June 13, 2024

Legal Lesson: Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code

We recently spoke with HELP: MLP Managing Attorney Laura Handel Schwartz who broke down one of the latest and most important hot topics for Utility Law in Pennsylvania: the upcoming reauthorization of Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code. She discussed how State Senator Tim Kearney, with the encouragement of the Foundation, made this an important issue for discussion and debate in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Background on Chapter 14

Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code is a statute that governs billing, termination and reconnection standards for gas, electric and private water utilities in Pennsylvania. First implemented in 2004, Chapter 14 comes up for reauthorization ever ten years, and is currently up for reauthorization in 2024.

Utility advocates have been watching this reauthorization process closely because it is a chance to add amendments to the existing statute that could reform harmful policies.

Chapter 14 aspects that advocates would like to see amended:

  • Existing punitive measures through which utility companies can collect, bill, and terminate services.
  • Existing imbalance of power that utility companies hold over customers, allowing for payment practices that aren’t informed by equitable or public health standards.

Other suggested reforms include:

  • Ensure there are policies within Chapter 14 for those who are low-income, seniors, pregnant people, those with chronic medical issues, to have life-essential utilities with expanded protections.
  • Expand customer assistance and affordable rates for those who are low-income.
  • Expand the availability of payment arrangements.
  • Eliminate punitive fees for low-income customers.
  • Protect consumers from utility shut-offs in extreme heat (summer months)

The Foundation Advocates for Reforms

Nurse-Family Partnership Director, Amy Martin, and HELP: MLP Managing Attorney, Laura Handel Schwartz had the opportunity to sit down with State Senator Tim Kearney (26th district), to communicate how this statute’s existing rules harm Foundation program participants and to discuss potential policy reforms that would address and improve outcomes. Utility insecurity is a social determinant of health and a driver of poor health outcomes.

The information helped to inform Senator Kearney’s proposed amendments to PA Senate bill SB 1017, helping to advance the effort to reform Chapter 14 of the Utility Code. Senator Kearney played a pivotal and critical role in spotlighting the issues with the statute and bravely advocated for amendments. While the bill moved out of the Senate without the amendments, he helped set up the framework for the House to potentially add these critical amendments and reforms as it considers this bill. The Senator also pushed for utility companies seeking rate hikes to host in-person public hearings in Delaware County to shine a light on the issue and provide accessible opportunities for Delaware County residents to have a say in the proposed rate increases that will effect them.

What’s next for Chapter 14?

There are two bills currently in the Pennsylvania legislature addressing the Chapter 14 reauthorization, and both are currently sitting in the House Consumer Committee awaiting action. SB 1017 is one of these.

Final Thoughts from Laura Handel Schwartz

“The Chapter 14 reauthorization process is a marathon, but this effort to promote needed policy reforms as policymakers have considered two competing, and very different, reauthorization bills has been an opportunity to sprint for change. Our experience working with Senator Kearney and his staff, a true ally in this sprint in particular, was exceptional and we appreciate his partnership and his willingness to listen to our recommendations. We hope this process drew attention to and started a larger conversation about the intersection between utility insecurity and public health, and the need for equitable utility policy reform in Pennsylvania.”