TALLAHASSEE — A bill aimed at tightening the ethics rules at the Public Service Commission flew through the Florida Senate on Wednesday and then became snagged by a House committee, which raised red flags about some parts of the measure.
With no debate, the Senate passed the bill aimed at ending improper communications between PSC commissioners or senior staff members and the utilities the agency regulates. The vote was 39-1 with Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, the lone no vote.
Senate President Jeff Atwater applauded the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, for championing the issue. The Senate made the issue a top priority by approving the bill on the second day of session.
The bill would ban private conversations between commissioners or their staff aides and anyone with a pending rate case. Last year, PSC staff members and commissioners communicated through text and BlackBerry messages with Florida Power & Light representatives — and FPL was awaiting a PSC decision on a proposed rate increase. A PSC lobbyist also attended a Kentucky Derby party last May hosted by a Florida Power & Light executive.
Fasano called the episodes “egregious violations of the public trust.”
“We had staff and commissioners that were communicating with multi-billion dollar utility companies, and we didn’t know anything about it,” he told his Senate colleagues.
The measure doesn’t prohibit all communication between PSC commissioners and staff and utility officials. Instead, it requires that any conversations that take place must be written down and posted within 72 hours.
The bill also requires PSC commissioners to apply the same ethical standards as judges when ruling on a rate case, and it would ban senior staff and PSC commissioners from leaving the agency and going to work for a utility company within four years.
Minutes after the Senate vote, the House Energy & Utilities Policy Committee debated, but did not vote on the companion bill by Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, as well as two other PSC-related bills.
Several House Democrats led the opposition to the four-year employment ban in Legg’s bill. The ban would not affect current PSC members or staff, but would apply to anyone hired after July 1.
“We’re going to run people out of the industry or run people out of state,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. “By making it four years, we make the industry less attractive.”
Legg argued that when commissioners or key staff members cross over and work for utilities they once regulated, it smacks of “consumer exploitation.”
Another PSC-related bill by Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin, would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to make commission seats elected positions rather than appointed.
State law now requires a nominating council to recommend candidates to the governor, who selects from that list to choose appointees to the five-member commission.
The measure would also ban candidates from accepting campaign contributions from regulated utilities. Florida had an elected PSC until the 1970s, when then-Gov. Reubin Askew spearheaded a drive to appoint commissioners.
The House committee also debated a bill by Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, that would require anyone testifying before the PSC to disclose any financial relationship with a regulated utility.
Pafford got the idea after attending a local public hearing for FPL where officials from local charitable groups that had received contributions from the utility testified for FPL’s rate increase request. The company later admitted to the PSC that it had recruited customers, vendors and community leaders to appear at the public hearings.
Also Wednesday, the rate case was back in the news as the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee overruled the PSC’s order to force FPL and Progress Energy of St. Petersburg to disclose employee salary and benefits packages as part of their rate case requests. FPL’s rate case ended by giving the company $75 million of the $1.3 billion it requested. Progress got none of the $500 million increase.
The PSC wanted the companies to provide the information on every employee who earned more than $165,000 a year to determine if the amounts were excessive. At FPL, about 4,400 employees fell into that category.
The PSC ordered the companies to disclose the information publicly; the companies sued. The court agreed with the companies that the information would invade employee privacy rights and expose sensitive business information.