Sunday, February 25, 2018
Politics

Report: Review shows Florida's utility watchdog has become a lapdog

TALLAHASSEE — The watchdog over electricity rates for most Floridians has been captured by the utility industry and the result is costing consumers, according to a new report released Monday by the independent research organization Integrity Florida.

The report analyzed dozens of decisions made by the Florida Public Service Commission in recent years and concluded that there is an "inordinate focus on what additional money a (utility) company wants, at the expense of attention to what the public interest needs."

The report details what it calls "egregious voting and unfair ratemaking," a selection process that allows the utility industry to heavily influence legislators and the governor — who appoint the regulators — through campaign cash and lobbyists, and a revolving door between the Florida Legislature, the PSC and the utility industry.

"Make no mistake, what we're talking about today is corruption. It's legal corruption," said Ben Wilcox, director of Integrity Florida at a news conference Monday. "It's institutional corruption, but it's corruption nonetheless."

Absent change, the group writes, the five-member board will continue to make "decisions that are often not in the best economic interest of Florida's families and businesses."

For example:

• This year, the PSC unanimously approved a $400 million Florida Power & Light rate hike for 2017 as well as a $411 million increase over the next three years despite arguments from opponents that the decision boosts company profits at a cost to consumers and allows FPL to fund natural gas expansions that it "has failed to justify as the most necessary or cost-efficient option."

• In 2014, the commission approved proposals by FPL, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and TECO "to dramatically cut Florida's energy efficiency goals by more than 90 percent while also terminating solar rebate programs by the end of 2015."

• In 2013, despite demands from consumer advocates that the decision be delayed until more information was available, the commission voted 4-1 to charge consumers $3.2 billion for costs related to the shuttered Crystal River nuclear plant and the canceled Levy County project.

• Until last year, the PSC allowed the four investor-owned utilities to lose $6.5 billion over 15 years on hedging programs related to natural gas.

Florida Power & Light, which bears the brunt of the report's focus, called it "an error-riddled stunt from a group with a history of accepting money from special interests to promote their viewpoints," in a statement from spokesperson Sarah Gatewood.

Integrity Florida, a non-profit independent research institute whose mission is to promote integrity in government, receives contributions from dozens of individual donors and associations including the League of Women, Voters of the Villages, the Tea Party Network, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Progress Florida Education Institute.

PSC spokeswoman Cynthia Muir said in a statement that "the PSC vigorously stands to ensure that Florida's consumers receive reliable, safe service at a reasonable cost. Decisions are made in the public interest, balancing the needs of consumers with those of the utility to continue to provide reliable service to those very consumers."

In the next few months, the PSC will decide how much customers will pay to reimburse the utility companies for repairing the disabled smart electricity grid — much of it originally financed with federal funds — and restoring power after Hurricane Irma.

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