Domestic violence victims could get utility deposits delayed

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Despite a recent legal setback, domestic violence victims might soon be able to delay some of their utility deposits for up to 60 days.

The controversy started three years ago, when the Mississippi Public Service Commission created a rule to remove one of the biggest obstacles for people in violent domestic situations: coming up with utility deposits for a new home away from abusers.

PSC

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley

Brandon Presley, chairman of the state public service commission, urged the agency to adopt the new domestic violence rule, which drew objections at the time from nonprofit water associations and electric cooperatives in the Tennessee Valley Authority service area.

Water associations sued the public service commission in November 2014. In early 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in favor of the associations, effectively scrapping the domestic-violence waiver, including for electric utilities.

The commission asked for a rehearing on that decision, saying the program should still apply to companies and electric power associations whose rates the commission can regulate.

“Evidence shows that financial burdens such as utility deposits prevent many from leaving domestic violence situations,” Presley said.

After that rehearing, the state supreme court ruled on June 8 that the public service commission overstepped its bounds when writing its domestic-violence waiver.

“We find that the (public service commission) lacks statutory authority to adopt any rule regulating the rates of nonprofit water utility associations and corporations,” wrote Chief Justice Bill Waller in a majority opinion.

However, because the court gave the public service commission the option of rewriting its rule for electric utilities, the commission will meet June 21 to consider reinstating its Domestic Violence Utility Waiver for qualified customers of companies such as Entergy Mississippi, Mississippi Power Co., Atmos Energy, CenterPoint Energy, electric-power associations and cooperatives.

While the commission does not regulate electric power associations’ rates, legislation passed in 2016 that allows the commission to create rules for associations in certain instances, including regulating deposits for certified domestic violence victims.

Domestic violence policy in Mississippi has come into focus in recent years, notably during the 2017 legislative session when a key lawmaker derailed legislation that would have made spousal abuse a grounds for divorce.

After a backlash, Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, offered a plan to clarify definitions of domestic abuse in existing state laws.

Sandy Middleton, executive director, the Center for Violence Prevention

Sandy Middleton, executive director of nonprofit The Center for Violence Prevention registered in Pearl, said passing policies like the domestic violence utility waiver are significant because the number of cases involving sexual assault, human trafficking and domestic violence victims only continues to grow.

“Victims are having a harder time with finding a place to live and finding jobs,” Middleton said. “There’s a lot of obstacles in their path, especially of low-income individuals who are attempting to escape a violent home.”

She said she would like to see officials give more attention to policies that focus on the experiences and needs of domestic abuse victims as they seek to find safe and violence-free homes.

“Taking care of victims is good public policy, period,” Middleton said. “When our system considers the impact of crime on the victim, it’s always a good place to start.”