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Friday, Aug 29, 2014
Politics

Gov. Scott to name two to public utilities commission


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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott may be in no rush to pick a lieutenant governor, but he’ll soon decide on two people to sit on Florida’s utility-regulating board.

Commission chair Ronald Brisé and Commissioner Art Graham, whose terms expire in January, are seeking to return to the Public Service Commission.

Four other candidates, including a former state representative from Pasco County who also served on the PSC, are vying for their seats. The position pays around $130,000 a year.

The six finalists were recommended by the commission’s nominating council. Once he receives the list of nominees, Scott has 30 days to decide.

As Scott gears up for re-election in 2014, his decisions may be colored by which base he’s seeking to curry favor from.

Commissioners are often painted, rightly or wrongly, as being consumer-friendly or utility-friendly.

Scott got elected as a pro-business, tea party candidate, but recently has pushed initiatives such as teacher pay raises and lowering college tuition that could help him with other voters.

When asked what qualities Scott was looking for in a commissioner, spokesman John Tupps said the governor “appoints people that share his vision of every Floridian being able to find a great job and get a great education, while enjoying a low cost of living.”

The commission regulates the state’s biggest investor-owned electric utilities, including Tampa Electric Co., as well as natural gas and water and sewer utilities, and reviews and approves proposed rate increases.

That means it has authority over rates and service for 4 out of 5 Florida electric customers.

Susan Glickman, a clean energy lobbyist, said the relationship between the utilities and the regulators “deserves close scrutiny.”

“Their reputation is that they’ve long been held captive to the will of the utilities,” she said.

Four of the five commissioners were replaced after the panel unanimously shot down rate increases requested in 2010 by two of the state’s biggest electric concerns, Florida Power & Light Co. and Progress Energy Florida.

By one measure, Tampa Bay-area home electric bills are trending downward.

Based on PSC reporting for 2010, the year before Scott took office, a typical electric bill for a TECO residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours was $110. In 2011, it was $104.34, and in 2012, that figure was $104.23.

But average annual residential consumption also is decreasing, shrinking nearly 5 percent over 2012, PSC records show.

TECO has a hearing before commissioners later this month, when it will ask them to approve a 10 percent residential rate increase because of rising operating costs and decreased demand.

And just like proposed rate hikes, PSC appointments always seem to rouse debate.

Graham, once a Jacksonville City Council member, was first appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist and was reappointed by Scott.

At his 2011 confirmation hearing before the Florida Senate, Graham was called out by then Sens. Mike Fasano and Evelyn Lynn, both Republicans, for socializing with executives of a water utility that had a pending rate hike request.

Graham explained he ran into them in a hotel lobby and had a brief conversation while he was waiting for a dinner companion. He was later confirmed for the post.

Another current commissioner, Lisa Edgar, also was challenged during her confirmation vote on the floor of the Senate this year.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, singled her out from a list of executive appointees because of concerns she sided too often with utilities on rate increases.

Edgar, the only remaining member of the panel that voted down the 2010 rate hikes, also was later confirmed.

Former state Rep. Kenneth W. Littlefield, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chaired the Utilities & Telecommunications committee, is one of the current finalists. He was put on the commission by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006.

Crist replaced him the next year, saying he wasn’t consumer-friendly enough. He was then backed by conservative groups last year to replace Edgar.

At the same time, he said in his application that protecting consumers was a “high priority” for him.

If selected, the 69-year-old Littlefield would be the oldest commissioner.

Having a senior citizen on the board “may give (it) some stature and seniority by having someone qualified to represent that demographic,” he said.

Another finalist also is from the Bay area. Donald Polmann of Dunedin is a former director of science and engineering at Tampa Bay Water.

He was nominated and interviewed for a seat last year but wasn’t selected. His application said his engineering background would be an asset to the commission.

“I’m a technical expert and can understand the details that come before the commission,” Polmann said. “I want to balance the need for reliable utility service and growing the economy, and the need for fair prices for consumers. That’s the fundamental issue that the PSC deals with.”

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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