Madison, Wisconsin — This week, Wisconsin’s pioneering Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB) celebrated its fifth birthday with a victory over Wisconsin Bell and activity for’ consumers on a wide variety of utility fronts. This unique residential rate-payer-supported group obtained the agreement of the Public Utility Commission to refund about $24 million dollars in overcharges from the telephone company to its customers.
Since Wisconsin was the first state to enact a law setting up a CUB and requiring telephone, gas and electric companies to carry in their billing envelopes messages written by the CUB staff urging residential customers to become members, I joined the CUB staff and its growing circle of influential friends for the festivities. Except for the birthday cake which had far too much red and blue frosting, the evening was a successful harbinger of what hard-pressed utility consumers in other states could achieve if they get a CUB bill passed.
A CUB works quite simply in this way: Ratepayers open their monthly utility bill from time to time to find a little postage paid envelope falling out with a provocative message. The first such insert for Wisconsin CUB asked: “Are you mad as blankety-blank about high utility prices?” Another headline: “Do you wish you had a lawyer to fight high utility rates? You do!!!” there follows a few paragraphs on the inside flap about a pending rate increase or a company move to measure local telephone calls. Then the ratepayers are asked to join CUB for a few dollars a year and become active members behind their full time staff of advocates.
Since the CUB proposal does not cost the taxpayers a cent, is voluntary to consumers to join and does riot create another government agency, conservative politicians have difficulty opposing it. In 1979 a conservative governor of Wisconsin signed the bill into law. Four years later, the Republican Governor of Illinois did the same. Last month, the voters of Oregon approved a referendum to establish a CUB in their state, turning back the heavily financed opposition of the utility lobby.
Kathleen O’Reilly, the dynamic executive director of Wisconsin CUB, takes credit for defeating the telephone company’s plan to meter local telephone calls by unleashing a barrage of arguments and facts that brought together a coalition of groups ranging from local government officials, whose service calls would cost taxpayers much, to small businesses, elderly groups and even the sympathy of radio talk show hosts who want callers to wait their turn without losing their shirt.
Other victories: the legislature agreed with CUB that utilities only be allowed to charge ratepayers for advertising that is- either required by law or produces a direct benefit to consumers. CUB lobbied successfully the legislature to abolish (he automatic fuel adjustment clause and helped defeat the utility holding company bill.
The Public Service Commission accepted CUB’s proposal last r that ratepayers’ “ability to pay” be formally considered in all future cases. That means that the Commission will consider the economic plight of consumers as well as those -factors that reflect the utilities costs. This decision is a first in the nation.
The CUB idea is catching on around the country. New York is about to see one established. Other states are considering similar ideas.
These developments are part of a new wave of consumer power that includes group consumer buying, group consumer complaint handling (as with same model lemon cars) and the group consumer policy role represented by the CUB institution. Banding together for strength in numbers and full-time staff is the common imprint of these efforts. Consumerism is going to be more momentous in the coming decade.
If you want information about CUB, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Kathleen O’Reilly, Citizens’ Utility Board, P. 0. Box 1438, Madison, Wisconsin, 53701.