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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Times' editorial: Lawmakers favoring utilities over consumers

From Thursday's St. Petersburg Times editorial page: Five months after the Florida Public Service Commission acted on behalf of consumers by rejecting two utilities' record requests for rate increases, a handful of legislators have helped the industry extract another pound of flesh. The message sent Wednesday by the ousting of Commissioners Nancy Argenziano and Nathan Skop is clear: Stand up to the utilities at your own peril. There was not an attempt to create even the appearance of fairness, and consumers are the real losers when the process is rigged in favor of the powerful.

Editorial continues in jump or read it in full here.

The PSC Nominating Council, dominated by legislators, decided to exclude Argenziano and Skop even from the list of 18 people it would interview before forwarding nominations for their jobs to Gov. Charlie Crist. It's the second time in recent months that prominent legislators have rebuffed Crist's chosen commissioners. The Florida Senate refused in April to confirm two other commissioners Crist had appointed and who had also voted against the rate increases sought by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy in January.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, who leads the nominating council, claimed Wednesday that the decision not to even grant Argenziano and Skop the courtesy of an interview was an effort to change the internal dynamic of the PSC. The hostilities and petty bickering among staff and commissioners have run high in recent months amid various ethics investigations. But there was no public discussion to that point. And Bennett's explanation is in direct conflict to the council's action earlier this month when it nominated a recent PSC executive director, Mary Bane, to fill one of the two other openings.

The far more logical yet indefensible explanation is that big businesses' interests have aligned with petty partisan politics to override any concern for consumers. To be sure, Argenziano, a former state senator from Dunnellon, and Skop, an engineer who had just finished law school when he joined the PSC, have their baggage. Both are aggressive and sometimes argumentative, frequently challenging staff and their colleagues. Argenziano, in particular, had been a divisive personality on the board just as she was previously in the Legislature.

But there's also no denying that they both were outsiders in an institution that had become far too cozy with industry. Staff members were socializing with industry executives and exchanging text messages outside the purview of the state's public records. Both Argenziano and Skop stood on the side of disclosure and transparency even when others did not. To not even visit with them and consider them among other candidates is a disservice to all Floridians. It also could cast a shadow over their eventual successors, who will have to overcome the perception that they were the beneficiaries of a tainted process that favored utilities over consumers.

Now four of the five commissioners who voted against the rate increases sought by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light, now known as NextEra Energy, will no longer be on the commission. And the Republican legislative members who dominate the nominating council have extracted another bit of revenge on Crist, who left the Republican Party earlier this year and is running for the U.S. Senate as an independent candidate. Ultimately, it will be Florida consumers who pay the price.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 11:45am]

    

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