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Legislature goes after PSC members who sided with consumers over electric companies

Forgive me for returning to the subject of Florida's electric companies and their influence over our state Legislature. But there are more things afoot.

The action so far:

(1) The state Public Service Commission made a historic ruling, denying a large rate increase for Florida's two biggest electric companies.

(2) In response, the Legislature has threatened the job of Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, who represents customers, by reopening interviews for his post while he still holds it.

(3) Because of the resulting outcry from the public and even the governor, the move to fire Kelly might have been slowed down. We'll see.

This brings us to Act II.

If the Legislature can't fire the public counsel, it will try to do something even bigger — replace the members of the Public Service Commission who sided with consumers.

Two of the five PSC members recently appointed by the governor, Ben Stevens and David Klement, have to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Here is how you kill a guy in Tallahassee. A Senate leader, Mike Haridopolos, says he worries whether Stevens and Klement are "comfortable with all the minutiae" of the job. Riiiiight.

"All I know is what I read in the newspaper," Haridopolos said, "that one guy was a columnist and another guy was a bar owner."

The "columnist" is Klement, editorial page editor of the Bradenton Herald for 30 years before becoming director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida's Sarasota campus.

The "bar owner" is Stevens, who, yes, invested in a bar in Pensacola. He is former president of the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants and former finance director of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office.

Wait, there's more.

The Senate also is "concerned" that members of the PSC do not have the proper "qualifications." So there's a proposal to change the law to require a college degree — which the PSC chairman, Nancy Argenziano, lacks. Her term expires next year, along with that a fourth commissioner, Nathan Skop.

Meanwhile, sooner than later, Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida will file new requests for rate increases — hoping for a more friendly PSC to grant them.

The current president of the Senate is Jeff Atwater, a Republican from North Palm Beach. He is running to become Florida's chief financial officer. Atwater's people were not happy when I said he was ultimately responsible for the attack on the public counsel. But as president of the Senate, he is.

Will he also be known as the Senate president whose chamber fired the Public Service Commission — for siding with consumers?

• • •

The core problem is that the PSC is under the control of the Legislature, part of the legislative branch. So is the Office of Public Counsel.

This allows the Legislature to put exactly this kind of political pressure on the commission.

The public counsel should be moved to the control of the state attorney general. The PSC itself should be constitutionally independent.

For now, the public should hold the entire Legislature accountable, in this election year, for whatever happens.

Not a single legislator will be able to say, "It wasn't me who did this." They all are responsible, every one.

Legislature goes after PSC members who sided with consumers over electric companies 02/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 5:25pm]
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