Sunday, April 22, 2018
Business

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

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
Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

When Samantha Hess’s marriage ended five years ago, she felt she was lacking a basic human need: Physical touch. As a woman in her late 20s living in Portland, Oregon, she found plenty of men interested in dating, but sexual contact was not what she ...
Published: 04/21/18
Judge: Foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa violated numerous rules of conduct

Judge: Foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa violated numerous rules of conduct

Tampa Bay foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa has violated numerous rules of professional conduct and caused two clients to nearly lose their homes because he failed to tell them about settlement offers from their banks. Those were among the prelim...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/21/18
Goodwill to open second store in greater Brandon

Goodwill to open second store in greater Brandon

Times staffThe greater Brandon area will celebrate the grand opening of its second Goodwill store beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday (April 28) at 1407 U.S. 301. The new store will add another 12,000 square feet to the complex, which includes a 200,000-...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/21/18
Regulators allow major solar company to lease home equipment

Regulators allow major solar company to lease home equipment

State regulators Friday determined that one of the country’s largest residential solar companies, San Francisco-based Sunrun, is allowed to lease solar energy equipment for homes in Florida. The decision, solar energy advocates say, could open the do...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida unemployment at 3.9 percent for sixth straight month

Florida unemployment at 3.9 percent for sixth straight month

For the sixth month running, Florida’s unemployment rate held at a nearly 11-year low of 3.9 percent in March as steady job gains continued. While many factors kept Florida’s economy chugging along, three industries stand out for leading year-over-ye...
Published: 04/20/18
Owners say new house is a disaster; developer accuses them of ‘online terrorism’

Owners say new house is a disaster; developer accuses them of ‘online terrorism’

ST. PETERSBURG --- Stretched across the front of Tim and Hyun Kims’ two-year-old house is a big banner with the name of a developer and the words: "I have to fix my new house."Some of what needs fixing is instantly apparent. The front steps are too ...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida has hit a milestone of sorts as it slowly moves toward wider availability of medical marijuana.The number of patients in the state who are registered to use the substance has surpassed 100,000 for the first time, according to Florida Departme...
Published: 04/20/18
Q&A: Walmart leader chats about Florida stores, and the chain’s latest retail strategy

Q&A: Walmart leader chats about Florida stores, and the chain’s latest retail strategy

The Tampa Bay Times recently sat down with Walmart director of corporate communications Phillip Keene to chat about the retail giant’s latest retail strategies and how the company is winning over customers in a competitive market.Already, two of the ...
Published: 04/20/18
SunTrust warns 1.5 million clients of potential data breach

SunTrust warns 1.5 million clients of potential data breach

Associated PressNEW YORK — SunTrust Banks Inc. says accounts for 1.5 million clients could be compromised following a potential data breach. The Atlanta bank says that it became aware of the potential theft by a former employee and that the investiga...
Published: 04/20/18
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Published: 04/20/18