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State enacts emergency expansion of low-income utility assistance program

(Plain Press, September 2022)           The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) on Wednesday July 20th took emergency action to broaden eligibility for a state assistance program in the face of rising natural gas prices.

     Hours later, the Ohio Department of Development did the same for low-income electric customers following an executive order inked by Gov. Mike DeWine.

     Both moves will boost the eligibility threshold for the Percentage of Income Payment Plan – or PIPP – Program, which enables eligible customers to pay a percentage of their gross household income toward utility bills.

     Program access is being expanded to households at or below 175% of the federal poverty guideline – up from the current 150% threshold.

     Under the expanded eligibility for the Utility Assistance Program 12-month household income limits are now up to $23,783.50 for a one-person household; up to $32,042.50 for a two-person household; up to $40,302.50 for a three-person household; up to $48,562.50 for a four-person household; up to $56,822.50 for a five-person household; up to $65,082.50 for a six-person household; up to $73,342.50 for a seven-person household and up to $81,602.50 for an eight-person household.

     The PUCO, which oversees the natural gas portion of the program, made its move during an uncharacteristically early Wednesday morning meeting. The Department of Development, which oversees the electric portion of the program, announced its move that afternoon.

     “With the rising costs of commodities, Ohioans are finding it harder to pay their utility bills,” Gov. DeWine said in a statement. “By expanding eligibility for utility assistance programs, more Ohioans will get the help they need to pay their bills and keep their homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”

     In its order, the PUCO billed it as a move “necessary to preserve the public health and safety.”

     Recent supply auctions have led to a “significant price increase” in natural gas costs being shouldered by consumers, reads the commission’s order.

     “These price increases have a deleterious impact on all natural gas customers but especially on low-income customers,” the decision reads.

     Both emergency rule amendments take immediate effect upon their filing with the Secretary of State, the Legislative Service Commission Track and the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review Track.

     The change will last for 120 days, but an expedited rulemaking process before the PUCO will now commence that could lead to making the change permanent.

     “During this period while the emergency rule is in effect, the commission will conduct a rulemaking proceeding to consider the amendments …being permanently adopted on an expedited basis through this entry,” the commission wrote.

     The change must also work its way through the Common Sense Initiative and a related business impact analysis during that time.

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