Powerless to change power providers?

HOUSTON The Texas Public Utility Commission approved a rule that would allow power companies to put a hold on a person's ability to switch providers.

On the surface, the rule would keep someone from skipping out on a power bill by switching companies, but some say it will leave people few options if they get behind on their electricity bill.

"They gave me a disconnection notice today," said Clara Watkins, who's having trouble paying her electricity bill.

If Watkins does get her power cut off, she could switch to another power provider willing to take her on as a customer. But under new rules approved by the Texas Public Utility Commission, Watkins would be forced into a payment plan with her current provider before she could go elsewhere for power.

"I can't pay it," she said. "I don't know. It's hard for me right now."

The new rule is called "switch hold" and it is designed to prevent electricity customers from running up a large bill with one company only to switch to a different provider and ignore the old debt.

Beginning in June of next year, power providers must offer payment plans for past due customers, but consumers who can't work out a deal may find themselves unable to sign up with another provider until the old bills are paid in full.

"If you don't pay your bill at Macy's, what this rule is saying is you can't go to any other shopping store until you return to Macy's and pay your bill," said State Representative Sylvester Turner. "And look, it's bad public policy, especially as it relates to electricity."

Rep. Turner believes the PUC overstepped its authority in making the switch hold rule and may take legal action against the agency to block the plan.

"The PUC, the Public Utility Commission, does not have the authority to put people totally in the dark, even if there is another retail electric provider that is willing to offer the service, recognizing somebody's payment history," said Turner.

The switch hold rule comes at a time when bill assistance agencies are seeing huge increases in requests for help. This year, the number of power assistance requests doubled for the greater Houston area over the same time last year.

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