The new coronavirus brought further disruption across the West this week, shuttering schools and businesses and altering the activity of utilities and regulatory commissions.
As governors across the U.S. declared states of emergency, electric and gas utilities voluntarily suspended nonpayment disconnections and waived late and reconnection fees in response to the crisis. Regulators in some states issued orders governing utility response, though the measures have followed utility actions that typically go beyond the directives.
"When commission staff reached out to Colorado utilities to find out their intentions with respect to payment/disconnect policies, we found the utilities were already far along in their planning and response," Colorado Public Utilities Commission spokesman Terry Bote said in an email. "No further PUC action or decisions were necessary," he added. Colorado's regulated gas and electric utilities are temporarily suspending nonpayment disconnections for their customers, according to a statement on the commission's website. Gov. Jared Polis has closed the state's schools through April 17, instituted drive-through COVID-19 testing labs and banned gatherings of more than 10 people, among other measures.
The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission at its March 18 meeting adopted an order setting minimum standards that require utilities to suspend residential customer disconnections for nonpayment [20-00069-UT]. The order also requires utilities to waive late fees and establishes reconnection policies for customers disconnected since March 11, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued the state's emergency declaration. It makes clear that utilities have discretion to shut off electric and gas service for safety and at a customer's request. Representatives from electric, water and gas utilities offered input via telephone as the commission deliberated on the emergency agenda item, which was not previously noticed.
The Arizona Corporation Commission on March 16 held a special open meeting to discuss utility preparedness plans in response to the rapidly developing crisis. Commissioners attended by video conference, with only ACC staff and very few members of the public present in person—a departure from the usually well-attended ACC meetings.
ACC Chairman Bob Burns on March 12 requested that the commission's Utilities Division open a docket on planning in response to the crisis [AU-00000A-20-0050]. Commissioner Sandra Kennedy also on March 12 filed a letter to that docket asking the state's regulated electric utilities to consider temporarily suspending disconnections and time-of-use demand charges. Following the meeting, Kennedy on March 17 filed another letter inquiring about regulated utilities' "contingency tariffs for emergency situations." She also requested in a separate letter to Gov. Doug Ducey that he designate state "utility assistance funds" and other resources to protect low-income residents from "economic catastrophe" hastened by the crisis.
Regulatory offices across the region are operating with reduced staff or working remotely, and some have closed to the public. New Mexico and Utah have instituted e-filing only. The ACC continues to accept in-person filings, but discourages public attendance at meetings and will limit meeting room capacity to 10 people, including staff and commissioners. Commission meetings in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada will be held remotely until further notice. Participants and members of the public are encouraged to watch webcasts and offer comment via phone or online.
Some large utilities, including Public Service Company of New Mexico, Arizona Public Service, NV Energy and Dominion Energy of Utah, have extended disconnection suspension to their business customers at utility discretion. New Mexico regulators considered including disconnection suspension for business customers in their order, but utility representatives said that could lead to financial hardship for utilities themselves.
Utilities throughout the region are taking steps to ensure essential staff remain on the job to avoid service interruptions. APS' nuclear Palo Verde Generating Station is maintaining "a high level of readiness to activate robust crisis and business continuity plans," spokeswoman Jill Hanks said in an email. "These include extensive contingency plans to keep essential roles staffed," she said.
PNM and New Mexico Gas Co. in a joint release on the morning of March 20 said they would close their in-person payment centers throughout the state at close of business that day. Other utilities in the region have discouraged in-person payment and are considering similar action.
In addition to ordering closures and banning gatherings, emergency declarations empower state governors to free up emergency funding to facilitate a more agile pandemic response. The actions also make states eligible for federal assistance. In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham on March 16 authorized $3.25 million from the state's general fund for disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Leaders of the state's Republican legislative caucus on March 19 asked the governor to include the Legislature in responding to the crisis by convening a special session to address fiscal and economic uncertainty brought about by plummeting oil and gas prices. Oil and gas revenues compose 45 percent of New Mexico's overall revenues, the lawmakers said. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, responded that "updated and reliable revenue projections" are needed before a special session may be held.
Arizona's Ducey on March 12 signed SB 1051, appropriating up to $55 million from the budget stabilization fund to the public health emergencies fund following the emergency declaration. Utah's HB 494, now on Gov. John Herbert's desk, would authorize diversion of funds from other agencies to provide for a response to the virus. Governors with the declarations have also secured access to the federal government's Small Business Administration Disaster Loan Assistance program and other federal emergency assistance.
Nevada has a $401-million rainy-day fund, but accessing the account would require the governor or two-thirds of the state Legislature to call a special session to declare a fiscal emergency. Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) told The Associated Press in a joint statement March 16 that the Legislature has no plans to go into a special session. Gov. Steve Sisolak on March 18 ordered a 30-day closure of all casinos and nonessential businesses. Earlier in the week, he had restricted capacity at gaming tables, increased casino cleaning protocols and required that buffets cease self-serve operations.
The pandemic also brings extreme uncertainty to the remaining days of state legislative sessions. The Arizona House and Senate galleries closed to the public starting March 13. House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) announced the same day that all committee hearings were canceled, in keeping with federal recommendations to limit indoor gatherings of more than 10 people. House Democrats and Republicans are now sparring over what to include in a basic budget. The Senate passed a $50-million COVID-19 relief package on the evening of March 19, but it stalled in the House. The Legislature will reconvene on March 23.
Colorado's General Assembly, scheduled to conclude May 6, adopted HJR 20-1007, temporarily adjourning until 10 a.m. on March 30.