WILLIAM A BABLITCH. J.
The only issue before this court is whether the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) has the statutory authority to order a refund of compensation collected by a utility in violation of its filed tariffs. The court of appeals held that the PSC does not have this authority. We conclude that the statutes, supported by public policy, compel an opposite result. Accordingly, we reverse.
The procedural history of this case is complicated and lengthy. Mercifully, for purposes of our review only a brief recitation of the history is necessary. This case arose from a dispute concerning the legality of certain contracts entered into between GTE North Incorporated (GTE) and Harold Mohr (Mohr), whereby GTE provided time and temperature announcement services to Mohr. The PSC concluded that GTE's contracts with Mohr were unlawful because they were not authorized by tariff and therefore were in violation of the filed rate doctrine. See secs. 196.19, 196.22, 196.604, and 196.60, Stats., below.
Decisions of an agency which deal with the scope of the agency's own power are not binding on this court. Wis. Environmental Decade v. Public Service Comm., 81 Wis.2d 344, 351, 260 N.W.2d 712 (1978). "The commission is an administrative body created by the legislature. Its powers are limited by the statutes conferring such power expressly or by fair implication." Mid-Plains Telephone v. Public Serv. Comm., 56 Wis.2d 780, 786, 202 N.W.2d 907 (1973). Thus, the nature and scope of the PSC's authority is a matter of statutory interpretation or construction. Grogan v. Public Service Commission, 109 Wis.2d 75, 77, 325 N.W.2d 82 (1982). We need not defer to the lower courts on matters involving the meaning of statutes. Id.
The arguments of the parties in this case center around the meaning of two statutory sections in chapter 196 of the Wisconsin statutes, secs. 196.02 and 196.37(2), Stats. These sections provide respectively in relevant part:
GTE argues that neither statutory section gives the PSC explicit or implicit authority to issue a refund of compensation collected by a utility in violation of its filed tariffs. Specifically, GTE contends that sec. 196.37(2)'s phrase "in the future" places a limitation on the PSC's power to formulate only prospective remedies. Thus, according to GTE, the PSC may order future changes in utility charges, practices, acts or services, but may not order remedies, such as refunds, for past charges, practices, acts or services that are now determined to have been unlawful.
In addition, GTE asserts that sec. 196.02(1), Stats., cannot be used to confer on the PSC the authority to order a refund because its general plenary language is restricted by the more specific language of sec. 196.37(2). In support of this contention, GTE cites case law holding that if a specific statutory grant of authority to a state agency conflicts with a more general grant, the specific statute controls. See, e.g., Martineau v. State Conservation Comm., 46 Wis.2d 443, 449, 175 N.W.2d 206, (1970). GTE insists that the specific language of sec. 196.37 places a limit on the PSC's authority whereby the PSC can order only prospective remedies, and thus sec. 196.37(2) controls over any broad and general grant of power found in sec. 196.02. We do not agree with GTE's contentions concerning sec. 196.37(2).
"The cardinal rule in all statutory interpretation, as this court has often said, is to discern the intent of the legislature." Scott v. First State Ins. Co., 155 Wis.2d 608, 612, 456 N.W.2d 152 (1990). This court ascertains that intent by examining the language of the
Until 1983, section 196.37(2), Stats., provided:
The emphasized statutory language conferred upon the PSC the authority to make any just and reasonable order regarding a "measurement, regulation, act, practice or service, ..." in addition to its separate authority to make an order determining "reasonable measurements, regulations, acts, practices or service to be ... observed and followed in the future...." This separate authorizing clause, which is not modified by the phrase "in the future," was removed by 1983 Wis. Act 53. However, as the Act itself notes, it was not intended to make any substantive changes in the law: "The legislature does not intend to make any substantive change in the law treated by this act." 1983 Wis. Laws, Section 1 Wis.
The only possible interpretation of the former wording of sec. 196.37(2), Stats., which gives effect to the words "and shall make such other order respecting such measurement, regulation, act, practice or service as shall be just and reasonable," is that the power conferred by that language is in addition to the power to make an order to be followed in the future. Because the changes made in 1983 Wis. Act 53 were to be nonsubstantive, the term "in the future" in the current statute cannot be read as a limitation on the PSC's authority to order a refund in this case because no such limitation existed in the prior language of the statute. An interpretation establishing such a limitation would be contrary to the legislature's directive that the revision make no substantive changes. Thus, we conclude that sec. 196.37(2) confers upon the PSC the authority to order a refund in this case because such an order is a just and reasonable order regarding a "measurement, regulation, act, practice or service".
Having concluded that sec. 196.37(2), Stats., confers upon the PSC the authority to issue a refund in this case, we need not address the meaning of sec. 196.02.
In addition to the language and the history of the statute, the public policy behind chapter 196, Stats., further convinces us that the legislature intended that
If the PSC has the authority to order a refund of compensation collected by a utility in violation of its filed tariffs, consumers can utilize often speedy and informal PSC proceedings as a means of recovering monies to which they may be entitled. On the contrary, if no such authority exists in the PSC, consumers who believe that they are due a refund will have to hire attorneys and spend burdensome and costly time in circuit court attempting to obtain a remedy. In many cases, bringing a circuit court action will be impossible or impractical for the consumer because the amount of money owed, although important to the individual consumer, will be too little to expend the time and money needed to successfully complete a circuit court action.
In addition, unlike circuit courts, the PSC is likely to enforce its determinations across-the-board to other consumers. In other words, if one consumer comes to the PSC and the PSC determines that the consumer is due a refund from a utility because the utility has received money for providing an untariffed service or charged more for a service than its filed tariff allows, the PSC is likely to enforce the refund across-the-board to other consumers who were affected by the overcharge or the untariffed service. However, if each individual consumer has to bring an action in court to
Moreover, sec. 196.37(2), Stats., is a remedial statute and it must therefore be liberally construed to effect as reasonably as possible its beneficent purpose. Link Industries, Inc. v. LIRC, 141 Wis.2d 551, 555, 415 N.W.2d 574 (1987). Chapter 196 is aimed at remedying utility price discrimination. Allowing the PSC to order refunds in cases where utilities have provided untariffed services or charged a rate higher than its tariffed rate furthers this goal by allowing the PSC to control price discrimination through strict application of the filed rate doctrine.
Section 196.22, Stats., is a statutory expression of the filed rate doctrine. The doctrine generally forbids a regulated utility to charge rates for its services other than those properly filed with the appropriate regulatory authority:
For the reasons set forth above, we conclude that the PSC has the authority to order a refund of compensation collected by a utility in violation of its filed tariffs.
By the Court.—The decision of the court of appeals is reversed.
Sections 196.22, 196.60, and 196.604, Stats., provide statutory authority mandating that utilities may obtain only compensation that is specified in its tariffs: