HURON — Savings that investor-owned utilities operating in South Dakota will see with the federal tax cut package that Congress passed just before Christmas could be filtering down to consumers, a member of the Public Utilities Commission said Monday.
But Kristie Fiegen said any refunds won’t happen overnight.
“We will be working with nine companies this next year or two to figure how this tax savings goes back to consumers,” she said at a Beadle County Republican Women luncheon.
While it may look easy to simply make refunds to consumers, Fiegen said it will take time.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said.
If an investor-owned utility approaches the PUC with a request to raise rates to cover the cost of an investment in its system in the coming months, she said commissioners might reply this way: “We might be able to say, ‘you know, you have a piggy bank right now, and it’s all the savings from your corporate tax,” Fiegen said.
PUC commissioners might then suggest that the company pay for the investment from tax savings rather than passing on a rate increase to consumers, she said.
In any case, consumers will have to be patient.
“We’re looking at a two-year process to figure out what that looks like, and it sounds easy but it’s not,” Fiegen said.
A number of the investor-owned utility companies had rate cases considered by the PUC three or four years ago. After those were decided, they were asked to stay out of a rate case for two, three or four years, she said.
“Most of those are coming due now and they can come in for a rate case again if they need it,” Fiegen said.
“If they don’t need it, there’s no way they would go through all that energy and expense to be in front of us,” she said.
Fiegen was first appointed to the PUC in 2011. She won a full six-year term a year later and is now seeking a second term on the commission.
She said the PUC spends a lot of time working on important infrastructure issues like broadband in South Dakota.
“Our rural telephone companies have done a great job of expanding broadband,” she said.
There are still problems with small pockets of terrain where service is lacking, but it is getting better, she said. Gubernatorial candidates will be talking about broadband issues during the campaign this year, she said.
“We have come a long way since I have been here in the six years,” Fiegen said.
A question remains on the best way to get broadband coverage to those who live in areas where there are only one or two residents per square mile, she said.
“How do you do that?” Fiegen said.
Her belief is that satellite coverage is the best, because while wireless will work in some of those places satellites will work everywhere, Fiegen said.
For now, the PUC will continue asking companies to provide hard line fiber optics to homes, she said.
On a personal note, she said as she has traveled the state in the last week she has experienced the worst cell coverage in weeks.
“So, I will be calling 773-3201. That’s the Public Utilities Commission,” Fiegen said. “I will ask to talk to the consumer affairs division. And I will actually do a complaint.”
She said she was on the phone with fellow Commissioner Chris Nelson while driving on I-90 on Friday. Cell coverage is normally very good, she said.
“We had three dropped calls,” Fiegen said.
She recommends that people with similar complaints should call the PUC to file a complaint.
The PUC doesn’t regulate broadband or cell phone coverage, but she still tells people not to be afraid to call.
“Call us because we may be able to advocate for you, although we don’t regulate,” Fiegen said.
She describes the PUC as an independent body whose three members believe in adhering to the law, looking at ethics and being fair.
“We don’t worry about repercussions at a business, or governor or the legislature,” she said. “We just do what’s right.”
PHOTO BY ROGER LARSEN/PLAINSMAN
Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen, left, addressed the Beadle County Republican Women on Monday. At right are Rosie Harrington and Barb Lorenz.