Lack of leadership from Governor McKee harms Rhode Islanders struggling with utility costs

Lack of leadership harms Rhode Islanders struggling with utility costs 
While we all suffer from the pain of inflation, at the George Wiley Center we often hear particular frustration expressed for political officials who refuse to support clear policy solutions— even when those solutions have been laid at their feet. Unfortunately, this is currently the case with the Governor who is stalling implementation of the Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIP. Senate Bill No.: 2182 and House Bill No.: 7530), a bill that would help thousands of Rhode Islanders afford essential, life-sustaining energy in their homes. McKee’s inaction is deeply troubling for all of us concerned with basic energy access and breeds both frustration and suspicion among our members. At a recent meeting one member wondered aloud: “is he [Governor McKee] listening to his brother, who operates his family’s oil company, rather than those of us who are living day to day with the consequences of his lack of leadership?” As the months drag on and people suffer with unaffordable rates, frustrations grow. While some assume McKee simply doesn’t care because he is wealthy and not as directly impacted by utility affordability as they, others suspect his family ties to the oil heating sector compromise his integrity as a leader. Only Governor McKee can know his reasons, however, further inaction on such a crucial and humane piece of legislation only causes unnecessary suffering and breeds further mistrust.

The Governor must act immediately, before the end of the current legislative session, to protect the most vulnerable among us particularly disabled, low-income, unemployed workers, and seniors on fixed incomes. Every month that the legislature delays passing PIPP, it deprives these constituents the ability to pay fairer utilities rates.
In order to understand how out of step Governor McKee’s actions are with reasonable policy on this issue, one can simply compare his actions to those of other governors. For example, in response to rate increases in New Hampshire, Republican Governor Chris Sununu on Wednesday announced a $100 million state emergency energy relief program to assist people with their electric bills this summer. This will allow customers in the state of New Hampshire to receive a $100 bill credit, without an application process. PIPP is based on policies that have been proven in over a dozen other states including red, blue and swing states. The bill in Rhode Island has been carefully worked out by community members, national policy experts as well as local stakeholders. While Governor McKee has remained silent to the pleas of those of us who are advocating for PIPP, gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown and candidate for lieutenant governor Senator Cindy Mendes have been outspoken about the need for its immediate passage. They aren’t alone. Gubernatorial candidate Louis Daniel Muñoz and lieutenant governor candidate Representative Deborah Ruggiero are among the many leaders who have expressed their support.
Some progress has already been made and the George Wiley Center is glad that some relief for those struggling with back utility bills was obtained recently through the sale of National Grid to Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL). Many Rhode Islanders still struggle to pay off their pandemic related energy costs: the result of spending more time studying or working from home, or quarantining with COVID. We appreciate that the RI Attorney General’s office took the time to meet with the George Wiley Center and shared our concerns. As a result, 43 million dollars will be earmarked to assist low-income households. While these funds are necessary to try to prevent the most harm to those who are the most vulnerable, the amount is not sufficient to stop unfair utility terminations and exorbitant utilities costs in the future. In other words this one-time retroactive assistance is encouraging but no substitute for the implementation of PIPP.
Further delay is simply cruel and at odds with accepted and humane policy. Now is the time for the Governor to step up and help pass PIPP. We expect the Governor to prioritize the interests of struggling Rhode Islanders over the profits of utility companies—even if his own family members may profit off oil heating sales. Both the Governor and leadership at the statehouse must do all they can to pass PIPP this session to protect our families and neighbors through these times of high inflation and assure that we have more humane utility policies in place as we transition from fossil fuels. We remain hopeful that the Governor will express his support and work with other leaders to pass this bill as soon as possible. Their swift action will allow for more people to live in dignity and restore trust in their leadership.

Camilo Viveiros

George Wiley Center

cell: 401-338-1665

The George Wiley Center is the longest-running statewide grassroots organization in Rhode Island focused on anti-poverty efforts.