TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate committee unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would tighten the ethics requirements on the Public Service Commission, but the measure was immediately criticized as too soft on the companies the commission regulates.
The Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee passed a measure that will force conversations into the open between utilities and PSC commissioners and their advisory staff. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican.
The idea was first proposed by a 1992 grand jury but rejected by legislators until problems resurfaced this year at the PSC. But instead of penalizing both PSC staff members and the utility companies who engage in illegal communication — as the grand jury had recommended — the bill only punishes the PSC.
That provision troubles PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, a vocal critic of her own agency, and PSC general counsel Curt Kiser.
"A penalty should go both ways," said Kiser, a former state senator.
Argenziano called it a "Band-Aid fix." She wants the electric, gas, sewer and phone companies that engage in any illegal communication to be punished in addition to the PSC, and she wants the Legislature to end its role in appointing commissioners.
"That language will never get you a clean PSC because you can't get a clean PSC unless you fix the whole problem — and that includes taking politics out of the process, including the political influence of the Legislature," she said.
Under state law, PSC commissioners are appointed by the governor from a list of candidates chosen by a nominating commission dominated by legislators. The Legislature also appoints and operates the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in rate case before the PSC.
Fasano's proposal bans private conversation between utilities and regulators, known as "ex parte'' communication, unless it is written and posted on the agency Web site. It also prevents both commissioners and their staff members from lobbying the Legislature and executive branch for two years after they leave the PSC. The measure applies only to commissioners appointed or reappointed after July 1 and to staff hired after that date.
The PSC has proposed tougher rules that would extend the employment ban to four years, fine commissioners and staff who violate the communication law $5,000, and penalize the regulated companies up to 1 percent of their annual operating revenue.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com