Kansas treasurer, state representative call for answers in cold snap price-gouging investigation

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 year, Schmidt followed the lead of several other attorneys general in nearby states and a request from the governor by launching 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.

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Seven months after the storm, as utilities were negotiating plans to pass higher rates onto costumes, 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.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttp://www.sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2020 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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