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Absent a dramatic reversal, the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel will be classified a budget loser once lawmakers finalize the state’s two-year spending plan in the coming weeks.
Republican Gov. John Kasich and Republican lawmakers have taken direct aim at the office, which is charged with protecting Ohio consumers in utility cases.
The GOP-controlled House of Representatives supported Kasich’s proposal to cut 51 percent of the agency’s funding and added provisions to muzzle the office on issues related to natural gas markets and to eliminate the counsel’s call center, a repository for consumer complaints.
National consumer groups sharply criticized the proposals, claiming they would prevent the office from fulfilling its mission.
House Speaker William G. Batchelder, a Republican from Medina, was asked recently about the proposed cuts.
Batchelder, echoing similar reasoning from Kasich, said the cuts are justified because the agency is overstaffed and because it plays a role similar to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Supporters of the consumers’ counsel say the office plays a watchdog role separate from the PUCO, which decides whether to approve rate increases the utilities propose.
"There are 74, I believe, attorneys in that office," Batchelder said on the Ohio News Network’s "Capitol Square" on May 29. "Is that duplicative? Is it wasteful? And I think since the legislature was busy with an axe on everything else, it makes it pretty hard to sell having the duplication or having 74 lawyers. I don’t know how many the attorney general has."
PolitiFact Ohio thought 74 seemed awfully high and decided to check out the speaker’s claim.
It didn’t take long to conclude Batchelder was wrong.
The agency has a total of 82 employees, according to a staff listing the OCC provided. Of those workers, only 14 are attorneys. Some workers are part-time, meaning the office’s staffing level equates to 72 full-time workers.
"We currently have 12 attorneys on staff assigned to case work and two vacancies. In addition to the 12 staff attorneys, the Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander and the Deputy Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston are also attorneys," OCC spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro wrote in an e-mail.
Other departments at the OCC include the analytical department, communications, operations and the call center. Migden-Ostrander has said a 51 percent budget cut – from $8.5 million to $4.1 million, as Kasich and the House proposed – would result in layoffs and the elimination of the call center.
But cutting the agency’s budget won’t save the state money. The office is entirely funded from fees levied on the state’s utilities, not tax dollars. Spending less money on the OCC would only put money back in the utilities’ pockets.
On May 31, the Senate unveiled its budget proposal, which reduced the OCC’s cut to 34 percent and removed the prohibition on the counsel talking about natural gas markets, which some called a "gag order."
A spokesman for Batchelder said the speaker misspoke about the number of attorneys in the office.
"He was trying to assert there were 74 employees at the office of the consumers’ counsel and not 74 attorneys," Batchelder spokesman Mike Dittoe said. "We apologize for the slip of the tongue there."
We’ll allow that the speaker may have misspoke, rather than purposefully misused the statistics he cited. But he did repeat the inaccuracy, and wondered aloud how that number of lawyers compared with the staff of Attorney General Mike DeWine, Ohio’s top lawyer. And the number itself is so overstated that it ecllipses the total staffing level of the consumers’ counsel office.
Furthermore, his complaint about duplication of services and wasteful spending when the state is "busy with an axe on everything" is misleading because funding for the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel doesn’t come from general tax revenues. Rather, it is raised through fees levied on utilities.
PolitiFact Ohio has noted before that as speaker, Batchelder is one of the most influential politicians in the state and Ohioans listen to what he says. In this case, he made the claim on a television broadcast on a statewide news network.
And in this case his statement is not just inaccurate, but also makes a ridiculous claim.
When that happens, the Truth-O-Meter points to one rating: Pants on Fire.
Audio of Rep. William G. Batchelder’s appearance on "Capitol Square," May 29, 2011
Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, staff list
Interview and e-mail correspondence with OCC spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro
Interview with Batchelder spokesman Mike Dittoe
Ohio Legislative Service Commission, Comparison of budget proposals regarding the OCC
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