When can a monopoly operate without regulation?
When the sun shines in Florida.
Okay, maybe that's a little snarky. And a tad unfair.
A better answer might be:
When the sun shines in Florida, and politicians are showered with millions in campaign donations.
That seems to be all it takes when it comes to Florida's big utilities. Those folks have been on a winning streak that would embarrass the Harlem Globetrotters.
The only thing keeping them out of your wallet these days is the grace of God, and the Florida Supreme Court.
A few days ago, the court slapped the state's Public Service Commission for giving Florida Power & Light carte blanche to charge customers $500 million a year for a risky fracking venture the utility didn't want to pay for itself.
"The Public Service Commission and politicians have been rubber-stamping whatever these investor-owned utilities have wanted for years,'' said Susan Glickman, the state director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Thank God the Supreme Court had the grace to stand up to them.''
Yes, the court bailed us out this time because every utility in the state was prepared to jump on that gravy train. But the larger issue is this:
Why do we always have to rely on a judicial Hail Mary?
The trade-off for operating a monopoly is having state regulators and politicians standing over your shoulder like a watchdog. Except in Florida, the monopolies have bought the souls and consciences of those toothless politicians.
By itself, FPL spent $2.3 million in campaign donations in the last six months of 2015, which is a bargain when a pliant Legislature helps you reap hundreds of millions in profits.
This means the only people looking out for you are consumer advocacy groups and the state's Office of Public Counsel.
"The returns on equity the Public Service Commission have awarded have typically been higher than the returns in other states,'' Public Counsel J.R. Kelly said with great diplomacy. "There has absolutely been a tendency lately to favor more of what the utilities are asking than the consumer advocates.''
While the Supreme Court came through on fracking — and the ruling was specific to the PSC, so there's still a chance FPL could repackage the plan for the Legislature's approval — ratepayers haven't been so lucky on nuclear cost fees and gas price hedging plans.
Gas hedging has cost Florida customers about $6 billion since 2002, and nuclear construction bills have come in around $2 billion since 2006. Mind you, that's all lost money. There was no energy produced for any of that spending.
And yet Gov. Rick Scott's office gets jaunty when cutting vehicle registration fees by $25?
Our state politicians love to scream and wave their fists about high taxes, but most of them are completely silent on what amounts to recurring utility taxes that go straight into the pockets of their corporate benefactors.
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Or, here's another way of looking at it:
As the Supreme Court was deciding the fracking case, the parent company for Florida Power & Light was meeting in Oklahoma. Along with voting to reject spending on climate change reports as well as a proposal to disclose campaign financing, shareholders bestowed $31 million in pay to its top five executives.
See, everybody wins!
(Except me and you.)