By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The same week state lawmakers filed legislation aimed at changing the relationship between the Public Service Commission and the utility companies it is supposed to regulate, Gov. Rick Scott attended the swearing-in of a political ally appointed to the panel.
The PSC has been accused of siding with companies too often at the expense of customers.
That’s why a group of lawmakers filed legislation aimed at making sure the PSC is properly overseeing the state’s powerful utility companies.
Tampa Bay legislators will push bills in the upcoming session to curb what they call the “coziness” between the Public Service Commission and utility companies.
For months, area lawmakers have been hearing from Duke Energy ratepayers irate about company billing practices. A bill (SB 288) by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would prohibit rate increases based on extended billing periods and prevent what customers claim are steep hikes in utility deposits. Latvala’s bill also would require annual ethics training for PSC commissioners and would require the commission to annually hold public hearings around the state in utilities’ service areas.
“I can’t remember,” Latvala said, “the last time the Public Service Commission met in the Tampa Bay service area of Duke Energy.”
It’s an open question whether Latvala’s bill can pass in a pro-business Legislature where the big power companies, including Duke, Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power and others, are major power players. The bill is a two-by-four that enables Latvala and his allies to seize the high ground in the debate over whether the PSC is looking out for consumers or utility companies.
The same week state lawmakers unveiled their plans, one of Scott’s political allies—who has a history of siding with utilities while in the Florida Legislature—was sworn in as a member of the PSC’s panel.
Former state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Republican from Panama City, was sworn in Thursday.
He formally became a member of the Florida Public Service Commission during a ceremony that also included Commissioner Julie Brown getting sworn in for a second four-year term. Scott reappointed Brown, a Tampa attorney who has been on the commission since 2011.
… Scott in September chose Patronis and Brown from a list of seven finalists that also included former state Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, and Patrick Sheehan, director of the Office of Energy in the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Public Service Commission members are paid an annual salary of $131,036, according to the state budget.
…Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has frequently clashed with the Public Service Commission, noted Patronis took pro-utility positions in the Legislature on issues such as carbon-pollution limits. But she expressed hope that Patronis will approach the new job from his experience as a ratepayer running a family restaurant.
“He may very well have a consumer perspective, we don’t know,” Glickman said.
The PSC has been criticized for quite some time for what environmentalists and watchdogs say is a weak regulatory record.
Most recently, an attorney representing Florida Power and Light’s customers as a whole said the PSC sided with the energy company on a risky venture.
A few weeks ago, in a 4-1 vote, the PSC signed-off on a plan that allows FPL to charge its customers for a $190 million investment into a fracking project in Oklahoma. FPL’s representatives said this will save Floridians money in the long-run.
But, as I reported for WGCU, others were concerned the approval didn’t get enough scrutiny.
J.R. Kelly, the Public Counsel for the state of Florida, acts as legal representation for FPL’s costumers. He said there are a lot of problems with this decision.
First, he said, FPL does not have the legal authority to charge its customers for something other than FPL’s core activities. Kelly said this means the company can only charge for generating, transmitting and distributing electricity.
But, Kelly also points out the way FPL is going about paying for this investment is all wrong.
“All of the risks of these investments—100 percent of the risks—is placed on the backs of Florida Power and Light’s ratepayers,” he explained. “They go on and say ‘oh, this is going to save all kinds of money and is going to save our ratepayers a lot of money.’ Well, if that’s the case and they really believe that, then let them assume the risk.”
Kelly said he applauds FPL for thinking outside the box, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to let the company go ahead with this plan. Kelly said this could set a precedent for allowing utility companies to pass the cost of their risky investments on to their customers.
The PSC also tied it’s own hands at the request of FPL. The commission agreed that it would not be able to revisit the decision endorsing the investment to determine if it was a benefit to ratepayers. So, if the investment turns out to be a bad one, the PSC can’t reverse its approval.