Did you know that you're paying a "societal benefits" fee in your utility bill? If you don't know what that is, or exactly how much it's costing you, it's because under current law, utility companies don't have to list it separately or define it.

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You're also paying a sales tax and an energy surcharge, and they're lumped in together as well. But a new bill would force utility companies to be more forthcoming in their billing practices.

"People have the right to know that they're paying these taxes, and to know exactly what they're paying for the services that are provided to them," said bill sponsor, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany). "This is about transparency, and this is about letting the public be informed."

Under the legislation, utility companies would have to include the amounts of the tax imposed by the "Sales and Use Tax Act," the societal benefits charge, and the transitional energy facility assessment surcharge each customer must pay as separate items on their bills.

As currently drafted, the bill does not require the companies to explain each of the taxes and other charges, but DeCroce said she's not done finalizing the measure yet.

"I plan to amend my bill to include the language as to the interpretation of each one of the taxes that will be listed, so that (consumers) understand what it's for," she said.

The SBC goes into a fund that helps low-income residents and senior citizens pay their heating bills and that's laudable, said bill co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange). However, she also thinks people deserve to know what they're paying for.

"People receive these whopping bills and they don't understand them," Oliver said. "It is these little 'hidden taxes' that get factored into your bill each month, but you don't know that a portion of that bill is going to pay for these other things, and this bill is an effort to bring more transparency to the consumer."

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