Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Politics

It's time to reform hapless, ineffective PSC

Fun facts about the Public Service Commission:

• For the first 86 years, it was an elected body.

• For the past 34 years, members have been appointed by the governor.

• For all 120 years, it has been corrupt.

Okay, that last one may be a stretch. It probably isn't fair to call that "fun.''

I jest, of course. The PSC, which started out as a regulatory commission for the railroad, has undoubtedly included many principled and honest public servants.

It's just that, in recent years, the commission has been rife with conflicts of interest, suspicious appointments, impotent authority and sporadic bouts of integrity.

"They're not just hapless and ineffective,'' said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "They're actually vigorously helping the utility companies.''

A large part of Dudley's recent campaign was criticism of the Legislature's nuclear recovery fee program that essentially allows electric companies to charge customers for fictitious nuclear facilities.

Dudley has continued the attack during his first month in Tallahassee, filing a bill last week that seeks to return responsibility for commission seats to the voters.

Now, this isn't the first time this issue has been raised. The PSC became an appointed body 34 years ago. And, if my math is correct, the grumbling about political maneuvering began 33 years and 10 months ago.

Democrat Bob Graham was the first governor to wield this new authority in 1979, and one of his initial appointees happened to bump Republican Paula Hawkins off the board. Hawkins, by the way, had just sought office as lieutenant governor and lost to the Graham ticket. She was also the most consumer-friendly member of the PSC.

I wouldn't say it's been all downhill from there, but you have to admit the PSC has been on a roll.

These days, practically no one outside of the state Legislature, the governor's mansion and the executive board rooms of power companies believe the PSC has been looking out for the best interests of the state's consumers.

And, at this point, it's hardly even the fault of the members. Not after the Legislature passed laws to neuter any watchdog tendencies. And especially not after lawmakers pulled the equivalent of a horse's head in the bed by whacking four of the five members immediately after the PSC had the gumption to say no to a $500 million rate increase in 2010.

So why do we allow this to continue?

Danged if I know.

I suppose part of the problem is convoluted accountability. With utility companies funding legislative campaigns, the lawmakers controlling the nominating process and the governor making the actual appointments, there are too many buffers involved.

It's hard to point a finger at any one person and say, "You're the reason my power bill is approaching $300 a month.''

This is why Dudley wants to give voters a voice. His bill would divide the state into five elective districts and reduce PSC terms from four years to two. It would also bar commissioners from going to work for utility companies for eight years after leaving office, and it would forbid those companies from making campaign donations.

Skeptics say an elective process would be just as ripe for political shenanigans as the current system. And that may be true. But what do we have to lose?

"The system is badly broken,'' Dudley said. "This isn't an idealistic or tinfoil hat kind of reform. We're at a critical point where we have to do something. This is money coming out of our pockets.''

Would Dudley's bill help consumers? Yeah, it probably would.

Does it have a chance of passing? I seriously doubt it.

Other than rogue politicians such as Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, lawmakers in this state have shown zero willingness to buck their benefactors in the power industry.

Still, that doesn't mean it's not worth a fight. The more attention the issue gets, the more likely voters around the state will start realizing they are being conned.

If you watch enough ESPN, I'm sure you've seen some anchor, while describing a particular player's magnificence, jokingly employ an old broadcasting cliché.

"You can't stop (insert name),'' the anchor will intone, "you can only hope to contain him.''

As it turns out, this also explains public utilities in Florida.

You can't stop the tomfoolery, you can only hope to contain it.

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