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PSC reform tangled in GOP political feud

TALLAHASSEE — The simmering standoff between Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist continued Friday as a House committee gave swift approval to a bill to limit the governor's influence over the Public Service Commission and the Senate stalled confirmation of his appointees to the utility board.

The House Appropriations Council unanimously approved a plan to reorganize the PSC and separate the commission's regulatory staff from the commission, putting it under the direction of the governor and Cabinet. It's a move House leaders said was necessary "to build a firewall'' between the commission and those who try to influence it.

The bill is light years away from reforms sought by the Senate to reduce behind-the-scenes communications between PSC staff members and the utilities they regulate, but leave the structure of the agency unchanged.

Rep. Stephen Precourt, the Orlando Republican who chairs the House Energy Committee that wrote the bill, said he wasn't sure how the House and Senate would find common ground.

"It's my sincere desire to do real reform and to do it completely this year," Precourt said.

The Senate didn't take up confirmation of Crist's PSC appointees, Benjamin "Steve'' Stevens and David Klement. The Senate energy committee canceled its meeting this week as Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale urged members to vote them down.

Smith said he will vote against confirming them because Crist didn't reappoint former PSC Chairman Matt Carter, who is black. He said putting Stevens and Klement, who are white, on the commission leaves "no diversity on the PSC right now."

Blocking the Crist appointees has been a top priority of Florida Power & Light, which failed to get a 30 percent rate increase after Crist realigned the PSC. He chose not to reappoint two members, including Carter, naming Klement and Stevens instead.

Smith's law firm represents FPL. Smith said he lobbied for the company to get its franchise renewed with the city of Fort Lauderdale while he was out of office between 2006 and 2008, but hasn't lobbied for them since getting elected in 2008.

The Senate president's office said Smith has not filed conflict of interest disclosures nor recused himself from votes affecting FPL. "Matt Carter was done wrong,'' Smith said, accusing Crist of "injecting politics'' into the appointment process.

Crist made the appointments after disclosures that some PSC members had allowed their staff to exchange text messages, BlackBerry PIN messages and hundreds of phone calls with utility representatives.

The House bill bans any communication between the commission staff and utilities, but not between utilities and the PSC regulatory staff. It says the governor, Senate president, House speaker and members of the PSC nominating council shall not "attempt to sway the independent judgment of the commission."

PSC reform tangled in GOP political feud 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 9:55pm]
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