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PSC needs a wake-up call

It's hard to get geared up for the big game when the referee tells you in advance you're not going to win.

But that's what happened this week to a group trying to take on Florida's biggest telephone company. It was not exactly a bunch of scalawags. The group included:

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

Bob Butterworth, the attorney general of Florida.

Jack Shreve, the public's lawyer in utility cases.

But they could have been bums off the street, for all the success they had against Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co.

They got their ears pinned back.

The Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) voted 4-0 in favor of Southern Bell.

Here's the funny part.

This vote wasn't about whether Bell is making too much money.

That won't be decided until this fall, when the state finishes a rate case for Southern Bell.

No, this decision was about whether, if Bell loses the case, it will have to give any of the money back.

It won't.

Even if the customers "win" _ even if they prove Bell has been making too much money _ there won't be any refunds for past overcharges.

All they can win now is a cut in rates for future service, starting Jan. 1.

How much money are we talking about? Depends on who you believe. Bell, of course, says it isn't making too much money at all.

But the other side was asking the state to set aside up to $100-million for possible refunds _ money that Bell now will keep regardless.

Even if it loses.

You might ask:

Why in the world can't the people get their money back if they win?

Well, welcome to the weird world of utility logic.

You see, the PSC has a curious deal going with Southern Bell that lets the company earn extra profits until the end of this year.

These extra profits are supposed to be an "incentive" for Bell to be more "efficient" and do a better job.

Maybe it's working. Maybe not. That'll be decided this fall. But what the PSC said this week, basically, was this:

Since we're already letting these guys make a big pot of money, no sense stirring things up until the fall.

A Southern Bell spokesman agreed. He warned that even only a possible refund would have a "chilling effect" on all that efficiency.

Here's why this might be unfair:

A whole lot has changed since Bell first got this deal from the state. Most important, the economy has changed.

Interest rates are low. The cost of money, which is what we use to set utility profits, is low.

The rules of the game have changed. Bell doesn't need nearly as much money to make a fair profit, the AARP, attorney general and public counsel say.

Yet as of late last year, Southern Bell was earning a return of just under 13 percent.

That's a pretty decent return, don't you think? Are you earning 13 percent on anything today?

How much of that extra profit is from "efficiency," and how much of it is a windfall because of the economy?

Now, all this is complicated and murky. Hard to follow, and maybe intentionally so.

But we can follow this much:

Lawton Chiles, this governor-hero, this champion of the people, just put a political supporter from South Florida on the PSC, and he voted for Bell.

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature has changed state law so that every phone company can push for the same kind of deal that Bell has.

Don't think you're escaping if you're not a Bell customer. Your own telephone company, whether it's GTE or United or some other, is watching events closely.

Ah, the Public Service Commission.

Remember, the PSC was in the news recently when a member quit to take a job with an affiliate of a utility he regulated. And don't forget the junkets and ski trips some PSC members took with utility lobbyists.

Still, they sit there in Tallahassee and surround themselves with technical gibberish, cooing lawyers and lobbyists and flunkies, and reassure each other that everything is fine, fine, fine.

Maybe they're the ones who need a little "incentive."