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Crist wants PSC to delay decision on utility rate hikes

TALLAHASSEE — Signaling his displeasure with the Public Service Commission's handling of two rate cases, Gov. Charlie Crist asked the commission Friday to postpone a final decision on the proposed increases by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light until his two new hires to the panel take office.

"Given the potential impact that the outcome of these cases will have on Florida consumers, I believe it is important that these commissioners have the opportunity to fully participate in the process," Crist wrote in a letter to commissioners.

He also blasted critics of his choice of Benjamin "Steve" Stevens for the PSC, saying it was time to clean house and adding that the critics are frustrated because Stevens is not beholden to the utilities the panel regulates.

Progress Energy and FPL are each seeking about a 30 percent rate increase, and they have been preparing for a final decision since March. A final ruling on the Progress Energy request to raise rates $500 million a year is scheduled for November.

FPL's request for a $1.3 billion rate hike will be decided in December. A final decision on how to divide the rates between residential and commercial customers won't be made until January, after Crist's appointees are scheduled to take office.

Commission Chairman Matthew Carter made no comment on the governor's request.

As chairman, Carter can ignore or accept the governor's recommendation. After the appointments, Carter said the governor had allowed the politicization of the PSC.

Carter and fellow Commissioner Katrina McMurrian each lost bids for another four years on the commission when Crist bypassed them Thursday, choosing former Bradenton Herald editorial page editor David Klement and Stevens, former finance director of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office.

Now Stevens has come under fire for part ownership of Rick's Cabana Lounge, a bar in Cantonment, near Pensacola. Crist's critics have circulated ads from the lounge that promote "Lingerie Fantasy Fests" and "Dominatrix Night."

The governor called the campaign to discredit Stevens really despicable.

"They're doing it because they're frustrated, because they can't raise rates," he said, adding that he choose Stevens because "he's an honest man, and he's trying to earn a living."

The PSC has been besieged by allegations that commissioners and staff members are too close to the utilities they regulate.

After the appointments, Crist said, "The entire utility establishment is not happy with your governor today. That's okay. I don't work for them."

Stevens did not respond to requests for comment, but state Rep. Dave Murzin, a Pensacola Republican and chairman of the PSC nominating council, defended him.

"If anybody in the political process thinks owning a bar is a really bad thing and they wouldn't support a candidate because of that, then we've got problems," he said.

Murzin — who said he has never been in Rick's Cabana Lounge — said he has accepted campaign contributions from the Florida Institute of CPAs. Stevens was president of the organization from June 2008 to June 2009.

Since 2002, Murzin has accepted $7,000 in contributions from the group's political committees. The committees gave a total of about $309,000 to candidates during that time.

Murzin agreed with the governor that the PSC should refrain from deciding the rate cases until the new commissioners take their seats, suggesting that the outgoing commissioners resign early.

"A lame duck is a lame duck," he said. "If they agree with the governor, people will say, 'It's the governor who forced them to do it.' If the rates go up, they'll say, 'It's done under a cloud.' What they need to do is go ahead and clear out."

The PSC has a year to make a final ruling in the FPL and Progress Energy cases filed in March.

If the PSC doesn't rule within eight months, the companies are allowed to raise their rates temporarily.

FPL has said it will go ahead with a $900 million rate increase in January if the PSC does not rule, and it has agreed to refund any difference if the PSC sets a lower rate.

Neither Progress Energy nor FPL would comment on the governor's call to postpone their rate cases.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Crist wants PSC to delay decision on utility rate hikes 10/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 2, 2009 11:08pm]

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