Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Business

Bill would shift control of state utility watchdog to governor, Cabinet

RECOMMENDED READING


TALLAHASSEE — The independent consumer watchdog over state utility regulators is once again under fire.

House leaders have tucked into a broad energy bill a proposal to remove the Office of Public Counsel from the control of the Legislature and shift it under the control of the governor and Cabinet serving as the Financial Services Commission.

The public counsel serves as the consumer's lawyer in rate cases before the Public Service Commission and, since its establishment in the early 1970s, has been under the control of the Legislature.

But the state's powerful utility companies haven't always been happy with the way the public counsel operates. For example, lawyers for the public counsel have argued against rate increases, asked embarrassing questions of the utility giants and challenged their expert witnesses.

Every year for the past three years, the Office of Public Counsel has come under fire by lawmakers. In 2010, when the head of the Office of Public Counsel, J.R. Kelly, was opposing rate increases by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, legislators threatened to make Kelly reapply for his job.

In 2011, when Kelly's office was investigating Progress Energy's botched repairs to its Crystal River power plant, legislators suggested moving his office under the attorney general. And this year, as Kelly's office continues to investigate Progress for its nuclear project and gears up to challenge another rate increase request by FPL, the Legislature again is suggesting his office be moved.

"Putting it under the Financial Services Commission gives it a higher profile,'' said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, chairman of the House Energy & Utilities Committee. He said he wasn't sure where the idea to move the public counsel came from but he thought it was a good one and included it in his committee bill. He believes the move would not only give the office greater oversight and more accountability but will also make it less political.

Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, disagreed. "I think it makes it more political,'' he said, noting that the governor and Cabinet members, such as the attorney general, also can collect campaign contributions from the industry, just as legislators can.

Susan Glickman, a lobbyist with the Southern Alliance of Clean Energy, which has been at odds with the Public Service Commission on the way it has passed rate increases for nuclear costs but failed to maximize energy efficiency, said she hoped the public counsel would become more aggressive at protecting customers if it were given a higher profile.

She noted, for example, that the office has been silent about asking legislators to reconsider a 2006 nuclear-cost recovery law that has resulted in more than $1 billion in customer charges with no promise that a nuclear plant will be built.

"We hope that by moving the public counsel out of the Legislature's control, it will insulate consumers from the politics that so often drives energy issues,'' Glickman said. "The Cabinet is likely to be more responsive to ratepayers' interests and less beholden to the power companies' influence."

Under the Legislature's agreement with him, Kelly is not allowed to lobby and could not comment on the proposal. The public counsel shift was included in a bill by the House Energy & Utilities Committee that would renew tax incentives to businesses and homeowners that invest in renewable energy. The Senate Communities, Energy and Utilities Committee approved a similar bill on Monday.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
Across country, small retailers aim for emotional ties big chains may lack

Across country, small retailers aim for emotional ties big chains may lack

Associated PressSome smaller retailers will tug at shoppers’ heartstrings during the holidays, trying to create an emotional experience or connection that a big national chain might not provide.Store owners are going well beyond the usual holiday dec...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Six years and counting: Allegiant Air reaches agreement with flight attendants

Six years and counting: Allegiant Air reaches agreement with flight attendants

ST. PETERSBURG — After six years of negotiations, Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air and its flight attendants union reached a tentative contract to improve worker pay and benefits and solidify airline policies."We feel like it’s an agreement that is cert...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Workers at luxury St. Pete condo tower say they are owed thousands

Workers at luxury St. Pete condo tower say they are owed thousands

ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly three dozen workers at ONE St. Petersburg, a luxury condo tower under construction in the heart of downtown, haven’t been paid in weeks and are owed thousands of dollars.With the holidays nearing, some of the men say they are ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Some cities faced with all-or-nothing medical marijuana rules are playing it safe

Some cities faced with all-or-nothing medical marijuana rules are playing it safe

When it comes to weighing the options for regulating medical marijuana through the law passed this year, Dunedin city commissioners declared local governments face a "conundrum" and "a false dilemma."They said they would welcome a dispensary in the c...
Updated: 9 hours ago
More guns being detected at Tampa Bay area airports — and everywhere else

More guns being detected at Tampa Bay area airports — and everywhere else

TAMPA — Here’s some travel math for this traditionally heavy day for long trips: More people carrying guns plus more people flying equals more guns going to the airport.The numbers bear this out. The federal Transportation Security Administration has...
Updated: 11 hours ago
A year after impasse, Pasco school contract talks run more smoothly

A year after impasse, Pasco school contract talks run more smoothly

LAND O’LAKES — Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco sat together several times in the weeks leading to Thanksgiving break, trading contract proposals amid (mostly) amicable conversation.They c...
Updated: 12 hours ago

Florida Supreme Court suspends two Hillsborough lawyers

Times Staff WriterTwo Hillsborough County lawyers have been suspended from practice because of professional misconduct.The Florida Supreme Court ordered a 91-day suspension for Richard Luther Bradford of Brandon after he was found in contempt for fai...
Published: 11/22/17
Get all the Black Friday sales circulars today. Here’s how

Get all the Black Friday sales circulars today. Here’s how

The Tampa Bay Times Thanksgiving Early Bird edition, with all of the Black Friday ads and sales circulars, is available today.That’s right. You don’t have to wait until Thursday to check out the savings. Weighing nearly five pounds, the Early Bird Ed...
Published: 11/22/17
U.S. business leaders say Cuba is still open, at least to them, despite Trump’s new rules

U.S. business leaders say Cuba is still open, at least to them, despite Trump’s new rules

WASHINGTON — When the Trump administration announced new Cuba regulations, it sparked a new round of hand-wringing in Washington over a return to a posture not seen since the Cold War. But now, the American business community is quietly spreading the...
Published: 11/22/17
Here’s when stores will open on Thanksgiving and Black Friday

Here’s when stores will open on Thanksgiving and Black Friday

Although the crowds might still be unruly and the lines long, Black Friday as "The Day" is slowly waning. Steve Kirn, a University of Florida professor and executive director for the David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education & Research, said the...
Updated: 7 hours ago