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On Thursday, Attorney General Maura Healey asked the state Legislature to shutter the market that allows individual consumers to buy electricity from independent suppliers, because in too many cases, they paid in millions in extra costs.

The AG released a report that showed over a two-year period from July 2015 and July 2017, certain electric customers who switched to what they thought was a competitive supplier collectively paid nearly $180 million more than if they had remained with their utility.

The report focused on the nearly 500,000 residents who buy directly from these supposedly competitive suppliers, not residents participating in a group contract organized by their community.

Healey said she found patterns indicating low-income and minority neighborhoods became targets of aggressive sales tactics. That’s reinforced by the fact that 36 percent of low-income households received their electricity supplies from a competitive supplier, double the rate of other income groups.

Consumers, who have been able to buy electricity from a company other than their utility since a 1997 state deregulation law took effect, have been inundated with solicitations of cheaper electricity rates.

Fortunately, many communities, including Lowell, Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Lunenburg and several other area municipalities, have joined electric aggregation groups, which pass savings on to their residents.

Dracut, as part of the Southeast Regional Planning & Economic Development Distract (SRPEDD) Electric Aggregation Group, buys its electricity in bulk with 22 other cities and towns. Town Meeting in June 2015 approved the program that automatically enrolls residents unless they choose to opt out of the plan. According to Town Manager Jim Duggan, as a result, the average Dracut resident now saves between $150-$175 annually.

That’s basically how all these municipally sponsored programs work. While it’s true that a savvy consumer may be able to find even lower rates, it’s doubtful most have the time or patience for that.

And in doing so, they expose themselves to unscrupulous operators. That’s what the attorney general wants to prevent.

While we agree with the spirit of Healey’s measure, we don’t believe legislating this industry out of existence is the answer. In our economic system, individuals should have the right to make their own choices, even bad ones. However, companies found to have used deceptive or illegal sales practices should be vigorously prosecuted.

As Healey herself indicated, one supplier, Viridian Energy LLC of Connecticut, agreed to pay $5 million to settle charges that its marketing and sales practices were deceptive. It also agreed to a two-year, door-to-door ban on marketing.

Subjecting these suppliers to stricter regulations, such as substantiating their marketing claims, should in time separate legitimate suppliers from the fraudulent players. That’s how the attorney general should address this problem.

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