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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

PSC proposes tougher sanctions than Senate bill



As the Senate bill to tighten ethics requirements on the Public Service Commission moves on the fast track, it appears to be shaping up to be a weaker cousin to a similar proposal being offered by the PSC itself.

The PSC approved draft legislation at its Jan. 25 internal affairs meeting to force "ex parte" conversations between utilities and PSC commissioners and their advisory staff into the open. It offered its suggestions to the Senate but legislation had already been drafted by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. His plan would also force the ex parte conversations into the sunshine, but wouldn't include many of the tougher provisions sought by commissioners.

On Tuesday, the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee unanimously passed a strike-all amendment to SB 1034, Fasano's bill. The changes removed provisions that the Office of Public Counsel didn't need, Fasano said. He said he supports amending the bill to make some of the changes sought by the PSC when the bill comes up for a final vote but, he added, he had to stick with what lawmakers will pass.

"I would love to have additional things on there, but we took what we could get to the floor of the Senate as quickly as possible,'' he said. "We're a lot better than where we were without it.''

The idea to impose penalties on both PSC staff and regulated companies was first proposed by a 1992 grand jury but rejected by legislators until problems resurfaced this year at the PSC. But the fact that Fasano's bill only penalizes the regulators and not the utilities troubles PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, a vocal critic of her own agency, and PSC general counsel Curt Kiser.

"A penalty should go both ways," said Kiser, a former state senator.

Here's a side-by-side comparision prepared by the PSC, which will be discussed at the commission's Feb. 9 internal affairs meeting: Download Side by side PSC recs SB 1034 amended sent to Commission 02 02 10; Download PSC Ex Parte proposal for 02 09 10 ia meeting

Among the key differences:

* The PSC wants to impose a four-year employment ban on PSC commissioners and staff going to work for a utility or lobbying the legislature or executive branch on their behalf; the Senate plan imposes a two-year ban.

* The PSC wants to require all communication directed to PSC commissioners from the governor, legislators and Cabinet officials to also be among those required to be open. The Senate does not include that requirement.

* The PSC wants to impose a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for commissioners and their direct staff who violate the ex parte rule and the regulated company that violates the rule would pay up to one percent of its annual operating revnue. The Senate includes only a civil penalty for commissioners and staff that violate the rule.

Argenziano called the Senate bill a "Band-Aid fix." She wants the regulated companies that engage in any illegal communication to be punished in addition to the PSC, and she wants the Legislature to end its role in appointing commissioners.

"That language will never get you a clean PSC because you can't get a clean PSC unless you fix the whole problem -- and that includes taking politics out of the process, including the political influence of the Legislature," she said.

State law requires that PSC commissioners to be appointed by the governor from a list of candidates chosen by a nominating commission dominated by legislators. The Legislature also appoints and operates the Office of Public Counsel which represents consumers in rate case before the PSC.

Fasano's proposal bans private conversation between utilities and regulators, known as "ex parte'' communication, unless it is written and posted on the agency web site. It also prevents both commissioners and their staff members from lobbying the Legislature and executive branch for two years after they leave the PSC. The measure applies only to commissioners appointed or reappointed after July 1, 2010, and to staff hired after that date.

Argenziano, a former state senator, said she appreciated Fasano's efforts to tighten the ethics rules but the legislation still would allow legislators and utilities "to intimidate'' commissioners. She put the blame for the weaker language on Senate President Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican and candidate for state chief financial officer.

"It's an election year and the utility companies are one of the largest contributors to political campaigns," she said. "You cannot be the bosses of the PSC and take large amounts of money from utilities."

Jaryn Emhoff, Atwater's spokeswoman, said of the Senate leader: "The only thing we're driving is we want this bill fast-tracked." Fasano said Atwater had not influenced the bill language and that Argenziano, as well as PSC Commissioner Nathan Skop and PSC staff were all involved in drafting the bill's language.

The bill has a final committee stop in the Senate Rules Committee before it's expected to reach the
Senate during the first week of the legislative session in March.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 12:17pm]


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