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Giving regulators a bad name

When Newt Gingrich called for "economically rational, biologically correct" regulation as part of his Contract With America, the second phrase was accompanied by a knowing wink. His true intention, as everyone who watched the former U.S. House speaker knew, was to remove any environmental law deemed a nuisance to the corporate bottom line.

Gingrich would no doubt admire the latest assault on regulation, a group called the Federation for Economically Rational Utility Policy. This time, Floridians get to share a knowing wink. The new lobbying group, which pledges to "work to remove those regulations that serve only to preserve the jurisdiction of regulators," counts among its members two utility "regulators" from Florida. Both have worked earnestly to give their profession a bad name.

Charles Davidson and Rudy Bradley, two appointed members of the Florida Public Service Commission, have joined the "economically rational" approach. Here's a tangible example of what they mean: A federal appeals court recently struck down FCC rules requiring regional Bell phone companies to lease access to competing carriers at regulated rates. Consumer advocates were outraged, because the court ruling undermined competition. The Bell companies, and FERUP, were thrilled.

Says Davidson on the topic of emerging telecommunications technologies: Too much regulation "is a very dangerous slippery slope that will result in less consumer choice."

As commissioners, Davidson and Bradley have eagerly avoided the slopes. In a high-profile rate case that ultimately forced Progress Energy Florida Inc. to give $23-million back to consumers last year, Bradley and Davidson went behind the scenes to try to water down a staff recommendation for the refund. After the staff attorney was forced, under oath, to divulge the commissioners' interference, Progress Energy relented and agreed to the refund.

Bradley, a former state representative who switched political parties and was rewarded with his appointment by Gov. Jeb Bush, has also drawn attention for his choice of reading materials. His meticulous argument on behalf of Verizon Communications, offered during an October 2002 rate hearing, turned out to match a company memo almost word for word. When Verizon asks "can you hear me now?" it may also be referring to a tiny speaker implanted in Bradley's ear.

Davidson and Bradley are not content that state utility regulators already have their own lobbying association. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, founded in 1889, apparently is too focused on, well, regulating. As Bradley and Davidson view it, that's irrational.