It's too early to declare victory for Florida utility consumers. But the state Senate is poised to approve next month the most sweeping ethics reforms in the history of the Public Service Commission. Now House Speaker Larry Cretul just needs to make sure his chamber follows suit.
Senate Bill 1034 would finally embrace a 1992 statewide grand jury recommendation that the quasi-judicial agency work more like the courts.
The bill, as amended Tuesday in the Senate Rules Committee 17-1, would ban all ex parte communications between the utilities and the commissioners and their staff during rate setting and rulemaking. It also would require all communication between the parties be documented. Anyone caught violating the law — including utilities and their employees — would face punishment. For utilities the fine could be hefty: up to one-tenth of 1 percent of their annual operating revenue.
The bill also would increase from two years to four years the time that commissioners and their staff are banned from working for a utility or its subsidiary after they leave the PSC. That should at least slow the revolving door between the industry and the agency.
The bill is in response to recent embarrassments at the PSC that showed some staff members had particularly close relationships with Florida Power & Light employees, from communicating with them via instant messaging on their Blackberry devices to attending a Kentucky Derby party at an FP&L executive's home. The revelations ultimately led Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint two new PSC commissioners. And that newly constituted commission last month rejected requests by FP&L and Progress Energy for significant rate increases.
The measure doesn't go quite as far as commission chair Nancy Argenziano had hoped. The former state senator from Dunnellon wants to remove the requirement that a legislative-appointed group must first vet nominees before the governor can pick a commissioner.
But the legislation is significant progress in ethics reform, particularly in an environment where some legislators have offered bills that would punish the PSC and the Office of Public Counsel for recent rate decisions. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, deserves credit for beefing up the plan at the PSC's request. Now the weight falls on another Tampa Bay lawmaker, Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, to get the measure through the House. For any lawmaker interested in good government, it should be easy to embrace.