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DeSantis names Central Florida legislator to utility panel

Michael La Rosa, a Republican from St. Cloud, was selected Friday from a field of nominees that had included state Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa.

TALLAHASSESE — Gov. Ron DeSantis named Central Florida real estate agent and legislator Michael La Rosa to the the Public Service Commission, putting his first mark on the powerful board that regulates electricity, water and natural gas in Florida.

La Rosa, a Republican from St. Cloud, was selected Friday from a field of nominees that included Donald Polmann, the current Public Service Commission commissioner appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott, who was hoping to be appointed to another four-year term.

In addition to Polmann, the list included Key Largo state Rep. Holly Raschein and Thonotosassa state Sen. Tom Lee, all Republicans.

The decision to reject Raschein continues to leave South Florida without representation on the five-member board, which has the power to decide how much profit utilities are allowed to keep and how much to charge customers for water, wastewater and electricity services.

For the past decade, the panel has been heavily influenced by the state’s largest utility, Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light, which has expanded its footprint significantly in Florida during that time.

La Rosa was termed out of the state House of Representatives and was selected by the Public Service Commission Nominating Council, which is dominated by fellow legislators. The four-year position is based in Tallahassee, pays $132,036, comes with generous pension benefits and access to a full staff.

Although La Rosa was not seeking a Senate term, he was seen as possibly attempting to influence the selection by giving $50,000 from the political committee he controls to the fund used to elect Republicans to the state Senate.

The chair of the nominating council is Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, and the Senate must confirm La Rosa’s appointment. Another powerful senator, Republican Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo of Sarasota, sits on the 12-member nominating panel.

La Rosa wrote the check from his political committee, Floridians for Opportunity, which has raised $748,000 in its six years of existence. In the last two years the committee has received $15,000 from Florida Power & Light.

La Rosa told the Times/Herald he has made no similar gift to the House’s Republican political committee, run by incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, and his contribution to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee was not aimed at influencing his nomination, or the Senate confirmation.

“I had no interest in doing that,’' he said. “I want to see Republican leadership continue. I will continue to help folks over the finish line.”

La Rosa is the owner of two Central Florida-based real estate development companies and is vice president of a third. He reported his net worth as $1,179,502. He earned his bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication with a minor in political science from the University of Central Florida.

He cited as his experience for the regulatory job his work as chair of the House Commerce Committee, which oversees all regulatory committees in policy and infrastructure and his work on the Southern States Energy Board.

He sponsored legislation requiring term limits for the Public Service Commission, another bill that expanded wireless telecommunications infrastructure, and he cited his work as Florida chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-leaning organization that is heavily funded by utility companies and includes among its services templates for pro-industry legislation.

“I believe that what I can bring to the table is understanding the legislative process of being able to communicate back to the Legislature and explain things that we’re seeing as a (Public Service Commission),’' La Rosa said during his in-person interview.

For the past decade, the Public Service Commission and the Florida Legislature have passed legislation sought by Florida Power & Light, one of the largest Florida contributors to individual campaigns and to legislative political committees that accept unlimited amounts of cash.

Public Service Commission members who have opposed utility rate requests and infrastructure plans in recent years have been rejected for reappointment, or not confirmed by the Senate. And applicants who are not friendly to utilities have generally not been favored by the Public Service Commission nominating council, whose members accept funds from the utilities.