State Politics

Florida legislators propose shifting oversight of utility watchdog

TALLAHASSEE -- The independent consumer watchdog over state utility regulators is once again under fire.

House leaders have tucked into a broad energy bill a proposal to remove the Office of Public Counsel from the control of the Legislature and shift it under the control of the governor and Cabinet serving as the Financial Services Commission.

The public counsel serves as the consumer’s lawyer in rate cases before the Public Service Commission and, since its establishment in the early 1970s, has been under the control of the Legislature.

But the state’s powerful utility companies haven’t always been happy with the way the public counsel operates. For example, lawyers for the public counsel have argued against rate increases, asked embarrassing questions of the utility giants and challenged their expert witnesses.

Every year for the past three years, the Office of Public Counsel has come under fire by lawmakers. In 2010, when the head of the Office of Public Counsel, J.R. Kelly, was opposing rate increases by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, legislators threatened to make Kelly re-apply for his job.

In 2011, when Kelly’s office was investigating Progress Energy’s botched repairs to its Crystal River power plant, legislators suggested moving his office under the attorney general. And this year, as Kelly’s office continues to investigate Progress for its nuclear project and gears up to challenge another rate increase request by FPL, the Legislature again is suggesting his office be moved.

“Putting it under the Financial Services Commission gives it a higher profile,’’ said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, chairman of the House Energy & Utilities Committee. He said he wasn’t sure where the idea to move the public counsel came from but he thought it was a good one and included it in his committee bill. He believes the move would not only give the office greater oversight and more accountability but will also make it less political.

Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, disagreed. “I think it makes it more political,’’ he said, noting that the governor and Cabinet members, such as the attorney general, also can collect campaign contributions from the industry, just as legislators can.

Susan Glickman, a lobbyist with the Southern Alliance of Clean Energy, which has been at odds with the Public Service Commission on the way it has passed rate increases for nuclear costs but failed to maximize energy efficiency, said she hoped the public counsel would become more aggressive at protecting customers if it were given a higher profile.

She noted, for example, that the office has been silent about asking legislators to reconsider a 2006 nuclear-cost recovery law that has resulted in more than $1 billion in customer charges with no promise that a nuclear plant will be built.

“We hope that by moving the public counsel out of the Legislature’s control, it will insulate consumers from the politics that so often drives energy issues,’’ Glickman said. “The Cabinet is likely to be more responsive to ratepayers’ interests and less beholden to the power companies’ influence.”

Under the Legislature’s agreement with him, Kelly is not allowed to lobby and could not comment on the proposal. The public counsel shift was included in a bill by the House Energy & Utilities Committee that would renew tax incentives to businesses and homeowners that invest in renewable energy. The Senate Communities, Energy and Utilities Committee approved a similar bill on Monday.

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