The rate increase that Westar Energy has applied for contains a large dose of discretionary business welfare spending. Westar, in conjunction with out current economic development machinery, will be allowed to grant discounts on electricity to new businesses. A current program exists, but Westar says it doesn’t offer the flexibility Westar needs.
Following is an excerpt from testimony Westar submitted to the Kansas Corporation Commission. I’ve added emphasis:
Q. HOW WILL THE FIRST COMPONENT OF PROMOTE KANSAS WORK?
A. The economic development portion of the proposal would permit Westar, at its option, to provide economic development assistance in the form of discounted electric service to new customers and existing customers with planned expansions if three conditions are met: (1) the customer adds new jobs to its work force, (2) the customer brings new capital equipment and plant to a new or expanded facility and (3) the economic development effort is supported and backed by a state organization such as the Kansas Department of Commerce or a local economic development organization.
Q. HOW WILL PROMOTE KANSAS PROVIDE WESTAR WITH FLEXIBILITY TO ADDRESS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT NEEDS ON A CASE-BY-CASE BASIS?
A. If approved, Promote Kansas will allow Westar to adjust the economic incentive — in the form of reduced electric rates — provided to a customer based on the circumstances involved. This is a change from Westar’s existing EDR, which provides for a fixed percentage discount of 25 percent to the customer’s electric bill in the first year. The incentive credit declines by five percent per year over a mandatory five year period. After the fifth year of service, the customer pays the full cost of their electric service. Westar has no flexibility to adjust the amount of the incentive credit level or duration under the current EDA.
We believe that the fixed percentage under the existing EDA is too rigid. In some situations, the customer may not require the entire 25 percent reduction in its electric bill, or a full five years of reduced electric rates, in order to move forward with an expansion or relocation to Kansas. In these cases, the rigidity of the existing EDA tariff results in either contributing more than needed to attract the new customer or encourage the expansion, or not offering the incentive at all. The current EDA tariff was developed over a quarter century ago, tailored to specific circumstances that no longer exist. It was based on past exigencies, and it is time to revise it to meet today’s priorities and business environment.
Promote Kansas would contain a variable incentive credit. If Westar decides to provide the incentive credit to a customer, it would range from five percent to 25 percent the first year and would then decline over no more than a five-year period. This will allow Westar flexibility to determine how much incentive is necessary to attract the new customer or the expansion. Westar will be able to actively participate in negotiations with potential new businesses along with other economic development organizations in order to develop the best package of benefits for the customer’s specific situation.
We need to be concerned with this part of Westar’s application. This language — at its option … based on the circumstances involved … variable incentive credit … this will allow Westar flexibility — gives huge discretion to Westar to decide how much customers will pay for electricity.
Westar is not a government agency, but as a tightly regulated entity, it’s almost like government. It exercises the type of monopoly power that few outside of government do: It holds a near-monopoly on the delivery of a product that almost everyone wants and needs. With few exceptions, households and business firms can’t negotiate with Westar on their electric rates.
Therefore, when Westar offers — at its discretion — lower electric rates to some customers, others must necessarily pay more. Testimony to this effect was offered by Westar.
If we could be certain that the goals of this program would be realized, that would be one thing. But as a quasi-governmental entity, Westar suffers from the same knowledge problem as does government, especially regarding targeted investment programs like that proposed in this new rate structure. These actors believe that they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. Really, it’s even a larger decision, as all other Westar customers have to pay for the investment decisions that will be made.
This rate plan implements a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Kansas economy. We have to decide who is in the best position to make these decisions: Regulators and utility company executives, or the diverse market where thousands of business firms freely compete for voluntary investments to be made.
As Hayek pointed out, knowledge that is important in the economy is dispersed. Consumers understand their own wants and business managers understand their technological opportunities and constraints to a greater degree than they can articulate and to a far greater degree than experts can understand and absorb.
When knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, I call this the knowledge-power discrepancy. Such discrepancies can arise in large firms, where CEOs can fail to appreciate the significance of what is known by some of their subordinates. … With government experts, the knowledge-power discrepancy is particularly acute.
Despite this knowledge problem, the Kansas Corporation Commission is considering giving Westar the very type of power that ought to be left to markets. For this reason, KCC should reject Westar’s rate increase application until this program, and the program it is intended to replace, are eliminated.
The full rate application is available at Docket 13-WSEE-629-RTS: Application of Westar Energy and Kansas Gas and Electric Company Charges for Electric Service. A public hearing is scheduled tonight in Wichita; see Westar electricity rate hikes.