John Topfer of Bath, a retired computer programmer for the state, seemed like a pleasant enough fellow, until he revealed what he had said to a telemarketer who was only trying to help him.
"That's a lie," he said he told the man who called to pitch an alternative supplier of his electricity, now provided by Met Ed.
The caller, Topfer said, told him it will be compulsory for him to switch soon, because of a new state law now in effect, so here was his chance to get a terrific deal.
The telemarketer was referring to Senate Bill 1121, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, and indicated it already had been enacted. Topfer knew no such thing had happened, at least not yet, and reacted accordingly. Golly, he sure was rude to the poor guy, although not as rude as I tend to be to the phone pests I consider to be the lowest forms of life on the planet.
Anyway, Topfer's experience reflects the intense sales pitches that hucksters are employing to get people to switch from traditional utility company suppliers, and go with unregulated alternative suppliers.
Mensch's proposed legislation would do that, but as of Friday it still was sitting in the state Senate Consumer Protection Committee, where it has not budged an inch since Mensch introduced it early last October.
So consumers of electricity served by utility companies, as opposed to the alternative suppliers, are still protected by what are called "default" regulations, overseen by the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission.
The amount those companies charge for electricity must be determined by the costs of generation and distribution; monopolistic utilities cannot charge whatever they want for an essential product just because they have their customers by the throat.
There was legislation enacted in 2010. It was billed as a way to give consumers choices. That's where the alternative suppliers came in, and many consumers have opted for the switch even though it is not yet compulsory.
When Mensch introduced his bill, he said consumers could continue with the default system if they wanted, but later admitted that was not true. He said he'd not been aware that the provision to kill the default system was in the bill.
To me, that was a profound admission. Either Mensch knew what was in his bill and fibbed about it, or he did not know what was in it, which is a more serious problem.
It it's the latter, we must assume it was not Mensch who actually drafted the legislation, but it was a pack of lobbyists working for commercial enterprises — and the best interests of consumers would have been the last thing on their minds.
In any event, if SB 1121 ever is enacted, it will mean everyone in Pennsylvania will be forced out of default protection and will have to find alternative electricity suppliers.
Unlike Topfer, most people in the Lehigh Valley region, including me, get their electricity from PPL Electric Utilities, and more than half of PPL customers here and elsewhere have balked at going with alternative suppliers. I like to think that may be because PPL is one of the best-run utilities in the nation, as I have consistently argued on past occasions.
PPL itself has its own subsidiary alternative supplier, PPL Energy Plus, and supports not only the option to switch from the default system, but also the Mensch bill's provision to make it compulsory.
"PPL Electric encourages all of its customers to shop for the best deal on energy," said a statement sent to me by company spokesman Paul Wirth. The statement said about 46 percent of PPL customers now shop for the alternatives.
"We support the concept of ending the requirement that electric delivery companies procure default supply," Wirth told me. He said the compulsory switch "will make the market more competitive."
As for claims by the alternative supplier hucksters — that switching will save customers money — I pointed out that PPL's recent default rates have dropped lower than the rates charged to any of the customers who switched.
"Yeah, but the rate is going to change with market conditions," Wirth said.
"The only way we make money is distribution," he said. "There's no money to be made on default supply at all. … [Power is] passed along to customers at cost."
Both the AARP and the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate have misgivings about Mensch's bill, saying it would make Pennsylvania the only state without a default system to protect consumers against wanton price hikes by unregulated electricity suppliers in the future.
It goes against my grain to oppose increased competition. I am devoted to Adam Smith laissez-faire economics, but even Smith saw the need to regulate monopolies, and no matter what the wheeler-dealers say, the production of electricity is going to have monopolistic characteristics for the foreseeable future.
Also, while some of the alternative suppliers are companies of substance, most are not. They are fly-by-night outfits that exist only on paper, cooked up by lawyers and Wharton whiz kids, and not associated with any establishment that actually generates or transmits electricity.
They are, I fear, a cabal that will turn into another monopoly as soon as consumers lose the protection of regulation.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays