- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Public Service Commission won’t reconsider its order to let victims of domestic violence delay paying utility deposits for 60 days, setting up a possible legal showdown over the regulator’s authority over rural water association and electrical cooperatives.

The commission voted 3-0 Monday to deny a request from rural water associations and electrical cooperatives to rehear the issue.

Electric cooperatives served by the Tennessee Valley Authority, as well as water associations, claim the commission is overstepping its boundaries. State law says the commission can’t regulate rates of electrical cooperatives and water associations. Both groups say a deposit delay equals rate regulation.

Jim Herring, a lawyer for the Mississippi Rural Water Association and Madison County’s Bear Creek Water Association, says his clients are likely to sue.

“Our view is that this is not about domestic violence, this is about trying to establish jurisdiction if they can,” Herring said after the hearing Monday. “We think the statutes clearly preclude this.”

Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, pushed the delay in deposits for domestic violence victims.

“I think it’s very disappointing that they want to use members’ money to file an appeal and sue public service commissioners when we’re trying to protect victims of domestic violence,” he said.

It’s the latest in a series of clashes over the ability of the commission to regulate nonprofit utilities.

The 14 TVA cooperatives say that the federal power provider is their regulator and that the Public Service Commission has little power over them.

One TVA cooperative, Alcorn County Electric, sued in federal court in 2012, saying the commission’s ratepayer bill of rights didn’t apply to TVA-affiliated cooperatives. The dispute arose over the disconnection of power to a home hosting an infant whose life depended on electrically-powered medical devices. Alcorn County Electric said the commission didn’t have the power to regulate electricity shutoffs because they are part of rate regulation.

That suit was settled and dismissed without a judge ruling on the commission’s authority.

The PSC has also clashed with cooperatives in recent months over requiring energy efficiency programs and questioning whether cooperatives hold too much ratepayer money.

“The commission, it seems, is trying to expand its historic jurisdiction over cooperatives,” said Michael Callahan, CEO of the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi. Jointly, cooperatives serve 762,000 customers statewide, more than Entergy Mississippi and Mississippi Power Co. combined.

Commission intervention in a dispute at the North Lee Water Association led to lawmakers passing a law in 2013 saying the commission had no power to regulate internal affairs of any water association, electric cooperative or municipal utility.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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