Monday, February 19, 2018
Opinion

Capitalism, Florida-style: Private profits, public pain

It's a common refrain among the parishioners of the rock-ribbed, conservative, free enterprise faith: "Government should be run more like a business."

Isn't that precious?

You can't get more corporate than Progress Energy, a company with bazillions in annual revenues. It has all sorts of private sector trappings — stockholders, a fancy pants board of directors and just look at all those pin-striped suits.

And yet Progress Energy is a business that really wants to be run more like a government with its citizens treated like ATM machines.

This isn't a corporation. It's Greece on a meth high.

First Progress Energy tried to repair its self-inflicted damaged Crystal River nuclear power plant with some duct tape, a safety pin and Elmer's Glue. Now the company wants to stick its customers with as much as $150 million for essentially doing nothing on plans to build a whole other nuclear plant.

You could be forgiven if you are thinking to yourself: "Hey, how can I start my own stumblebum power company and rake in tens of millions of dollars for doing less work than Prince Philip?"

As the Tampa Bay Times' Ivan Penn reported, if the company abandons its plan to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County, it would still pocket about $150 million it collected from customers for the project.

And considering what a bang-up job the company has done managing the Crystal River facility, now the world's largest paperweight, the Levy County operation could easily turn out be a bigger construction boondoggle than the Maginot Line.

Back in the day when private enterprise embraced risk, companies would invest in their businesses and if successful reap the profits.

Instead, Progress Energy cooked up a plan to build the Levy nuclear contraption and pass along the costs of development and construction onto its customers before the first slab of concrete was poured or the first Oooops moment occurred.

This accounting maneuver was called an "advanced fee." Or perhaps better put, "pre-mugging."

And judging from the keen, highly detailed planning effort that went into the Levy nuclear whatchamacallit, Progress Energy customers might be better off with a hamster on a treadmill to generate their electrical needs.

For what began as an estimated $5 billion price tag for the project has now grown to $22.4 billion, perhaps reflecting the higher costs of spackle, Krazy Glue and grout.

And as long as the Levy nuclear gizmo is delayed, Progress Energy continues to collect the "advanced greasing of the palm" from its much put upon customers.

Don't expect any help from the Florida Legislature, since it was these titans of capitalism who allowed Progress Energy to impose what is nothing more than a tax on customers so that the company could sit around dreaming the impossible dream of someday maybe, perhaps actually building its Levy nuclear windmill.

In Republican-controlled Tallahassee, filled with politicians who love to give lip service to the virtues of free market economics, where all that is needed to succeed is a will to innovate and work hard without the intrusive hand of government interfering with the private sector, an arm of a Fortune 500 company has been given a corporate welfare check of at least $150 million — and counting — to cover the costs of its own ineptitude.

But wait! It only gets more ridiculous.

In 2009, Mark Cooper, a senior fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, predicted the Levy nuclear thingamajig would be a bigger bust than the remake of Conan the Barbarian.

Although Progress Energy treated Cooper as if he was a most junior-junior chap, the academic has proven to be exactly right.

There is no intellectually honest rationale for Progress Energy customers to continue to foot the bill for the company's own shortsightedness, mistakes and unbridled usury.

And for a Legislature so eager to give $750 million in tax breaks to its corporate overseers, how do all those Adam Smith economics acolytes remotely justify imposing a tax just for the fun of it on Progress Energy's constituents?

The oxymoronically titled Public Service Commission could step in where the Florida Legislature seems unwilling or unable to put a stop to Progress Energy's pillaging of its customer's checkbooks.

That would require the Public Service Commission to actually commit an act of public service.

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