Sky-high gas prices motivated the California Public Utilities Commission to unanimously approve an emergency expansion of the low-income assistance programs this winter through 2007. \t "We are helping needy Californians in a timely manner," said CPUC member Dian Grueneich on October 27. She noted the difficulties many families face in paying for basic services. In Los Angeles, for example, about 50 percent of four-person families fall below the federal poverty line, which is $19,350 total yearly income for a family of four. \t The comment period on the proposed expansion was shortened to lessen the blow of "exceptionally high gas prices this winter" for financiallystruggling ratepayers, notes the decision. Natural gas bills are expected to rise 70 percent or more this winter, according to the commission. \t Written by administrative law judge Steve Wiessman, the decision also tries to balance low-income ratepayers' need against the financial burden shifted to the financially stronger utility customers. The commissioners agreed to expand the California Alternative Rates for Energy (CARE) program to cover customers with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That amounts to an annual income of $38,700 for a family of four. Previously, eligibility was cut off at 175 percent of the poverty level, which is $33,862. The decision also: - Prohibits utilities from turning off service of customers who pay up to half their bills in the cold months. - Requires investor-owned utilities to provide 12-month repayment plans to needy ratepayers. - Permits utilities to pick up the pace of replacing inefficient refrigerators, light bulbs, and water heaters. - Orders the utilities to waive reconnection fees and deposits required of CARE ratepayers. - Allows low-income ratepayers to apply for the program, and existing CARE customers to recertify for eligibility, by telephone. - Orders the utilities to submit simplified low-income assistance program enrollment applications via advice letter. - Continues enrollment of CARE customers who fail the eligibility test. On another unanimous vote, the CPUC approved a decision that allows utility shareholders to reap $271 million, without interest, in savings from energy-efficiency investments made before 1998 through 2001. It puts into effect a settlement that Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and SoCal Gas reached with the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, which had been waylaid by more pressing matters related to the energy crisis. \t According to CPUC member Susan Kennedy, the total net savings generated precrisis through 2001 amounted to $670 million to all utility ratepayers. She said the decision allowing shareholders to share in the energy-efficiency savings provides "the right financial incentive." Women's Energy Matters had raised several objections to passing on earnings to the shareholders, but they were dismissed and "accorded no weight." WEM executive director Barbara George said, "High utility bills this winter will be even higher because the CPUC says we have to bribe utilities to do energy efficiency."