The Southwest Grinch comes out for Christmas

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The Grinch stealing this year's Christmas is high utility bills.

Every Northern Nevada resident who has opened a bill this month from Southwest Gas Co. or Sierra Pacific Power Co. is seeing the stark reality of the rate increases pushed through during the past year.

And more increases, at least from Sierra Pacific, may be on the way.

Every household and business in Nevada is trying to figure out how to get by with less money -- thanks to the "pass through" costs of utility companies.

Actually, we take that back. There are companies -- the utility companies -- who are doing just fine.

From the figures we've seen, the companies have returned to profitability and are paying dividends to their stockholders. The value of their stocks, which plummeted dramatically a year ago, have returned to the pre-energy crisis level.

That's because state lawmakers and regulators acted quickly to make sure the companies could recover their power costs, as well as allowing Sierra Pacific to carry debts off its balance sheets -- the better to maintain its credit rating.

Who really bailed out the utility companies? The residents of Nevada.

With every spike in rates, state regulators took money out of the pockets of homeowners and businesses and handed it to the utility companies.

How much did that transfer of cold, hard cash steepen the decline of Nevada's economy? We don't have that kind of analysis, but we can easily see the effect in our own pocketbooks every time we write a check for the monthly utility bill.

The question at this point, as the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada prepares to consider further Nevada Power and Sierra Pacific rate increases totaling more than $1 billion, is this: Where is the accountability?

Consumer advocate Tim Hay has repeatedly argued the utility companies have failed to justify their rate increases. The key words in the PUC's responsibility are "legitimate, reasonable and prudent" costs of providing power.

To date, the extent of PUC members' consideration has gone to whether the cost increases are "legitimate." Of course, when the only side of the equation being evaluated is the utility companies', they can find some justification every time.

But any unbiased person looking at the other side of the coin -- the consumers' point of view -- would conclude the increases have been neither "reasonable" nor "prudent."

It's high time the PUC takes a stand by telling the utility companies they can't continue to balance their books by simply gouging their customers. It should not only deny the requested increases, it should begin the process now of lowering rates.

If PUC members would prefer not to think of it as a belated Christmas gift to Nevada residents, they can instead consider it to be a means of removing a multi-billion dollar dead weight from Nevada's economy.


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