Credit unions reap reward of backlash against big banks

by Matthew Reichbach

Bank Transfer Day - Nov. 5

With media attention focused on the Occupy Movement and banks instituting new fees for using debit cards, consumer frustration is moving some to change from national banking institutions to local options.

The New Mexico Independent says that one option is credit unions.

In reality it’s a phenomenon that’s already in motion. Many credit unions around the country have seen an uptick in the opening of accounts. Laura Cowan, a spokesperson with the New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union, whose membership already stands at 150,000, said that in recent weeks, “We have definitely seen a rise in the number of accounts being opened.”

The Bay Citizen noted a similar change in the San Francisco area.

The Credit Union Times wrote that, “Credit unions in Ohio, South Carolina and Pennsylvania also have said they’re working to take advantage of the new wave of anti-bank sentiment.”

In 2010, State Rep. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) introduced a bill that would give local banks and credit unions preference over national banks. The bill cleared the state House on a unanimous vote but did not make it to the Senate floor for a vote before the session ended. The bill received national attention at the time.

It isn’t just the Occupy Movement that is driving consumers to take their money out of the country’s largest banks. Bank of America has announced a $5 fee per month for the use of debit cards while Wells Fargo is testing a $3 monthly fee in five states, including New Mexico.

It was these fees that prompted L.A. gallery owner Kristen Christian to propose “Bank Transfer Day.”

A Bank Transfer Day Facebook group urges the “99%” to remove their money “from major banking institutions” and put their money in “non-profit credit unions” on November 5.

Credit unions, unlike banking institutions, are non-profit. According to the Credit Union Association of New Mexico, a trade association for credit unions in the state, “Unlike most other financial institutions, credit unions do not issue stock or pay dividends to outside stockholders. Instead, earnings are returned to our members in the form of lower loan rates, higher interest on deposits, and lower fees.”

A Gallup poll conducted from October 15-16 found that “the current level of public support for Occupy Wall Street is similar to that for the Tea Party movement.” The poll notes that the Occupy Wall Street movement has been growing and has only been in existence for a month.

Showdown at the PRC: Consumers win as PNM’s rate increase is slashed

By J. Daniel

By any standard, it was a stunning upset. PNM lost yesterday and New Mexico consumers won.

As the state’s largest electric utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) had grown accustomed to having its way with the 5-member elected body charged with regulating it — the Public Regulation Commission. After two straight years of getting its rate increase requests granted, this year PNM and its army of lawyers and lobbyists decided to go for a three-peat in 2011 — initially asking for a whopping $165 million rate hike.

After months of hearings, including closed-door negotiations from which consumer advocates were excluded, that figure got bumped down to a base rate of $85 million. However, a number of  consumer charges were tacked on in addition to the base rate — masked as extra “riders” to the so-called “stipulated agreement.”

So with customary sign-off by the lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, it looked like smooth sailing for PNM’s third straight rate hike. Soon it would be sending out bills to its residential customers with a hefty new increase tacked on.

But Thursday was decision day, and despite all the behind the scenes machinations of the lawyers, PNM ran into a brick wall of unprecedented customer resistance leading up to the PRC hearing in Santa Fe.

“We received hundreds of calls,” was the refrain voiced by at least two of the Commissioners as they prepared to cast their deciding votes.

And then in quick succession, the PRC rejected three motions favored by PNM (one even failing for lack of a second on a motion by Patrick Lyons). It then voted 3 to 2 and passed a framework put together by Commissioner Jason Marks that granted PNM a $72 million rate increase.

Marks explained it this way:

“It’s important that the company only gets what’s fair for PNM and its customers… We can’t afford to give the company the benefit of the doubt. We’ve got to sharpen our pencils. We’ve got to make sure we’re not asking a ratepayer to pay a dollar more than the law requires.”

As a regulated utility monopoly, PNM has a statutory right from the our legislature to make a profit.  The Commission must adhere to that law.  The true question before the Commission was how much exactly to award.

A press release issued by Prosperity Works, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, lauded the PRC’s decision:

“Today the Public Regulation Commission was presented with four options to address PNM’s rate increase request. While all four options included rate increases, the one that passed today will have the smallest impact on consumers,” said Carmela Starce, lead council for Prosperity Works.  “We wish to thank Commissioners (Jason) Marks, (Jerome) Block and (Theresa Becenti) Aguilar for their vote on behalf of New Mexico’s consumers.”

Starce pointed out, “Let me be clear, one of the commissioners who voted against the Marks plan did so – not because he was against a rate increase but because he favored the plan that would have cost New Mexicans the most money and put it right into PNM’s pocket.  Today, three commissioners did the best they could with what was before them.  They should be applauded for working on behalf of New Mexicans to make sure that PNM didn’t get a penny more that it could justify.”

Starce estimated that the PRC’s action today will save consumers at least $60 million over the next five years.

PNM has ten days in which to appeal the decision.

More Clearly NM coverage of the PNM rate hike fight here.

(Many thanks to Charlotte Chinana, who contributed to this report.)