An unusual offer from the state House on PSC reform

On March 18, I described an idea kicking around in our state House as "one of the most wicked bills ever filed."

This was a bill for the Legislature to take over direct political control of most of the functions and powers of our state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

The timing seemed suspicious. In a historic reversal back in January, the PSC had shot down big rate hikes for Florida's two biggest electric companies.

Now the House was proposing to take over the PSC's staff, decide for itself when to open utility cases, and strip the PSC's power to do almost anything by itself.

But boos immediately rained from the heavens. Gov. Charlie Crist said he would veto it.

The Senate hated it.

The PSC's chairman, the outspoken Nancy Argenziano, wrote the House a letter saying that she hated it, too.

Her words were typically blunt: The bill, she said, would replace "a staff dedicated to objective analysis and data collection" with "a staff inclined to political servitude."

So here is what happened last week:

The House said, oh, you guys don't want us to run the thing? Fine — we'll rewrite the bill to turn control over to somebody else.

Which is fairly stunning. The Legislature never voluntarily gives up its own power.

Here is the new idea:

• The five-member PSC would lose most of its staff and become a panel of independent (but passive) judges, simply ruling on cases brought before it.

• The PSC's staff would become a separate outfit called the "Office of Regulatory Affairs," with most of the power to bring utility cases to the PSC.

• This new staff would not be under the Legislature (as in the original bill), but under the governor and state Cabinet, who already oversee insurance and securities regulation.

• The public's lawyer in utility cases, the public counsel, would be moved from the political control of the Legislature to the state Attorney General's Office. This is a change that a lot of reformers have been pushing for years.

Make no mistake: Even this new version of the House bill probably pushes the PSC back in a pro-utility direction.

New educational and professional requirements for the PSC's members would disqualify the current chairman, Argenziano, a former legislator without a college degree. She is Target No. 1.

The rules also would make it more likely that future PSC appointments come from a gene pool more favorably disposed toward counting beans and granting rate hikes.

Still …

The House's offer to give up the Legislature's direct control of the PSC's staff and the Office of Public Counsel is extraordinary.

Not even all House members like it. At Thursday's committee meeting, some of them grumbled: Are we saying that the governor and Cabinet are less "political" than the Legislature?

But the answer is yes. The Legislature is too close to the utility industry and its political money. Giving the Legislature direct control of the staff handling utility cases would be a disaster. Too much meddling.

We've already seen the proof of the pudding this year — after the PSC denied the rate hikes, some members of the Legislature tried to fire the public counsel as revenge!

Really, all the Legislature needs to do this year is pass the Senate's bill on tougher ethics rules, to address previous scandals. The idea of splitting up the PSC and its own staff is probably unnecessary.

But by offering to give up its own political control of the new animal, the House seems to be making a sincere offer that it is interested in results rather than power.

Heck, I bet if they threw in a grandfather clause for Argenziano, they'd have a deal.

An unusual offer from the state House on PSC reform 03/27/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2010 1:17pm]

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