Who gets credit for nuclear advance fee law, one of worst in state history?

Rarely in 22 years of writing about the Tampa Bay business scene have I received so many emails and calls from frustrated and angry readers with the same request.

By name, they ask, who is responsible for this evil 2006 law passed by the Florida Legislature? They're talking about the measure that let big power companies charge customers years in advance for high-priced nuclear power plants that may or may not ever be built. That law authorized companies to keep the money charged in advance — even if the project is canceled.

Who sponsored and voted for such a measure that ranks among the worst Florida laws approved by a Legislature too familiar with corruption and the fine art of favoring hefty campaign contributors first, and citizens last?

Gary West of St. Petersburg speaks for many readers in his recent letter published in the Tampa Bay Times: "Wouldn't it only be an honest move to refund that money to those of us who have been hustled and this piece of rotten legislation repealed? Well, no. Not according to elected officials both past and present.

"You have to admire this trait in the average Florida politician," West writes. "When they're bought, they stay bought."

In the House, the principal sponsor of the advance fee measure was Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach. He went on to lose a 2012 bid for a U.S. Congress seat and now works in the private sector in Florida.

In the Senate, the measure's principal sponsor was Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs. Due to term limits, he left the Florida Senate in 2010 and now serves on the Seminole County Commission in Sanford.

Neither former legislator responded to a request for comment about their role in promoting the advance fee measure.

Both Progress Energy, acquired last year by Duke Energy, and South Florida's Florida Power & Light lobbied hard for that pronuclear measure in Tallahassee.

It passed — with but one dissenting vote — as part of a larger energy package backed then-Gov. Jeb Bush. To be fair, in 2006 Florida assumed it was still riding an economic boom and would need more electricity from many sources to keep up with growth. Hence a broad energy bill.

It's not clear many legislators even read all of the content in that extensive package. Fewer still likely understood the technical language, much less the greedy implications of such a badly written, anti-free-market measure allowing fees to be forced on utility customers years in advance.

Ask most state legislators today about the impact of the advance fee and many still parrot the power company argument. Charging customers advance fees saves money in the long run, they say.

But for whom? Certainly not current customers who must pay more each month. Certainly not for any future customer when projects like the Levy plant and Crystal River are ultimately canceled or shut down.

Since 2006, an ecstatic Duke/Progress has leveraged that law with abandon. It is charging higher customer rates to help pay for a proposed — but now canceled — nuclear plant in Levy County. And it used it to help cover the upgrades to its Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County that, thanks to the company's own botched repairs, instead was prematurely and permanently closed.

The total amount of customer money spent by being charged in advance: $3.2 billion.

Amount of new electricity generated as a result of those advance fees: Zero.

It's astonishing that even the subservient, tunnel-visioned Florida Public Service Commission can keep a straight face and not demand a major public hearing on such disasters.

It's tragic that in seven years, no Florida legislator, governor or member of the state Cabinet has summoned the public service spirit to repeal or even seriously amend this loser measure.

Last year, Nancy Argenziano, a state senator in 2006 who went on to chair the Florida PSC, laid out the "execrable" (her word, meaning extremely bad) energy measure and its deceptive path taken to become state law. Argenziano acknowledges voting for the overall energy package, but explains the deceptive process.

"I did so unaware that the bill I had read had been amended in an unaffiliated committee by then-Sen. Jeff Atwater, now Florida's chief financial officer, at the behest of the bill's sponsor, Sen. Lee Constantine," Argenziano said. "There was no mention of prepay costs recovery on the Senate floor. Had there been, that might have alerted some senators of the major policy shift and that the fox was in the henhouse."

The measure's real intent — letting power companies bill its customers more rather than making shareholders help finance big nuclear projects — was disguised to many who voted for it. Argenziano documented her insider's look at the energy bill in a March 2012 piece in the Tampa Bay Times.

Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, is one of a few area legislators still in office who voted for the original measure in 2006. He recently sponsored a measure revising the law. Its says that if a utility cannot demonstrate it plans to complete the construction of a nuclear plant, it will no longer be allowed to collect money. The utility has 10 years after it gets its license to begin construction or lose access to the fee.

Let's just say the big utilities are not shaking in their boots.

It's a stretch to call that revision a weak tweak to a measure that should be repealed. The revised law still lets utilities keep advance fees collected before canceling a project.

If the 2006 law were repealed, Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash told the Times in 2008, "we would not be able to build this project."

Now there was a massive, missed opportunity five years ago. A repeal then could have prevented the forcible taking of so much money — during a recession — from Florida customers who got nothing in return.

So who's legislatively responsible for this mess? In addition to original sponsors Hasner and Constantine, two dozen lawmakers who voted for the measure remain in the Legislature. Four of those are from the Tampa Bay area. They are Sen. Charles Dean, R; Sen. Arthenia L. Joyner, D; Sen. Tom Lee, R; and Sen. John Legg, R.

To all those readers who asked: Now you know. Give a big "thanks" to former legislators Hasner, Constantine and all those others in Tallahassee who (knowingly or otherwise) signed off on one of Florida's Big Loser Laws.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Who gets credit for nuclear advance fee law, one of worst in state history? 08/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 9, 2013 5:02pm]

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