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  1. Florida Politics

Sen. Jack Latvala, others target PSC, utilities with legislation

TALLAHASSEE — Tampa Bay legislators are joining forces to restrict what they call "coziness" between members of the state Public Service Commission and regulated utilities, including Duke Energy.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and three Republican House members said Thursday they will seek passage of legislation in the 2015 session to better protect ratepayers. It's likely to be one of the biggest consumer issues in the legislative session that begins in March.

Latvala's bill (SB 288) would prohibit utilities from charging customers higher rates for higher usage as a result of extended billing periods, and would limit how much utilities can charge their customers for deposits.

The bill also would require the PSC to hold public hearings on rates in utilities' service areas and to stream them live on the Internet; require PSC members to receive ethics training; and require anyone who lobbies the PSC nominating council to register. The council sends PSC nominees to the governor.

"I have a responsibility to say enough is enough and we need to rein in some of these practices," Latvala said at a Capitol news conference.

Joining Latvala were Reps. Chris Latvala of Clearwater, Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor and Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena.

"Citizens are really tired," Peters said. "They feel they're being taken advantage of."

Peters and Latvala have been inundated with complaints from constituents about billing practices at Duke Energy, including temporary extensions of customers' billing cycles beyond 30 days that bumped them to a higher rate category last summer. The utility halted the practice after a public outcry and refunded $1.7 million in overcharges to customers.

"Please," wrote Edward Lynch of Clearwater, one of many frustrated customers, in a letter to Latvala. "Stop Duke Energy from gouging the residents of Florida."

Latvala said Duke Energy required business customers to post deposits six times the amount of their average monthly bill. His example involved a Sonny's BBQ restaurant in Clearwater.

Duke Energy spokesman Sterling Ivey said the utility stopped the practice last year.

"We look forward to reviewing the proposed legislation and working with lawmakers to ensure that any final bill is fair for all Duke energy customers," Ivey said.

AARP, which has 2.7 million members in Florida, endorsed the proposals, which could face big obstacles in the Capitol.

The state's largest utilities, including Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power and others, are power players in state politics and employ teams of lobbyists.

FPL was a major donor to Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign. FPL President Eric Silagy is a director and immediate past president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a group that enthusiastically supports Scott's agenda.

Latvala said he would also propose amendments to prevent utilities from making campaign contributions if an elections bill reaches the Senate floor in the 2015 session.

All five PSC members are appointed by the governor and are paid $131,000 a year. On Thursday, Scott attended the swearing-in for the panel's newest member, former Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City restaurateur who was one of Scott's earliest supporters.

Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a frequent PSC critic, said she hoped Patronis would be more sensitive to the needs of consumers than he was as a member of the Legislature.

"He may very well have a consumer perspective," Glickman said. "We don't know."

Sprowls has filed a separate bill (HB 199) to prohibit a legislator from being appointed to the PSC for two years after leaving office.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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