The Florida Senate chose to show up Gov. Charlie Crist and sided with powerful electric utilities over consumers by refusing to confirm the governor's two recent appointees to the Public Service Commission. It was a shameful display of political retribution, and it made a mockery of the confirmation process.
PSC members David Klement and Benjamin "Steve" Stevens did not deserve to be fired. They have done nothing wrong in their brief tenure, and there is no evidence they are unqualified to serve. Klement is a former Bradenton newspaper editor, and Stevens is a former accountant. Their only crimes were being tied to Crist and daring to stand up to Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy by voting against the utilities' requests to drastically raise rates. The chilling effect on what is supposed to be an independent regulatory process at the PSC is unmistakable.
Republicans and Democrats are jointly to blame for this injustice, because this was a bipartisan firing squad. The explanations from those opposing Crist's nominees — including incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and the budget chairman, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales — are ludicrous. They say Klement and Stevens are unqualified because they do not have any utility or finance experience. Members of the black caucus, all Democrats, protested that the commission is now all-white.
The PSC is not a subsidiary of the utilities, and it should not be merely a stepping-stone to a lucrative industry job. The commission needs more outside input, not less, to combat a long-standing culture far too cozy with utilities. Klement and Stevens are not uneducated or devoid of life experiences, and the PSC has an extensive professional staff. What's more, Crist picked the two men from six nominees vetted by a legislative-controlled panel. Crist did not seek to reappoint the PSC's only minority member, Matthew Carter. But it is no coincidence that the African-American lawmaker leading the diversity complaint, Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, once lobbied for FP&L.
The electric utilities have been gunning for Klement and Stevens since they voted earlier this year to reject the enormous rate increases sought by FP&L and Progress Energy. And the utilities know how to make their voices heard in the Legislature. The two companies, plus Tampa Electric, made at least $726,000 in political donations in the first quarter of this year, spreading the money between Republicans and Democrats. On Tuesday, they won a handsome return on their investment at the expense of the ratepayers.
It was far from clear whether the Senate would even consider the confirmations, and the charade did not last long. There was little debate on Klement, and there was no discussion at all before the vote to reject Stevens. Crist moved to shake up the PSC last year after revelations that PSC commissioners and staff had instant messaged, attended parties and privately dined with utility executives. Now the Florida Senate wants to put the commission back into the pockets of the utilities and keep those campaign contributions flowing.