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Minn. agency wants CenterPoint rate hike slashed

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Commerce Department wants state utility regulators to cut CenterPoint Energy's proposed natural gas rate increase almost in half.

The agency analyzes rate requests ahead of votes by the Public Utilities Commission. Houston-based CenterPoint, with 823,000 customers in Minnesota, is seeking approval of a $44 million rate increase, but the Commerce Department recommended $21 million instead, The Star Tribune reported Wednesday.

The agency said the proposed 87 percent increase in CenterPoint's basic monthly charge for residential customers, from $9 to $15, would amount to "rate shock." Commerce said $9.50 a month — a 19 percent increase — should be sufficient.

Right now, CenterPoint customers are paying a 4.9 percent interim rate increase that was implemented on Oct. 1.

"On behalf of ratepayers, we carefully watch for unjustified rate increases and found areas in CenterPoint's rate request that are excessive," Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said in a statement.

The agency projected that CenterPoint's 2014 Minnesota revenue would be $884 million, $5.1 million more than the company predicts. The Commerce Department analysis argued the revenue also reduces the need for higher rates.

A CenterPoint spokeswoman said the company is evaluating the recommendations and will respond by the Dec. 23 deadline. An administrative law judge is scheduled to hold public hearings on the rate request starting next week, and after a trial-like hearing to review evidence, the judge will also make recommendations to the PUC.

The utilities commission is expected to set permanent rates next June. If it turns out to be lower than the interim rate, customers would get refunds with interest.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.