TALLAHASSEE — Using a skillful parliamentary maneuver, the Florida Senate on Tuesday kept alive a measure to impose term limits on the lawyer who represents the public on utility rate increases.
The measure by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has long been priority of the utility industry, whose lawyers have faced legal hurdles because the Office of Public Counsel has successfully challenged efforts to charge customers for out-of-state fracking operations or to raise customer rates in cases before the Public Service Commission.
Under the measure, inserted by the Senate into HB 1095 and approved 37-1, the public counsel will be limited to 12 years, with three four-year terms.
The original bill targeted J.R. Kelly, the head of the pubic counsel’s office, by requiring that the the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight either reappoint or replace him by March 1, 2021 — about the time the state’s largest utilities could be in the midst of a rate case.
(Florida Power & Light is allowed to petition the PSC for a rate increase in 2021, while Duke Energy Florida and TECO Energy could petition for rate cases in 2022.)
But after objections from environmental and consumer groups that the measure was intended to intimidate Kelly, Simpson modified the provision to not target Kelly specifically.
Last week, Simpson amended the bill to set the 12-year term limit clock to start in 2020, giving Kelly, who has held the office since 2007, a reprieve.
Although there was no similar bill that had moved in the House, Simpson then attached the bill to a House bill relating to underground facilities, keeping the idea alive.
Florida’s electric utility giants have been among the largest contributors to legislative coffers going into this legislative session, and Simpson, who is the incoming Senate president, is tasked with securing the Republican majority in the Senate.
So far this election cycle, Florida Power & Light has donated $3.1 million to 2020 campaigns and political committees since the November 2018 election. TECO Energy has given almost $1.2 million and Duke Energy has spent about $870,000. The totals are from the Division of Elections website as of Tuesday.
Because the the Public Service Commission is appointed by the governor from a list of applications approved by a legislatively-controlled committee whose members receive campaign contributions from the utility industry, the utility panel has also been heavily influenced by the utility industry.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, asked Simpson during debate last week: “Why would we want to do this?”
Simpson replied: “Florida has the absolute best government in the country, getting the most dynamic things in the country, so I think term limits probably worked out really well for us as a Legislature.”
Rodriguez countered that while there are term limits on legislators, there are no term limits on the “highest priced lawyers in the state” who represent the utility industry.
Simpson responded that “there are big powerful interests on everything the (the Public Service Commission) does, not just on one side.”
Kelly is appointed by the Legislature’s joint committee and, even though the law allows Kelly to be subject to confirmation every two years, he has never been asked by legislators to be reconfirmed.
For years, Kelly has been a thorn in the side of the utility companies and the industry-aligned members of the PSC. Last session, the electric utilities persuaded legislators to let them bypass the rigorous rate review to get money for storm expenses and begin charging customers what is estimated to be as much as $50 billion to bury power lines to limit storm-related damage in the future.
During the Public Service Commission debate over implementing that law, Kelly’s office argued that the Public Service Commission’s rules lacked so much detail that utilities could bundle projects and double-bill customers. Regulators approved the rules, anyway.
When asked about the legislation as it first moved in the Senate, Kelly said: “It is the Legislature’s prerogative to define the parameters of the Office of Public Counsel. If they decide they want someone else to be public counsel, I’ll roll with the punches and abide by their wishes.”
The bill next moves to the Florida House for a final vote.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas