer somewhere around $10 a month, but for 25 or 30 years.
Paul Monies: That’s right. If you’re both a natural gas customer for ONG and an electric customer say for PSO or OG&E it’s going to be about $10 a month generally for most customers for 25 years or more
Ted Streuli: Thanks, Paul. We’ve been talking to Paul Monies who covers state government for Oklahoma Watch about the decisions in the natural gas rate cases. Paul, thanks.
Changing How We Vote
Ted Streuli: We’re talking now with Oklahoma Watch state government reporter, Trevor Brown, who covers democracy, Trevor highlighted some important upcoming election dates in his most recent newsletter. Now he’s working on a package looking at legislative proposals to change the state’s voting laws. Trevor, can you tell us what’s coming up on the calendar?
Trevor Brown: So Oklahoma’s first big election of the year is coming up. That’s gonna be on Tuesday, February 8, with early voting starting Thursday. So most of the state will have a lot of local races, a lot of primary school board races. There are also some big mayoral races in Oklahoma City and Norman and some other cities around the state.
Ted Streuli: What about for the rest of the year? Can you give us a quick rundown on what to expect?
Trevor Brown: This is going to be a big election year for Oklahoma. We have a lot of races. We’re going to have the gubernatorial, we’ve got statewide races for other top offices. We have most of the legislature and then a lot of other local races on the ballot. Some key dates to kind of watch is that in mid April is the election filing period. That’s when candidates actually formally declare they’re gonna run or not. Then we have the primary at the end of June, the runoff in August, and finally the general election in November.
Ted Streuli: Last year, a number of GOP-led states, including Texas, passed laws that would make it harder for some people to vote. Did Oklahoma follow that path?
Trevor Brown: No. Actually Oklahoma kind of went the other way. It was kind of bucking the trend of, like you said, a number of Republican-led states have made it harder to vote. Oklahoma, really, the only big thing passed last year was adding an extra day for early voting for presidential elections. But we really didn’t see the type of what some people call voter-suppression, other people would call election security laws, last year.
Ted Streuli: What about this year? What type of proposals are out there for the upcoming legislative session?
Trevor Brown: So this year might be different. I was actually reviewing the latest filings and about 82 voting or election letting bills have already been filed for the upcoming session. And that’s not even counting more than a dozen shell bills — these are bills that have no language right now, but could be substituted for language later on during the session. So we could even see more than what’s already filed.
Ted Streuli: What are some examples that you’ve seen of bills that would make it harder for people to vote?
Trevor Brown: So one bill that I was looking at is one that would require all voters tor re-register to vote and then provide proof of U.S. citizenship and other requirements before the end of 2023 or they would lose their voting status. That would surely put a lot of burden on some people that haven’t been following it too closely and might miss the registration periods. There’s another bill out there that would add some reporting requirements on notary publics. These are the people that need to sign off on early absentee ballots. This could be another requirement that some people could argue would make it harder to find notaries to approve these, absentee ballots.
Ted Streuli: What about legislation that calls for election results to be audited it or reviewed? Are we likely to see those?
Trevor Brown: I’ve seen several of these bills filed. Many of them are titled things such as the Oklahoma Integrity Act or the Election Security Act. A lot of these are being filed from lawmakers who have voiced concerns about election security here and elsewhere. Many of these concerns have been not backed up by evidence, but there’s definitely gonna be a push at least to have some forensic auditing, things like that for the elections. But there’s a good number of people that say that this is not needed. Oklahoma already has secure elections.
Ted Streuli: But on the other side, there are some bills that would give Oklahoman’s more opportunities to vote,
Trevor Brown: That’s right. There’s a number of bills filed both by Republicans and Democrats that would again add extra hours or even days for early voting. That’s something a lot of voting advocates are asking for. Others would seek things like automatic voter registration or making sure voting right are restored after (an) incarcerated inmate is released from prison. So we’re gonna see a lot of those bills as well.
Ted Streuli: In the past, a lot of those proposals haven’t gone over very well. Why not? And what do the prospects for this year look like?
Trevor Brown: Yeah, that’s right. I’ve actually did some articles in the past looking at the success of election-related bills. And most of the time they don’t even get a committee hearing. If there’s a bill that would expand voting or (make) some big changes, a lot of these things, lawmakers really don’t want to get around with. They’re already in office. They don’t wanna change anything that might compromise that. Some people say a lot of these bills might have a tough path ahead of them.
Ted Streuli: Is there anything that Oklahoma voters should know to make sure that they get a chance to cast their ballot? Anything they should have on their radar for this year?
Trevor Brown: So it’s always important to check to make sure that you’re registered to vote. The general rule is that you need to be registered about 25 days before each election that applies for the primary, the runoff, the general. You can go to oklahoma.gov/elections to check if you’re registered. Even if you think you are, you voted last year or two years ago, it’s always good to make sure.
Ted Streuli: Maybe remind everybody: Once you’ve registered to vote, how does that registration expire?
Trevor Brown: So there’s a number ways that (voting registration) expires. If you registered to vote in another state, Oklahoma’s has a rule. If you don’t vote for a number of elections in a row, you would be removed. So, say you haven’t voted for maybe the last three or four election cycles. Oklahoma is one of the states that would remove you (for) one of those reasons. So if you haven’t voted for a while that’s one of the reasons you could be potentially kicked off the rolls.
