March 21, 2007
What happened to HB478?

Have you ever been dinged for a late fee by a utility company even though you mailed your bill in on time? Utility companies in Texas, unlike (say) the IRS, are not required to use the postmark of the bill you've mailed as the payment date. They can "process" your payment internally, and if it takes them till past the due date to do that, well, that's just too bad for you.

Which is why Rep. Hubert Vo has filed HB478, which would require utilities to respect the postmark date:

A payment for retail utility services that is mailed to the retail utility provider using the United States Postal Service is considered made on the date the envelope or cover is postmarked by the postal service

Here's an excerpt from Rep. Vo's statement about the bill:

HB 478 creates a standard rule so that there can be no dispute as to whether a bill was paid in a timely manner. This bill amends the Texas Utility Code to require utility companies to use the postmark date on the payment envelope as the date of payment..... as opposed to the date the payment is posted.

It is important to note that the current system provides no safeguard for the consumer. Utility companies may have a payment processing system that takes several days to post payments. If we require a date by which payments must be made, then we must have a uniform rule concerning the posting of those payments. Otherwise, the consumer is the only party who has a rule to follow. As it is now, the customer is at the mercy of the utility company posting procedures...... with no way of proving they made their payment on time.

HB 478 will decrease the potential for billing disputes. Both the customers and providers will have a clear rule to follow. If the consumers follow the rules and mail their payments on time, they will no longer face the possibility of being penalized....period.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it was heard in committee two weeks ago, and Rep. Vo agreed to put off a vote until yesterday so that there could be more input on it, but as you can see from yesterday's schedule, it was never brought up again even though most of the committee members have assured Vo they support this. Why might that be?

The late fees, of course. They add up - $70 million a year is what I've heard - and they're basically free money for the utilities. Nobody can justify this (by all means, feel free to come up with a rationale if you think there could be one), but you can be sure the utilities are loathe to give it up. So rather than have a potentially embarrassing vote on some members' records, the lobbyists (who were reportedly there, on behalf of TXU, at the meeting yesterday) have used those two weeks to try and get the bill killed quietly, which is the usual method for handling such situations. And so here we are.

Speaking on a different legislative matter, Grits sums up the process:

Folks at the capitol are used to the committee process happening more or less beyond scrutiny. Hearings are frequently dog and pony shows where the press and the public is presented with an image pols want to present, but the real heavy lifting on the details of legislation all happens before the hearing, or in cases where a bill is disputed, behind the scenes after the hearing is over.

Lobbyists track bills closely. When committee agendas are posted they go through the bills to see what they care about and begin to prepare for the hearing by lobbying members, lining up speakers, preparing written testimony. The important work they do happens before the members meet, but typically the public isn't even aware of the issue until a hearing occurs.

Well, at least you're aware of this one. I don't know if HB478 will see the light of day again or not, but if you think it should, check that list of committee members and if any of them happen to be your Rep, give him a call and let him know what you think.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 21, 2007 to That's our Lege

The chairman of the committee is Phil King, the rightwing zealot and former cop from Weatherford.

King is a close political ally of Speaker Tom Craddick and also helps run Stars Over Texas PAC, which is funded mainly by Jim Leininger and Bob Perry to defeat Democrats.

Any more questions about why Hubert Vo's common sense legislation got hung up?

Posted by: gabe on March 22, 2007 6:09 AM