Senate bill proposes to cancel water debts and bail out utility providers

Last week US Senator Jeff Merkley introduced legislation that would create a new program to cancel utility debts for millions of low-income households and bail out struggling utility companies

The Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act of 2021 would provide $30 billion in low-interest loans for electric, water and sewage and broadband providers. The loans would allow utilities to recoup money in order to stay afloat without resorting to fines and shutoffs.

“Water, power, heat, and internet are basic human needs—and they are especially necessary as families look to rebuild from the pandemic,” said Merkley.  “The fact that so many families are just one missed payment away from losing access to these utilities is a public emergency that must immediately be met with a national plan to make sure the faucets keep working, lights stay on, and students and workers can log on to school or work.”

The legislation states that the loans are conditional. Public and small utilities must cancel outstanding debts for low-income households. Two years after the end of the pandemic, the loans become forgivable up to the amount of outstanding arrearages that the utility has for the period of the emergency as long as they had not reverted to using punitive measures. Utilities that disconnect or fine customers would be obliged to immediately repay the loan in full.

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