TALLAHASSEE — Richard Gentry, a veteran lobbyist who last year represented a utility-backed nonprofit, was appointed Tuesday by legislators to be the chief lawyer representing consumers in utility rate cases before state regulators.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Public Counsel Oversight unanimously named Gentry to the job, one of the most important but least appreciated in state government. There was no debate. Under state law, the Office of Public Counsel serves as the voice of consumers in electric, water and natural gas cases that relate to consumer finances.
Gentry, 70, has spent four decades as a lobbyist representing developers, sugar producers, the parimutuel industry and the utility-backed nonprofit called Floridians for Government Accountability during the 2020 legislative session. He replaces J.R. Kelly, the lawyer who for the last 14 years represented the public in rate cases and has been an aggressive opponent to rate requests and legal maneuverings of the state’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light.
Last year, as FPL, Duke Power, and Tampa Electric, began preparing to ask the Public Service Commission to allow them to raise their rates on Florida customers, Senate President Wilton Simpson successfully pushed legislation to impose a 12-year term limit on the public counsel and required Kelly to reapply for the job.
While the utilities have a team of lawyers and experts to make their case on behalf of their investors, the OPC has a smaller group of state-paid lawyers working on behalf of customers. Unlike many states where the consumer advocate is independent, Florida’s OPC works for the Legislature, which in the last election cycle received more than $4 million in campaign contributions from the utility industry.
According to public records, Kelly, who was paid $127,000, made numerous attempts to discuss with Simpson whether he supported Kelly remaining on the job. Simpson never agreed to discuss it with him, and Kelly concluded that he had lost his support and announced his retirement in December.
In the last election cycle, FPL was among the largest contributors to legislative campaigns with $3.1 million in donations, according to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections. Included in the 2020 contributions was $1.5 million to the Florida Republican Senatorial Leadership Committee, headed by Simpson, who spent the last year securing the Republican majority in the Senate.
Rate increase requests are coming
In March, FPL is expected to begin its rate case in which it is asking for about a $2 billion increase in base-rate revenues over the next four years. In 2022, FPL is asking for $1.1 billion, which would be followed by a $615 million increase in 2023, a $140 million increase in 2024 and $140 million in 2025 to pay for solar-energy projects, the News Service of Florida reported in January.
TECO also has a rate case, asking to charge customers between $280 million and $295 million starting in 2022.
In an interview last week with the committee, Gentry said: “If I were fortunate enough to be selected for this important role, my philosophy would be very simple — in all cases, get the best deal for the ratepayers of Florida.”
He added that “while the electric utility issues tend to get the most airtime, there are also real drinking water challenges facing some communities in this state, and I strongly believe that they deserve to command the attention of the Office of Public Counsel.”
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, asked if he knew that the office had no jurisdiction over rate cases related to water treatment plants owned or operated by local governments.
“While that certainly is a policy issue that those of you behind these desks have to grapple with,’' Gentry replied. “If assigned to my office, I would deal with water quality.”
After the meeting, Pizzo said he would like to see more state oversight of water authorities. “There’s lot of shadiness going on,’' he said.
Very few candidates for the job
On Tuesday, the chairman of the committee, Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, defended the fact that there was only one candidate after two other candidates said they had gotten other jobs and a fourth withdrew his application.
He said the job was advertised in the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, the Florida Bar Association and the Tallahassee Bar Association, a Tallahassee based organization that’s composed primarily of African American law students and lawyers, the Tallahassee Women Lawyers, and it was posted on the Online Sunshine website and posted internally among legislative staff.
Last week, the Times/Herald made a public records request for the emails and dates of those job postings to verify those claims but it has not been returned.
“I do recognize that we’re in a diverse state,’' Powell said. “I think the biggest thing here is that this process was transparent.”
He added: “I’m excited for you, Mr. Gentry, we’re prepared to continue to do the business of the state.”
Responding to a question from Pizzo, Gentry said he was “a little bit surprised” that he had become the only candidate.
“I’ve wondered from time to time if they knew something I didn’t know,’' he said.
The state’s largest utilities welcomed Gentry.
“Duke Energy Florida looks forward to working with Mr. Gentry as we continue to provide our customers with safe and reliable service,’' said Ana Gibbs, Duke Energy spokesperson in a statement.
FPL spokesperson Bill Orlove said the company “is proud of our long-standing relationship with the Office of Public Counsel, which has benefited our customers and all Floridians for many years. We look forward to working with the new public counsel to further strengthen the energy value we provide to the state.”
FPL, a regulated monopoly with more than 10 million customers in Florida, is currently making profits at about 11.6%, the most allowed under current law. The company’s rate agreement ends this year, and it is now expected to be asking regulators to allow profits of between 11.5 percent and 12.5 percent. TECO, which also has a rate case this year, is asking for 10.75 percent.
On Kelly’s last day on the job, he completed a settlement agreement with Duke Energy to lock in rates that would give the company profits of 9.85 percent return on equity. That agreement must still be approved by the PSC.