Kane to name consumer advocate
HARRISBURG - Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane will get to name a new state consumer advocate, a key player in determining the outcome of utility regulatory issues.
Kane's election last week as the first Democratic attorney general since the office became elective in 1980 comes at an auspicious moment as far as consumer matters are concerned.
Long-time consumer advocate Irwin "Sonny" Popowsky retired last month after 22 years on the job. He developed a reputation for his knowledge of and ability to explain often complex utility issues, said area lawmakers.
The retirement gives Kane the opportunity after she takes office in January to nominate the fifth consumer advocate since the office was created in 1976. Tanya J. McCloskey, a veteran assistant in the office, has been named acting consumer advocate by departing Attorney General Linda Kelly. Kane's nominee will face Senate confirmation on a majority vote.
The election changed the dynamic in the Senate, too. Republican control of that chamber has narrowed to 27-23 with a Democratic pickup of three seats.
The advocate represents consumers in cases before the Public Utility Commission and in state and federal courts involving rates, service, competition and regulation with electric, natural gas, telecommunications and water service and is involved in policy debates.
"The Office of Consumer Advocate provides invaluable services to Pennsylvania ratepayers and litigates complex cases on behalf of residential consumers," said Eric Epstein, who is involved with utility issues as chairman of TMI-Alert.
During her campaign, Kane said she would like to increase the role of the attorney general in prosecuting consumer fraud cases. In a post-election interview, she said problems exist with fraud involving mortgages, securities, student loans and veterans benefits.
Kane will name someone who truly advocates for consumers, said Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-18, Bethlehem Twp., ranking Democrat on the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.
"She is going to require a strong résumé and a background of consumer advocacy and protection," added Boscola, who has discussed consumer issues with Kane.
The senator suggested that Kane's strong electoral win will help her nominee get through the Senate.
Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-120, Kingston, hopes one of Popowsky's assistants will get the nod.
"We really need someone in there like him who is going to hold the utilities' feet to the fire," she added.
Popowsky fought to make electric rates fairer to consumers and was helpful pointing out where rate increase requests included questionable costs, added Mundy.
Some suggest that McCloskey could wind up the nominee.
"McCloskey is a consummate advocate who is highly regarded by all stakeholders at the Public Utility Commission," said Epstein.
Kane campaign spokesman Josh Morrow declined to comment on a nomination.
Among the issues facing the next consumer advocate is implementation of a new state law that allows electric utilities, natural gas companies and water and sewer utilities to levy a "distribution service improvement charge" on customers to recoup costs tied to repairs and improvements to pipelines and distribution systems.