TALLAHASSEE — A House committee gave approval Thursday to a sweeping bill to reform the Public Service Commission, but only after revising it in response to a veto threat from the governor and a harsh rebuke from the chairwoman of the utility board.
The resulting bill, passed unanimously by a mostly absent House Energy and Utility Committee, still attempts to revamp the PSC to operate more like a court, but it moves the commission's regulatory staff under the governor and Cabinet rather than the Legislature.
"This is definitely a heavy lift," said Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, chairman of the House energy committee. "Any time you're going to do real, structural and aggressive reform on an entrenched body like the PSC, it's going to take a lot of work, but we're trying to send a clear message and begin a significant dialogue as to what big issues … should be addressed."
Gov. Charlie Crist called the original plan "a gross power grab against the will of the people and consumers." PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano said it "seriously debases decisionmaking."
The governor complained that the original House plan gave the Legislature the power to control who sits on the PSC and the appointment of the executive director of the regulatory staff.
The House on Thursday amended the plan to move the Office of Public Counsel, lawyers who represent the public in rate cases, from under the Legislature to the Attorney General's office.
The revised House proposal is still vastly different from the PSC reform passed out of the Senate during the first week of session.
That bill, by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, attempts to tighten the rules for communication between PSC commissioners and their staff and the utilities they regulate.
It would also make it harder for commissioners and PSC staff to go to work for the utilities when they leave the agency.
The revised House bill goes beyond tightening ethics rules. It would push commissioners to operate more like judges and would move the PSC's technical advisers to a newly created Office of Regulatory Staff that would have the power to petition the PSC to take action.
The PSC would no longer have a role in setting policy because, House leaders contend, that is solely the role of the Legislature. Under the current structure, the PSC establishes policy and regulates utilities, but it has come under fire for being too close to the utilities it regulates.
Last fall, the PSC was rocked by revelations that staff members shared BlackBerry messaging codes and text messages with utility lobbyists.
Precourt said the goal of the reform is to "address the undue influence issue from outside parties … and to try to assure that not only the PSC as a commission can stand independently and make decisions objectively, but staff can do their work independently."
He admitted that while he'd like to see reform this year, it might not happen. "We don't want to force through something that is not going to be effective," he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.