By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — The Kansas state treasurer, a legislator and a former school board member Wednesday called on Attorney General Derek Schmidt to advance a slow-moving investigation of potential price gouging tied to spikes in natural gas prices during Winter Storm Uri one year ago.
Last February, Schmidt launched an investigation into the natural gas prices, which left Kansas with more than $1 billion in economic fallout. Gas prices rose by nearly 200 times, and experts expect Kansas utility payers will be feeling the aftereffects for a decade.
Seven months after the storm, as utilities were negotiating plans to pass higher rates onto customers, Schmidt said the high prices “appear to violate Kansas law” and noted he was seeking outside counsel to aid in the investigation.
State treasurer Lynn Rogers said this lack of movement sends the wrong message to Kansans.
“The message it sends is, pay your bills, pay the cost but just wait for answers and trust us,” Rogers said. “I don’t think that’s a good message for citizens or for elected officials. We need to be doing our job.”
Last month, the Kansas House nearly unanimously approved a resolution endorsing these investigations and condemning price gouging or market manipulation in the aftermath of the winter storm. In addition, the regulation called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to examine market conditions from Feb. 6 to 18.
The attorney general has since obtained counsel with specialized expertise, said John Milburn, a spokesman for Schmidt’s office.
The investigation is active and ongoing,” he said. “We have no further comment at this time.”
Laura Guy, a former school teacher and Shawnee Mission School Board member, said the wait-and-see approach is not enough. She pointed to struggles faced by education faculty across the state.
“The last thing any school district needs right now is outrageous bills that drain precious resources away from our students,” Guy said. “(Schmidt) has given Kansans nearly no insight on where his investigation stands, leaving school districts like (Shawnee Mission) questioning whether … cold weather could undo all of our careful budgeting.”
On average, Shawnee Mission schools spend about $600,000 in natural gas bills for the entire year. During last February’s cold snap, the school gas bill ballooned to $1.6 million for a single month.
Auburn-Washburn Unified School District received a gas bill of $45,000 instead of its typical bill of $5,000. Newton Public Schools received a bill for nearly $200,000, six times the normal cost.
The city utility low-interest loan program, approved by the Legislature last year, allows Kansas cities to borrow from the state to cover extraordinary natural gas and electric costs. As of Jan. 1, 54 cities and one municipal energy agency had submitted applications and $78,409,646.79 in loans were approved and funded.
Still, Rep. Anne Kuether, a Topeka Democrat, said Kansans deserve answers and financial security.
“This is an issue that doesn’t have a party. This is an issue for the everyday people who are having a hard time making ends meet,” Kuether said. “Kansans deserve answers, relief, and they also deserve assurances that they will be protected for future market manipulations.”