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- 2010 - April - 12th -

PSC reorganization clears appropriations committee, Senate future in doubt

By Keith Laing
The News Service of Florida

FROM THE CAPITAL

The House bill to split the Public Service Commission’s staff from the beleaguered panel was unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Council Friday with minor tweaks that did not address wide disparities between the plan and a measure already approved by the Florida Senate.

The bill (HB 7209), which puts the PSC staff under the direction of the governor and Cabinet, was approved with little debate in its second committee hearing. But Rep. Stephen Precourt (R-Orlando), who chairs the committee that wrote the House PSC bill, acknowledged after the vote that differences between the House measure and the Senate’s PSC ethics proposal may be too wide to bridge with session more than half over.

Precourt said he was optimistic a deal could be reached with the Senate in the final three weeks of session, but he also indicated that if a compromise could be worked out, it might not contain everything in the sweeping House bill.

“Our staffs are working together to try and find common ground on this issue and identify specifically what we can get this year and what will likely take next year to happen,” he told reporters as he left the meeting. “It’s my sincere desire to do real reform and to do it completely this year.”

The bill was approved with amendments authorizing the transfer of records from the Office of Public Counsel, which argues for consumers in rate cases before the PSC, to the attorney general’s office and from the PSC to the state Cabinet. The bill calls for a new Office of Regulatory Staff managed by the governor and Cabinet, which would assume many of the roles employees at the PSC play now, such as providing commissioners with options for their decisions, and the Public Counsel’s office to be housed under the attorney general’s office instead of the Legislature.

However, neither amendment approved by the committee Friday addressed wide differences between the bill and the Senate’s already-approved PSC measure (SB 1034), which focuses primarily on banning off-the-record talks between employees at the PSC and utility representatives.

Both the House and Senate PSC bills were crafted in response to conflict-of-interest allegations that made headlines last fall as the panel considered rate increases for Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy. The measures both ban ex parte communication and make it harder to bounce between the PSC and the utilities for employment, though the House plan includes a two-year ban on lobbying after leaving the PSC instead of the Senate’s four-year hiatus.

The House plan also creates a new regulatory office, which Precourt told the committee Friday would “create basically a firewall to prevent undue influence between the separate entities in the cases.” The bill also requires future commissioners to have a college degree, which is widely believed to be a shot at current PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, who has harshly criticized the House bill.

The measure has also drawn sharp rebukes from the sponsor of the Senate bill and skepticism from Gov. Charlie Crist, who has identified taming public corruption as a priority in his final session and supported the Senate PSC measure, but appeared lukewarm on the House’s plan.

Precourt said Friday after the vote that he has not had any conversations with Crist about whether the plan would pass muster since his committee tweaked the proposal in reaction to feedback from the governor’s office.

“I haven’t spoken with the governor personally,” Precourt said. “Our staff has spoken to his staff about it.”

The governor has already vetoed one bill approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature this year and publicly flirted with overturning another. Crist’s current stance on the House PSC plan likely “would be reflected in his comments in the media,” Precourt said, acknowledging the governor’s skepticism about the proposal.

The plan’s future in the Senate and with the governor may be in doubt, but Precourt pointed to comments made in support of the bill Friday in the Appropriations Committee by Rep. Joe Gibbons (D-Hallandale Beach), the ranking Democratic member of the committee that authored the bill, as evidence it had wide support in the House.

“This was done in very bipartisan way,” Gibbons told the panel. “I think we have a good product here.”

“We worked closely together to come up with a solution that addresses all the issues, not just take a small bite at the apple,” Precourt agreed after the meeting.

Precourt hinted that a bill to increase the amount of electricity produced from renewable energy sources expected to emerge from his House Energy & Utilities Committee Friday afternoon could provide a spark for the PSC reorganization bill in the Senate.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, all these energy issues are tied together,” Precourt told reporters. “The PSC is part of the overall governance of energy in Florida and that’s addressed in a couple other bills as well. Next week, certainly we’re going to have a sit down to discuss all the energy issues on the table.”

A bill to require power companies to increase the amount of electricity they produce from renewable energy sources by 20 percent by the year 2020 cleared the Senate last year but languished in the House. Precourt has said the House’s renewable energy bill will likely not include a similar mandate, but taking a renewable energy bill up at all would be more than the House did on the plan in 2009.

But Precourt admitted even that might not be enough to get the Senate to agree to the House plan to remove the PSC staff to the governor and Cabinet. Sen. Mike Fasano, who sponsored the Senate’s PSC bill, said earlier this week that the provision “was probably written by the utility companies.”

“That’s the big one,” Precourt said. “There’s some legitimate concerns about how to transfer into this Office of Regulatory Staff from what we have now. I would say that’s the toughest part to do.”

But asked if the plan might be jettisoned to increase the likelihood of a PSC reform bill being signed into law this year, Precourt held firm.

“They’re all vital parts to me,” he said. “I’d like to have the whole package.”

And the plans will likely not be combined, he added. “I would rather not mix and match the specific language of the bills, but they affect each other.”

The bill has one more stop, the General Government Policy Council, before it can be cleared for a final vote of the full House.

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