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Why can't all Florida businesses charge advance fees?

Our remarkable state leaders in Tallahassee have spoken.

Both the judicial and legislative arms of government said last week that it remains perfectly fine for big power companies, including newly-arrived-in-name Duke Energy, to continue to force extra fees on their own ratepayers many years in advance to cover some of the costs of building nuclear power plants.

The Florida Supreme Court had the chance last week to put the brakes on this Guinness Book of World blunders. Instead, the justices punted, essentially ruling it was not the court's domain to get involved. And state legislators last week tweaked the 2006 law that created the advance fee, but left its original intent — charging customers now for projects well in the future — in full force.

So be it. Why would Floridians ever want to question the collective wisdom of Tally?

So here's my suggestion.

If charging in advance for high-priced nuclear plants has fresh blessings from the state, then give everybody in business the same right.

It's only fair. Why should electricity monopolies like Duke — which still claims it wants to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County for at least $25 billion — and Florida Power & Light in South Florida have all the fun? And wield all that financial power?

Think of the economic possibilities for the Tampa Bay region.

Empowered with the ability to force mandatory advance fees on area consumers for hugely expensive projects in the distant future, we could enjoy:

• A brand new, caviar-caliber stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, complete with retractable roof, plush seating for 40,000 and twice the number of luxury skyboxes that shabby Tropicana Field ever had.

After all, the price tag would be a slight fraction of the Levy nuclear power plant, so few folks would even notice a slight increase in their bills at home.

• Not one but two piers in St. Petersburg! Forget this petty battle over the fate of the current Pier with its inverted pyramid versus the proposed Lens. Fix one and just build the other.

No worries. A two-pier price tag would be puny compared to the Levy nuclear power plant. Few would even notice the slight increase in their bills.

• High-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. Yes, that idea was already rejected. But armed with mandatory advance fees, high-speed rail could become as big a winner as a new nuclear plant.

All aboard? The high-speed rail price tag would pale next to Levy, so few would even notice any uptick in their bills.

I could go on. If built, Duke's proposed Levy nuclear plant would supposedly begin operating no earlier than 2022, a completion date that has steadily slipped further into the next decade.

Forcing people now to pay for a power plant a decade or more in the future also means many retirees forced to fork over more from their fixed incomes would never live long enough to see the Levy plant generate electricity.

Forcing people to pay for expensive stuff in the future is a concept whose time has come in the Sunshine State. Leaders say it's frugal.

"This is a good bill," Sen. John Legg, a Lutz Republican and sponsor of the latest advance fee bill, told reporters in recent days. "It saves the consumers money."

Is "Pulling Our" Sen. Legg's middle name?

"It puts in a process that is desperately, desperately needed in the energy process and energy needs of the state of Florida," Legg added.

Let's also give thanks to the Florida Supreme Court. It ruled that the state's regulatory apparatus governing advance fees to cover building nuclear plants is all in order. But typical of many court rulings, this one deftly ignored the advance fee's lack of common sense and the ability of the free market to decide what projects should pass the financial smell test.

• • •

Talk about timing. While Florida legislators and the state Supreme Court offered fresh cover on advance nuclear fees, Duke Energy was sounding a nuclear retreat in North Carolina.

As reported Thursday in the Raleigh News & Observer: "After years of delays and postponements, Duke Energy issued an obituary for a pair of long-planned reactors at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake County."

Specifically, Duke canceled plans to add new nuclear reactors to a site in North Carolina. Why? "Duke told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that sluggish growth forecasts show new nuclear units won't be needed for at least 15 years."

Reported the Observer; "The announcement spells the end of the vaunted nuclear renaissance in (North Carolina's) Triangle, a fast-growing region that until the recession had signified the urgent need for nuclear energy."

So why end the renaissance there, but not here?

In Florida, Duke still insists its plan for a Levy nuclear plant is very much alive. That declaration gives Duke the legal right to continue charging ratepayers for a plant that an increasing number of nuclear power experts predict will never be built.

So much for taxation without representation for Duke customers in Florida. That kind of financial oppression used to get folks upset.

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

Why can't all Florida businesses charge advance fees? 05/04/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 7:05pm]
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