TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers will take up legislation today that would outlaw private conversations between Public Service Commission staff members and utility companies, a response to criticism that the agency is too close to the utilities it regulates.
Proponents say a lax regulatory environment resulted in top PSC staff members socializing, exchanging text messages and holding hundreds of cell phone conversations with utility officials even as the agency was considering two of the largest rate-hike cases in state history, requested by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy.
"They got caught," said Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who sponsored the bill, citing reports by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau that revealed much of the behavior. "It has probably been going on for years and years, and it got to the point where it became normal activity."
Fasano pinned most of the blame on FPL, the Juno Beach power company whose aggressive approach during its $1.3 billion rate-hike case included inviting the PSC's lobbyist to a Kentucky Derby party at the home of an FPL vice president; exchanging BlackBerry messages with PSC staffers; and having its lobbyists make repeated cell phone calls to PSC staff members.
By contrast, Fasano said, "I did not see that with Progress Energy," the St. Petersburg company that sought a 31 percent increase in its base rates.
After Gov. Charlie Crist replaced two PSC members and asked for a delay in the rate cases, the PSC rejected Progress Energy's request. FPL received only $75 million of its request.
Fasano's bill would expand the current ban on communications between commissioners and utility officials to include staff members working directly for commissioners, such as aides and executive secretaries. A companion bill in the House is being sponsored by Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.
Fasano said the legislation was patterned after a 1992 grand jury report that recommended PSC commissioners and their staff conduct all business with utilities in the open.
Legislators banned commissioners from out-of-the sunshine communications but left a loophole that allowed staff members to talk with utility representatives as long as the staff members didn't serve as conduits for information.
Fasano's bill would close that loophole but would not bar utilities from communicating with the PSC's technical staff.
If the commissioners and staff do need to talk to utility officials and their direct staff, Fasano's bill would require the information to be put in writing and posted on the agency's Web site within 72 hours.
The legislation is on the fast track in the Senate, where Senate President Jeff Atwater has called it a priority. Fasano said he expects it will be passed by the Senate during the first week of the new session in March.
But Fasano's bill is weaker than draft legislation being proposed by the PSC itself.
While Fasano's bill would prohibit former PSC commissioners from working for a utility or lobbying for two years after leaving office, the PSC proposes making the ban last for four years.
Fasano's bill also says that if the Ethics Commission decides a utility official participated in outlawed communication, the official could be banned from appearing before the PSC for two years. The PSC would impose the ban plus a civil penalty and fine, as recommended in the grand jury report.
PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, a Crist appointee, wants the Legislature to impose tougher sanctions on her agency, not weaker ones.
She said she is optimistic but warns that if the Senate proposal becomes too weak it will end up as a bill that "sounds good but doesn't do anything."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.