1. Opinion

Editorial: Power to the people? Hardly

Published Sep. 18, 2014

Gov. Rick Scott signaled Thursday that he is perfectly satisfied with a Florida Public Service Commission controlled by the electric utilities it is supposed to regulate. As expected, the governor reappointed one PSC member and filled an open seat with a state legislator who spent his political career weakening environmental laws and catering to polluters. Nothing is going to change the imbalance of power in Tallahassee until there is someone in the Governor's Mansion who is more sympathetic to families and small businesses paying the electric bills.

Scott reappointed Julie Brown to the PSC, which signed off on one-sided agreements that enabled Duke Energy to charge ratepayers more than $3 billion for nuclear plants that are broken or will never be built, and handed Florida Power & Light a favorable rate case settlement. That would be the same PSC that is considering the utilities' argument that energy efficiency efforts should be gutted because it is too expensive to conserve power. It is the same PSC that did not make a peep about Duke Energy gouging its customers as it changed its meter reading system until a public outcry led powerful legislators to demand action.

To make sure the game remains rigged against ratepayers, Scott appointed to the PSC Republican Rep. Jimmy Patronis of Panama City, who has no utility experience and has never seen a wetland that could not be drained and paved over by a developer. No current legislator is more hostile to environmental regulation and friendlier to industry and agricultural interests. His legislative record suggests he will be just as friendly to utilities as a PSC member.

Scott signed into law the anti-environment legislation that Patronis sponsored last year despite more than 350 letters urging the governor to veto it. The law cleared the way for a plan by Scott and the Cabinet to grant 30-year leases for thousands of acres to two sugar companies, prevents water management districts from cutting back groundwater pumping to anyone who builds a desalination plant, speeds up permitting for natural gas pipelines, and limits how many times cities can ask developers for more information before granting permits. In previous years, Patronis pushed legislation to block local governments from protecting thousands of acres of wetlands, enabled state wetlands permits to be automatically approved, and made it easier to open phosphate mines and build roads through wetlands. Just imagine what Patronis can do for the utilities on the PSC.

This is all about politics, not smart public policy. Scott rewarded Patronis with the PSC appointment in return for giving up his bid for a North Florida Senate seat, which would have pitted Patronis against Rep. Matt Gaetz in the 2016 Republican primary. That would be Matt Gaetz, son of Senate President Don Gaetz. It also didn't hurt that Duke Energy and FPL, which have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Scott's re-election campaign, have to be thrilled with the governor's choices.

So nearly everybody wins. The governor scores political points in Tallahassee. Matt Gaetz has a clear path to his father's Senate seat. Patronis has a soft landing in a $131,600-a-year job. And the utilities have another friend on the PSC.

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The only losers are Floridians who are paying for nuclear plants that don't exist and for a state energy policy that discourages conserving electricity and developing renewable fuels. They have no advocate in Tallahassee, and their only recourse is to send a loud message on Election Day that they are tired of being ignored.