Senator Mike Cunningham’s Legislative Column for Nov. 14, 2019

Legislative Column for Nov. 14, 2019

The official start of winter is still weeks away, but apparently Mother Nature didn’t get the memo. Cold weather arrived in Missouri in late October, causing ghosts and goblins to go door to door in their winter coats and snow began falling in parts of the state well before Thanksgiving. As the temperature outside plummets, can rising utility bills be far behind?

Winter is a tough time for many Missourians, especially those who barely get by. Heating a home is expensive and we tend to use more electricity in winter months because it gets dark sooner and we’re inside more. Many seniors and low-income residents have trouble keeping up with the high utility bills that follow the first frost.

Utility companies that serve our state’s big cities are regulated by the Missouri Public Service Commission. Those companies are bound by the PSC’s “cold weather rule.” Between November and March, an electric or gas utility cannot disconnect a customer for non-payment when the temperature is below freezing. When customers can’t pay their bill, regulated utilities agree to accept partial payment. Customers are allowed to work out a payment plan with the utility, so that the overdue balance is paid off over time.

In rural areas – including nearly all of the 33rd Senatorial District – residents get their electricity from member-owned cooperatives or municipal utilities. These suppliers are not regulated by the Public Service Commission, and therefore the cold weather rule doesn’t apply. The good news is that these not-for-profit utilities generally follow the spirit, if not the exact letter, of the PSC’s cold weather rule.

That doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay your bill, however. Regardless of whether a utility is under the PSC or not, the expectation is still the same. Customers should communicate their situation with the utility early, before disconnection is imminent. They also must keep their end of whatever bargain is worked out. Even regulated utilities can disconnect a customer if they don’t follow their payment plan. Also, the offer of a payment plan is usually a one-time deal. The PSC doesn’t require utilities to repeatedly forbear non-payment, and most co-ops won’t do so, either.

If you receive a utility bill that you can’t pay, don’t wait until the lineman is outside to pull your meter. Call your energy supplier as soon as you know there’s a problem. Generally, if you make a good faith effort, they’ll work with you.

If you absolutely cannot pay your bill, there may still be help available through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP, a federal program administered in Missouri by the Department of Social Services, helps struggling families pay their utility bills. You apply for the program through local community action agencies. Typically, these agencies only have a limited amount of money and often the funds run out before the need is met. This is another case where procrastination should be avoided.

There are three community action agencies serving the 33rd Senatorial District. Webster County residents should contact the Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation in Springfield. People who live in Douglas, Howell, Oregon, Ozark, Texas and Wright counties should reach out to Ozark Action, Inc., in West Plains. The South Central Missouri Community Action Agency, based in Winona, serves Ripley County. These same agencies can also advise you about ways you may be able to prevent excessive utility bills in the future. They are your contact for the Low-Income Weatherization Assistance Program, administered by the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s Division of Energy, which helps pay for energy-related home improvements for low-income Missourians.

Missourians who don’t qualify for low-income energy assistance may still get help from the state. A law passed in 2008, and renewed in 2014, allows Missourians to deduct the cost of a qualified home energy audit from their state income tax return. Home energy improvements that were recommended through the audit may also be deductible. The maximum deduction is $1,000 ($2,000 on a joint return). This program expires at the end of 2020, so now is the time to have your home checked out. You can find more information online at The Missouri Division of Energy website also includes a series of how-to videos to guide do-it-yourselfers on home weatherization projects.

You don’t have to consult your Farmer’s Almanac or crack open a persimmon to know that we have cold months ahead. You also don’t need a crystal ball to know that winter utility bills will soon arrive in the mailbox. No one likes high energy bills, but if we all make a little effort to prepare our homes, and plan our budgets, we can get through the winter. When all our efforts are not enough, there may be help available.

It is my great honor to represent the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District. Although the Legislature has adjourned for 2019, I remain your senator throughout the year. If there’s anything that I can do to assist you, please feel free to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.