By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 28, 2009……….The leader of a group dedicated to developing renewable energy in Florida said Tuesday that part of the problem with getting the market off the ground is the way the state selects members of its Public Service Commission.
During a roundtable discussion hosted by the Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association called “Florida Big Bend Cleantech Business,” FREPA president Michael Dobson described the PSC as too fraught with politics because commissioners’ futures depend so much on politicians. Dobson compared the Florida PSC with other states’ regulatory panels, which he said are more independent and “seen as experts.”
The comments, made during a summary of the effort to win passage last year of a proposed renewable energy standard for power companies that was ultimately successful at the PSC but not in the Legislature, touched off a polite but pointed exchange between Dobson and Florida Energy & Climate Commissioner and energy lobbyist J.B. Clark.
Dobson said the problem was not the commissioners, but the way they were selected. Prior to the 1978 legislative session, the three-member PSC was elected in statewide elections. But beginning in 1979, the PSC was expanded to its current five-member format and its members were appointed to the panel by the governor and had to be confirmed by the state Senate.
“They kind of have to serve two masters,” Dobson told the group of about 10 attendees. “Unlike California, where the PSC is not even in Sacramento, our PSC is right here in the Capital. There’s a lot of politics involved in the PSC. Their terms are not very long and (are) tied into who appointed them, so because of that, the PSC doesn’t have the independence that we see in other states.”
But Clark, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to the unrelated Florida Energy & Climate Commission in 2008, disagreed that appointments made the PSC less independent than other states’ regulators who may be selected differently.
“I’m old enough to remember when we had an elected PSC,” said Clark, who has lobbied the Legislature on energy-related issues for two decades. “We’ve changed that to a more deliberative process. You have a PSC nominating commission, so the governor can’t just go pick whoever he wants to. When they get there, they have a huge staff at the PSC that’s really getting down and doing the studying and then they have to do the final review. I think mostly politics have been taken out.”
Clark conceded that it was “hard to take the politics out of any process” that involved the government completely, but Dobson said that the current system could favor utility representatives.
“If I was an industry person who really wanted to have some influence on who sits on the PSC, I would like this process better than allowing voters to decide who’s going to sit on the Public Service Commission,” he said.
PSC public information director Cynthia Muir disagreed with Dobson’s analysis, telling the News Service of Florida that there was more potential for conflicts-of-interest before the panel’s members began being appointed because they do not have to raise money for campaigns.
“When commissioners were elected, major campaign contributions came from the regulated industries at the time: telephone, electric, transportation, etc,” Muir said in an E-mail.
Having to be appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities and Ethics and Elections committees also exposes PSC commissioners to a more rigorous examination than an election, Muir added.
“For the complex work required of commissioners, specific technical expertise is required,” she said. “With appointed commissioners, you have multiple layers of screening by ‘elected officials’ to ensure that appointees have the necessary technical expertise to make the complex decisions required to ensure customers.”
The FREPA discussion about the PSC appointment process was timely because the PSC’s nominating commission is currently reviewing applications and had interviews scheduled this week for candidates as it looks to nominate replacements for Matthew Carter and Katrina McMurrian, whose terms on the PSC are up in January. At least eight applications from people with varied backgrounders were submitted to the nominating commission, which interviews candidates for the $130,036 per year positions and forwards nominees to the governor’s office.
The discussion took place during FREPA’s morning legislative and congressional wrap-up panel that was moderated by Dobson and also included Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda. The panel was scheduled to be followed by a late morning update on federal stimulus opportunities, and a lunchtime roundtable discussion on making Tallahassee a green energy startup center that will include state Rep. Alan Williams.