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PUC Chair spends lots of time out of the office

Just about the time that Xcel Energy customers have recovered from the sticker shock of this summer’s air conditioner tax, ratepayers await another decision from the Public Utilities Commission on how much more their bills will increase – this time due to HB 1365, the controversial fuel-switching bill.

Our paper “Colorado’s Clean Air Clean Jobs Act Will Accomplish Neither,” details how Governor Bill Ritter, the PUC and Xcel colluded to draft and pass HB 1365, which is now the subject of PUC hearings.

Despite the obvious conflict of interest, PUC Chairman Ron Binz and Commissioner Matt Baker refused a Colorado Mining Association request to recuse themselves from PUC decisions on Xcel’s plan to comply with the legislation.

Now we learn that Chairman Binz has spent more than 200 days traveling in a little less than four years on the Public Utilities Commission – nearly a year’s worth of working time out of the office. A review of public travel documents reveals that the well-traveled commissioner has enjoyed exotic locations such as Athens, Greece, Amman, Jordan, and Kahola, Hawaii. He’s also been to Amelia Island, Florida, San Francisco and everywhere in between. Fifty-five of his trips have been outside of Colorado.

Everyone seems to be paying for all this travel, including taxpayers, both state and federal, non-profits, consultants and sometimes industry. According to the state’s transparency Web site, the PUC spent more than $48,000 in per diem expenses just in FY 2010.

At least one trip appears particularly problematic. BENTEK Energy, an Evergreen-based energy company, paid nearly $1000 in travel expenses for Binz to attend and participate in the “Benposium” in Houston on June 9, 2010.

According to BENTEK’s Web site they are an “independent energy market analytics company and for years has been recognized as the industry leader in natural gas market fundamental analysis.

In describing their clients, BENTEK explains, “we serve the majority of the top firms in the energy industry, including majors, independent producers, pipeline companies, utilities, as well as the largest energy hedge funds, financial institutions and industry regulators.” Clearly, BENTEK would have some interest in how the PUC rules on the energy industry as those decisions would directly affect their business.

The Independent Ethics Commission, established after Colorado voters approved Amendment 41, issued five conditions that must be met before elected officials and government employees can accept travel expenses. Binz’s Houston trip appears to violate one of them:

Condition #4: The government official or employee who will be traveling is not currently, was not in the recent past, and will not in the reasonably foreseeable future, be in a position to take direct official action with respect to the donor. [Emphasis theirs]

The Commission believes that this fourth condition goes to the heart of preserving public confidence in government. Those individuals who are in a position to take direct official action, either currently or in the reasonably foreseeable future, such as procurement officers, should not be placed in situations where their judgment might be perceived to be influenced one way or another. The inclusion of language that the individual not have been in a position to take direct official action in the recent past is to avoid any perception that that individual is being rewarded for a previous official act or decision.

Commissioner Baker’s travel isn’t without problems either.  Baker traveled to Seville, Spain last month with a “delegation of business representatives” to discuss Colorado’s utility regulatory climate and “possible incentives for economic development.” Extenda, a public company funded by the Spanish government, paid for the $2,800 trip.

Under “Justification,” Baker’s out of state travel request reads: “All expenses paid by Government of Spain. Possible future econ develop of renew energy business in Colorado.”

In a case that involved Senator Rollie Heath, the IEC issued an advisory ruling that said foreign government paid travel expenses for “a trade mission for Colorado businesses, academic and public sector institutions” would violate Amendment 41.

Xcel ratepayers have seen their utility bills increase and will continue to do so because of the fuel switching bill and a slew of other consumer unfriendly legislation including the phantom carbon tax and the green deception known as the renewable energy mandate.

The question is, with all the travel by PUC Chairman Binz (and the other commissioners), how much of Colorado’s consumer-unfriendly energy policy is being exported to other states and countries? High utility prices could be Colorado’s worst export.