Ted Streuli: So definitely make sure to go in and check and make sure you’re still registered.
Trevor Brown: Yep, that’s correct.
Trevor Brown: All right, Trevor, Hey, thanks for all the information. Trevor brown covers democracy for Oklahoma Watch. You can see all his work www.oklahomawatch.org.
Wiping Some Records Clean
Ted Streuli: In this segment of Long Story Short, we’re talking to Keaton Ross who covers criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Keaton, in previous sessions, state lawmakers pushed legislation aimed at reducing the state prison population. Has that focus shifted at all?
Keaton Ross: We’ve seen since the pandemic started our state prison population declined, in a sense stabilized. So over the past few years, we’ve seen more of a focus on legislation aimed at helping people coming out of prison, with reentry and finding a job and getting reintegrated back into the community. And it looks like that trend will continue this session.
Ted Streuli: You have a story that referenced a bill that would allow the state to automatically clear certain criminal records. How would that work? ,
Keaton Ross: That bill is House Bill 3316 by (State Rep.) Nicole Miller. Esentially that would allow the state to set up a computer algorithm that identifies cases that are eligible for expungement. It wouldn’t change the eligibility of what cases may and may not be eligible. It just kind of automates the system more, gets that going. So someone who’s eligible for, for expungement doesn’t have to go and hire an attorney and get that process started, which is often expensive. So that’s essentially what would happen .
Ted Streuli: What kind of people could take advantage of that?
Keaton Ross: So it would be people convicted of a misdemeanor or a lower level nonviolent felony that have stayed out of the system or five or more years, haven’t gotten a new criminal charge or conviction. And the idea is that the system would help those folks more easily find employment and housing, and that would ultimately help with rehabilitation and keeping them out of the justice system long term.
Ted Streuli: One of the problems Oklahoma’s faced is keeping its state prisons adequately staffed. Are there any bills to try to remedy that problem?
Keaton Ross: There are two bills by Representative Justin Humphrey, who formerly worked in the state prison system and is active in bills trying to change our state prisons. One of those bills would — and I wrote about it previously — reduce the Department of Corrections minimum hiring age from 21 to — excuse me — 20 to 18. That’s received some pushback from folks who think that 18 and 19 year olds aren’t prepared to work in a correctional environment. But the idea there is that we need more people in our state prisons, and we’re going to try to do it by getting younger folks in. Humphrey also has a bill that would raise the starting pay for correctional officers from $15.70 an hour up to around $18.50 an hour. I want to say to bring it more in line with kind of the regional average.
Ted Streuli: Okay. What about police reform legislation? That’s a topic we were hearing a lot about a year or so ago. We going to see any legislation related to that?
Keaton Ross: Yeah, there were several bills by Democratic lawmakers last session that didn’t pass. They’re eligible to be heard again, but probably unlikely that we’ll see any movement there. There is one bill by a Republican lawmaker — Senate Bill 1537 by Senator Darrell Weaver — that would clarify some language and make it easier for CLEET (the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training) which is the body that oversees local law enforcement agencies, to de-certify officers if they’re accused of misconduct, (if) there’s evidence misconduct but they weren’t convicted of a crime. Currently, the main avenue of getting a police officer certified is if they are convicted of a misdemeanor or felony,
Ted Streuli: We could see a big change in how court sentence criminal defendants. Is that right?
Keaton Ross: That’s right. Yes. There’s a proposal that would create a crime classification system, essentially grouping, similar felonies together based on severity. And those would all have a similar sentencing range. Currently, i’s kind of just a mishmash. The legislature decides what is a crime and sets the sentencing range and it’s it’s kind of all over the place. That’s been part of the blame for why we’ve seen conversation on sentence enhancements and crimes, or the sentencing range is anywhere from two years to life in prison. And it’s just really broad. That would standardize those sentencing ranges.
Ted Streuli: There’s some contention over that, right? What’s the point of contention on reclassification?
Keaton Ross: That’s right. Justice advocates think the proposal could increase the amount of time, certain non-violent offenders spend in prison because there are mandatory sentence requirements for a lot of the crimes. If you’re convicted of a lower-level felony, you might be required to serve 10 or 15% of your sentence in prison, whereas previously you could have served that on probation or parole. So that’s kind of the point of contention there.
Ted Streuli: How will we know or when does it become clear which of these bills has a chance of turning into a law and which ones are dead in the water?
Keaton Ross: It’ll happen fairly quickly. The deadline for bills to move out of the House is in late February, in early April in the Senate. So we’ll look in the next few weeks. The House bills, we’ll have a better idea of what has a shot (in February). And then the Senate bills, we’ll have a little more time, but, they need to clear that initial committee to get to a full vote and that can sometimes be arduous.
Ted Streuli: Well, thanks Keaton. Keaton Ross covers criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. You can see all his at www.oklahomawatch.org.
You’ve been listening to Long Story short, a weekly cast that helps you get deeper into the investigative stories reported by Oklahoma Watch, which you can find on the www.oklahomawatch.org. This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, for which we’re grateful. For Oklahoma Watch, I’m Ted Streuli. Thanks for listening.