By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 27, 2010……….The Florida Senate rejected Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointments of Public Service Commissioners David Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens Tuesday, ending their brief tenure on the panel less than a year after they joined it.
Their failure to win confirmation raised immediate suggestions of payback to Crist from a Senate stung by recent vetoes, and of powerful electric utilities working against the two men, both seen as potentially more consumer friendly than some of their predecessors. But several members of the Senate said the two were both simply under-qualified.
The Senate approved 533 executive appointments in one vote Tuesday before individually taking up Klement and Stevens, who were both appointed to the PSC at the height of a conflict-of-interest scandal at the panel. The chamber debated the nominees and voted them down, on a 17-21 vote for Klement and a 14-23 vote for Stevens.
With the nominees have being officially rejected by the Senate instead of just not taken up before the end of the legislative session, Stevens and Klement will have to be replaced on the PSC almost immediately. Under state law, the PSC Nominating Council will have to advertise the vacancies within 30 days and send Crist three applicants for each post.
Klement joined the PSC in October, to serve out the remainder of the term of former PSC Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, who resigned early after Crist decided not to re-appoint her. Stevens joined as scheduled in January, replacing former PSC Chairman Matthew Carter.
Both men were on the panel as the PSC voted down large rate increases in January for the state’s largest power companies, Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, which supporters argued Tuesday was why their confirmations were in trouble.
“The people of Florida were delivered a terrible loss today when the Florida Senate sided with powerful utility companies to block the newest appointees to the Public Service Commission,” Crist said in a statement. “Commissioner Klement and Commissioner Stevens stood up for Floridians by blocking unjustified multimillion dollar rate increases. Removing them from the Public Service Commission only hurts consumers.”
Klement agreed, saying the Senate was doing the bidding of the utility companies by rejecting him and Stevens, calling the vote “an example of government at its worst.”
“This whole process is a farce,” he said in a sharply worded statement released by the PSC. “The Senate spends enormous amounts of time and energy passing an ethics reform bill to close perceived loopholes in relations between the PSC and utilities. And then it refuses to confirm two appointees who absolutely have no previous ties to utilities, whose integrity is without question. Does that make sense? I don’t think so – not from an ethical point of view.”
Klement and Stevens appeared to be undone in part by their public statements about being reluctant to raise utility rates in tough economic times and by concerns from African-American lawmakers about the lack of diversity on the PSC without Carter, who is black.
Sen. Chris Smith, who took Crist to task for rejecting Carter when the governor made a rare committee appearance to convince a Senate panel to recommend the approval of Klement and Stevens, said again that the PSC should be as diverse as the state.
“If we approve these two appointments and ratify what the governor has done, what we’re saying is it’s OK to have one of the most powerful boards not look like Florida,” Smith said. “Let’s take a stand today as the Senate. Let’s send a message that says, ‘Governor, try again.'”
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, took issue with Klement and Stevens’ lack of backgrounds in the fields regulated by the PSC, which drew criticism when they were initially appointed. Crist was seeking to remold the PSC as allegations raged that employees sent cell phone messages to employees of FPL while the company’s rate increase request was being considered. The governor overlooked several candidates that cleared the PSC Nominating Council that had worked at the PSC, including the sitting commissioners he turned out of office.
“They’re not appointed to be generalists,” Gaetz said. “They’re appointed to deal with specific issues that affect the future of this state. They’re required…to have subject area expertise. This is a regulatory board that requires an understanding of the issues being regulated.”
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who heartily endorsed Klement, a former newspaper editor at his hometown paper, argued lawmakers should have approved the confirmations because both he and Stevens had been vetted by a panel of legislators.
“Now we’re saying, ‘We didn’t really mean it. We were just kidding, governor,'” Bennett said. “What did these two bad individuals do? They actually said publicly they were not going to vote raise your rates. Guess what? The power companies said we don’t want them up here, so the power companies started staying ‘Hey, let’s start working the crowd. Maybe we can get rid of them.'”
A vocal critic of the PSC and Florida utilities, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, agreed, calling the electric companies “the third chamber out there” that should not decide who sits on the PSC.
“This was a win by the high-powered electric companies,” Fasano said after the vote.
Fasano acknowledged the frosty relations between the governor and the Legislature after a pair of high-profile vetoes of bills passed by the Republican-led Legislature and Crist’s open flirtation with leaving the GOP in his race for the U.S. Senate, but he said that Klement and Stevens should be judged on their merits.
“Members, don’t allow politics to play a role in the decision that we’re making right now,” he said. And after the vote added: “I think (the votes) were more payback to the governor,” than rejection of the two candidates on their merits.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who also doubles as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, voted against the confirmations, and sponsored a teacher merit pay bill that the governor vetoed. He said that he didn’t vote against them as payback, saying that their qualifications were “suspect.” Thrasher said the vote would send a message for the future, “You know, send us the right kind of candidates.”
On the floor, Thrasher referenced the payback allegations, but said the Senate was within its rights to reject the confirmations for whatever reason.
“Best I can understand the Constitution of Florida, when we send a bill to the governor, he has the right to accept it or not accept it, and he’s done that,” said Thrasher. “And this body has the right to accept these men, whether they’re qualified or not, to determine whether they ought to sit on the Public Service Commission.”
However, Senate President Jeff Atwater said the fact that opponents of the teacher merit pay bill voted against Klement and Stevens proved that politics was not the reason they were voted down.
“If you believe that’s what took place here, then I would say somehow you were missing the collection of senators who voted to not confirm,” he said after the vote. “There were people who begging (Crist) to veto Senate Bill 6 who voted no.”
Atwater said senators were primarily confirmed with Klement and Stevens qualifications to serve on the PSC, but Sen. Bennett argued that lawmakers were not experts in the fields they consider either.
“We all have staffs,” he said. “What makes anybody in this room, especially some of you who didn’t even serve in the House, able to walk in here to work on a $60 billion budget? What makes you think that you any more qualified to operate on a $60 billion budget than David Klement is to operate, and listen to his staff as you do? The same as I do? We rely on our staff, we rely on people to get us the facts and figures.”
However, Sen. Gaetz countered that there are too many large issues facing the PSC to have commissioners who had to learn on the job.
“In the next few years…this board will deal with nuclear energy expansion, highly controversial and substantially technical,” he said. “This board will deal with return on investment on solar and wind and other alternative energy sources. We need people who are…qualified.”