Two measures before the Legislature would undo some of the reform passed in reaction to corruption in the state’s regulation of utilities in the 1980s.
Proponents say the bills would allow the Public Service Commission to operate more efficiently and in a manner similar to those in most other states. Opponents say it’s a move to allow big utility interests to co-opt state regulations, and say it’s likely reaction to the PSC’s hard-nosed handling of the $7.5-billion Kemper power plant boondoggle.
The Public Service Commission regulates water, sewer, natural gas, telecommunications and electric utilities, and is charged with ensuring rates are reasonable and service is adequate and safe.
In 1989, state public service commissioners D.W. Snyder and Lynn Havens were convicted on federal charges of extorting money from utilities they regulated. In response, the Legislature passed reforms that included creating an independent Public Utilities Staff to conduct investigations and collect information, attempting to separate it from elective politics. The three-member, elected Public Service Commission serves as a rule-making and quasi-judicial body. Mississippi is one of only four states with this setup.
House Bill 1179 would put the Public Utilities Staff back under the PSC’s control. Senate Bill 2838 would do likewise, and would also increase the number of commissioners from three to five, with four elected and one appointed by the governor.
Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, author of the Senate bill, said moving the staff under PSC control would allow more efficient operation. He said he’s heard complaints that it’s hard for anyone, including commissioners, to communicate with or get information from the staff.
Rep. Gary Staples, R-Laurel, author of the House bill, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Increasing the number of commissioners, Carmichael said, “would give more people a voice, electing one in each congressional district.”
As for the reforms lawmakers passed in 1990, Carmichael said, times have changed and corruption like that in the 1980s would be more easily prevented or caught.
“That was nearly 30 years ago, and it’s time we at least look at doing things differently,” Carmichael said. “I think this would increase efficiency and give customers more of a voice.”
But Mississippi Sierra Club President Louie Miller, who has battled with Mississippi Power Co. over its Kemper County “clean coal” plant, said big utility interests are pushing the changes. He said they are mad because the PSC and staff have protected consumers from huge rate increases and forced the utility and its shareholders to eat billions of dollars in cost overruns instead of passing them on to customers.
The Kemper plant was originally proposed to cost $2.9 billion and use new technology to turn lignite coal into natural gas. But cost overruns ran up the bill to $7.5 billion and after years of problems and delays, it was converted to a natural gas plant.
“They want to get the PSC back under their control,” Miller said. “... Why all of a sudden are we wanting to change something that ain’t broke? They should be applauding the PSC for what they’ve done to protect rate payers and consumers of Mississippi instead of trying to dismantle it ... What, exactly, do they have to complain about?”
Miller also noted Carmichael’s son works for Mississippi Power Co.’s parent, the Southern Company, and Carmichael “should be recusing himself from votes, not sponsoring a bill like this.”
Carmichael said he’s working on behalf of his constituents, not Mississippi Power Co. or any other interests.
“My son does work there, and my dad retired from Mississippi Power Co.,” Carmichael said. “But that doesn’t have anything to do with it, has nothing to do with this bill. Mississippi Power has nothing to do with this bill.”
Public Service Commissioners are currently elected in each of the state’s three, large Supreme Court districts. These large, diverse districts, Miller said, along with restrictions on PSC candidates’ campaign finances, result in commissioners more beholding to the citizenry than special interests. He said electing commissioners from each of the state’s four congressional districts, and having another appointed by the governor, would remove insulation from special interests.
Neither Central District PSC Commissioner Cecil Brown nor Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley had much comment directly on the pending bills.
“I don’t think we have an opinion one way or another,” Brown said. “... I think the commission is working fine, just like it is ... but things can be improved at any agency.”
Presley said: “We are going to continue to protect the rate payers and keep our heads down and work hard. We have a ton of issues to deal with.”
In 2009 there was a similar effort in the Legislature to move the staff back under the PSC. At that time, Presley spoke in favor of the move, saying “Special interests have been able to drive this bureaucracy,” of the Public Utilities Staff. On Thursday he said, “At that time there were some issues outstanding that have by and large since been resolved. Obviously, arguments can be madeon both sides.
“That’s a decision that will be made by the Legislature,” Presley said.
The 2009 debate resulted in the legislative watchdog PEER Committee doing an evaluation and report on the setup of the PSC and staff. The report said, “PEER sees no need to change the current structure.”
“Mississippi’s current regulatory structure helps to ensure that the problems experienced in the late 1980s are not repeated,” the report said. “The separation of the Public Utilities Staff from the commission was the product of lessons learned involving corruption in the regulatory process.”
The bills are pending committee votes, facing a Tuesday deadline for passage.