Domestic violence victims utility waiver adopted

Print More

Domestic violence victims will soon be able to remove one of many obstacles that could prevent their transition into a new home away from abusers: coming up with utility deposits.

The Mississippi Public Service Commission formally adopted a “domestic violence rule” establishing a utility deposit waiver for certified victims at its meeting Tuesday.

The commission’s unanimous decision means that 30 days after the rule is filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, companies such as Entergy Mississippi, Mississippi Power Co., Atmos Energy, CenterPoint Energy, electric-power associations and cooperatives can waive victims’ utility deposits for up to 60 days.

“They still have to pay it after 60 days, but that’s to help these victims escape a dangerous situation,” said Brandon Presley, chairman of the Public Service Commission, after the meeting.

These utility providers will first need to confirm that the applicant is a domestic violence victim. This process requires a victim to submit a certification letter, backed by a domestic-violence shelter, to their utility provider.

The rule was a source of controversy three years ago, when the commission adopted an initial version of the domestic violence rule requiring for-profit and nonprofit utility companies and associations to comply. This 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.

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, the court gave the commission the option of rewriting its rule for electric utilities, which would reinstate its Domestic Violence Utility Waiver for eligible customers of the utilities the commission regulates, electric-power associations and cooperatives.

While the commission does not regulate electric power associations’ rates, legislation passed in 2016 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 lawmakers offered a plan to clarify definitions of domestic abuse in existing state laws.