LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan regulators could add up to a $1 monthly surcharge to utility bills to help poor customers with their heating bills under legislation that is expected to become law.
The measure, which won final approval on a 34-4 vote from the state Senate on Tuesday, is designed to provide permanent funding after a previous fee and low-income heating fund came to an end because of a court decision. Utilities could opt out of charging the fee, but major ones that have more delinquent customers have a particularly strong incentive to participate so that they could tap into a federal heating assistance fund, said Republican Sen. Mike Nofs of Battle Creek.
If they opt out, they would be barred from shutting off service to delinquent accounts from Nov. 1 to April 15.
Nofs, the bill sponsor and chairman of the Senate Energy and Technology Committee, said a maximum $50 million could be collected from electric customers each year. If lawmakers decide to designate some taxpayer dollars to the fund, the surcharge could be less than $1, he said.
"It's up to us first," Nofs said. "If we determine it's a priority within the budget, we could go ahead and find that money. If not, then the Michigan Public Service Commission ... could go ahead and assess whatever that may be."
An electric utility, municipal utility or cooperative could collect the fee under the legislation, which Snyder is expected to sign. Some utilities have already started to develop and implement energy assistance programs for their low-income customers after the Low-Income and Energy Efficiency Fund was disbanded, according to a legislative analysis.
Nofs said when legislators passed a major energy law in 2008, they were told regulators would continue having the authority to assess a previous surcharge on utility bills. But some businesses challenged the legality of the old fund, he said, because references to it were left out of the 2008 law.
The Michigan Court of Appeals in July 2011 ruled that lawmakers had failed to authorize the continued collection of the low-income fee. After the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in March 2012, regulators ordered large utilities such as Detroit Edison and Consumers Energy to refund $56.3 million to ratepayers.