DRC_Dave_Lieber_headshot_2016.jpg

Dave Lieber

Uh-oh. We have a problem.

In the 2019 fight to fix electricity shopping in Texas, now in Round 1 in the Legislature, our campaign was hit with a potent one-two punch combo this week and knocked to the mat.

The Watchdog is trying to get back up, but frankly, I’m seeing stars.

First, rookie state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, in only his sixth week as a lawmaker, introduced a bill that would shut down permanently the state-run PowerTo Choose.org website, a neutral shopping site that millions of Texans use to compare electricity prices.

Patterson works for a Carrollton company that helps big industrial and commercial clients find the right electricity contracts. He told me in an interview that neither he nor his company works in the residential market, so he sees no conflict of interest.

Jared Patterson

Jared Patterson

Usually, it’s a safe bet that a freshman lawmaker still learning his or her way around the state Capitol isn’t going to get such an important bill passed.

But Patterson, who represents a good chunk of Denton County, has a strong ally. And that ally is the one that sent me to the canvas with the second punch in that combo.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, made a proposal in a public committee meeting in Austin to shut down Power ToChoose.org for six months to “see what happens.”

Phil King

Phil King

That was the right hook I didn’t see coming.

Remember last summer I visited King in his Weatherford law office and laid out a summary of the hundreds of complaints about electricity shopping I receive every year.

King, who is respected as an expert on electricity because he’s been around since the early days of deregulation, told me he’d take a look.

I guess I didn’t do a very good job.

A third ally

A rookie lawmaker and a senior lawmaker are not enough to make this happen, but what if you add quiet support from the (Public) Utility Commission to this emerging movement?

Last year, the UC (I took away their “P” until they show they care about the public) talked about the future of PowerToChoose.

Commissioner Arthur D’Andrea, an appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott, said that if the site can’t be straightforward and fair, “we need to reconsider the wisdom of a government agency running a commercial website.”

‘Government is bad’ argument

Before I paint the scenario for you of what life would be like if we left electricity shopping to the beloved private marketplace, let’s listen to the critics’ reasoning.

Patterson, the rookie, is director of Rapid Power Management, which lists on its website clients such as Grand Prairie ISD, Overhead Door, Interstate Batteries and CareFlite.

In our interview, he was critical of electricity companies that use gimmicks to move their plans to the top of search results on PowerToChoose.

For some “crazy companies,” he said, tricking people is the only way they can get business.

He said government can’t win this battle because “the private marketplace is always going to outmaneuver government.”

A neutral shopping website is not needed because people are used to shopping for everything online now, he said. They weren’t when the site was created in the early 2000s.

“The fact that people have been misled with gimmick pricing, I would rather not have the state’s seal of approval on a website that is constantly going to have problems like that,” Patterson said. “And I guess you could say that through no fault of their own, people are misled with the rates they are signing up for.”

He added, “The last thing I want to do is hurt anybody through this process, but I feel more people have been hurt in the process by having [the website].”

His House Bill 1408 simply states that Texas may not operate or contract to run a website “that lists retail electric service plans or providers for the purpose of enabling or assisting a customer’s selection of a retail electric service plan or provider.”

“I’m a native Texan,” Patterson told me. “It’s in my blood to have a distrust of government.”

UC publicly non-committal

Patterson said he discussed his bill with the UC. What did the UC say?

“I’d rather not comment on that.”

UC spokesman Andrew P. Barlow told me in an email, “The commission will implement any legislation that passes and becomes law.”

Meanwhile, at the meeting where King spoke, UC Executive Director John Paul Urban was answering questions.

King told the House State Affairs Committee that “I know there’s a Dallas Morning News article here a while back that came up about the site being a little bit misleading. It wasn’t intentionally misleading. It’s just hard for it not to be misleading. To consumers, it’s very confusing.”

He asked the UC leader, “Is the market developed at a level now that we even need a state-run PowerToChoose website? What do you think?”

The UC head punted. “I leave that up to y’all to direct us on that.”

Electricity companies “introduce new products,” the UC head said. “Then do they meet our rules or not? The policing of that is difficult. ... They get very creative. We get an influx of complaints, and then we have to deal with it.”

King jumped in and asked, “Is the world really going to come to an end if we just tried for six months or so to pull down the website and see if the market just did its own business?

“I feel like the state is still trying to kind of manage the market, and I think we’re just kind of confusing things a bit.”

King did not return a call from The Watchdog.

You think it’s hard now, just wait

Is the world going to end?

Of course not.

Will Texans, many of whom already overpay for electricity because shopping is so complicated and deceptive, do better without the help?

No. No. No.

You’ll have sales people knocking on your door, calling you on the phone and sending you flashy marketing materials to catch your eye.

All the information about the 55 companies that serve this area won’t be in one central location. To do a full comparison, you’d need so much time you might as well take a vacation day from work.

Websites will pretend they are neutral but, without disclosing their backers, sites will steer you to companies that secretly pay for the leads.

The problem here is the Legislature is waiting for the UC to make suggestions. And the UC is waiting for the Legislature to tell them what to do.

It’s a stalemate of laziness on all sides.

Nobody in Austin wants to do the hard work to protect you.

Note: If you want to join this cause, email watchdog@dallas news.com or join “DallasNews Watchdog Posse” on Facebook.

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