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Legislators tell Florida utility regulators to “step up” on shutoffs moratorium

Their urging comes the same day that regulator staff recommended rejecting a moratorium on shutoffs.

Two state legislators are calling on Florida utility regulators and Gov. Ron DeSantis to “step up” on an electricity shutoff moratorium and relief from accumulating unpaid balances for thousands of Floridians who are behind on their power bills.

Their comments come the same day as the Florida Public Service Commission’s staff recommended that the board deny advocates' proposal for a statewide ban on shutoffs.

“This is an issue of human rights and dignity,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s impossible to live in Florida without power.”

Related: Florida power companies respond to call for moratorium on shutoffs

She and Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, spoke at the virtual event Thursday hosted by Florida Conservation Voters, New Florida Majority and Catalyst Miami.

Three of the state’s investor-owned utilities — Tampa Electric Co., Duke Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light — have resumed shutoffs for those who don’t pay their power bills, citing the cost of unpaid accounts. All offer payment plans to customers who can’t afford a lump-sum payment to settle the unpaid portion during the pandemic grace period.

Across the country, millions of Americans are at peril of having their power or gas connections shut off, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which tracks moratoria, the Washington Post reported. The group estimates that electric and gas debts by delinquent customers could reach $24.3 billion by the end of the year.

Consumer advocates in Florida have pressed regulators for a moratorium on shutoffs in letters to Gov. DeSantis and a filing last week to the Public Service Commission. Under the filing’s proposal, customers experiencing financial hardship from the pandemic would be able to fill out a form showing that they can’t pay their electric bill and organizations they’ve contacted for assistance, similar to an unemployment application. If they meet the requirements, utilities would not be allowed to shut off their power. Commissioners are able to implement such a rule for 90 days.

Related: Florida power companies face legal challenge on disconnections during pandemic

The legislators on Thursday called for measures that would go further — a blanket ban on shutoffs through June 2021, as well as financial help for unpaid utility bills during the pandemic that have built up.

“We need the Public Service Commission and the governor to step up," Rodriguez said. “Either that, or allow us to have a special session on a range of issues including unemployment and utility disconnections.”

The commission is expected to discuss the 90-day moratorium request at a hearing next week. Staff recommended that commissioners deny the proposal, saying the certification process it would have customers go through to avoid a shutoff is “too onerous" on both the utilities and customers.

Related: Pressure builds as Florida advocates call for utility, housing relief

The recommendation echoed utilities' arguments that customers could get further behind on bills if they are not required to pay for months, and that doing so would put customers at risk for disconnection when the 90-day period expires if utilities choose to require immediate payments.

The proposal, staff said, would “remove any incentive for customer in need to contact the utility.”

In a filing Tuesday, Florida Power & Light said that “the threat of disconnection is the only way to prompt most customers who are behind on their bills to take action to get help.”

Duke Energy spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said the utility “recognizes that many of our customers are facing unprecedented adversity during this pandemic.”

“To meet the needs of our customers, we have offered extended payment options and helped provide financial assistance to avoid power interruptions during the pandemic,” she said.

Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said in a statement last week that the utility is “committed to doing the right thing for our customers.”

“We have been working with our customers during the six months that we paused disconnections, including offering flexible payment extensions and multiple resources to seek financial relief, which has benefitted tens of thousands of customers,” she said.

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