Gov. Charlie Crist has a long history - including his time as a state senator and attorney general - of championing consumer rights when it comes to the state's regulation of utilities.
It is understandable that he is skeptical of two electric utilities' proposals, under review by the Public Service Commission, to significantly increase their base rates. But Crist went too far Monday when he suggested he would not reappoint two commissioners if they voted for the rate increases sought by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy. That is inappropriate meddling, and it injects more politics into a PSC decision that should be an independent one based on the facts.
Crist contended Tuesday he was just expressing the views of an average taxpayer and that the vote would be just one factor in whether he reappoints Commissioners Matthew Carter and Katrina McMurrian. But the irony is that Crist is publicly wavering on the PSC appointments for the wrong reason.
In recent weeks, the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau has uncovered a series of questionable communications between PSC staff and commissioners and the utilities they regulate. That has led to staff being fired, pressured to quit and investigated, and the filing of a series of ethics complaints. Among the disclosures: McMurrian had dinner in March with an FP&L executive at an out-of-state conference. She denies any wrongdoing, saying she never discussed the company's rate hike request and that she paid for her meal.
All of the intrigue has erupted against the backdrop of dramatic proposed rate increases by FP&L and Progress Energy. After more than two decades without increases in base rates (though there have been other charges added to consumers' bills in the interim), both companies have requested a base rate increase of about 30 percent starting in January.
Given the flood of allegations coming out of the PSC in recent days, it would be reasonable for the governor to cite concerns for the commission's transparency in regulating utilities and postpone reappointing any commissioner until the ethics complaints are investigated.
But Crist hasn't threatened that. Rather, the U.S. Senate candidate is using his bully pulpit to not-so-subtly influence the outcome of the rate cases. That shows a lack of respect for the commission's quasi-judicialstatus. The governor would never try to influence the outcome of a pending court case by suggesting a judge's appointment to a higher court rested on the outcome. And while his views about utility bill increases may reflect public sentiment, he should not be interfering here as the PSC decides two important rate cases.