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Politics / Issues

Pinellas Lawmakers Seek to Cut Ties Between Utilities, Regulators


A group of Pinellas County lawmakers Thursday backed a wide-ranging bill intended to end the appearance of cozy relationships between state utility regulators and power companies.

The bill (SB 288), filed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also takes aim at the amounts electric utilities can charge customers for deposits, seeks to limit rate increases imposed through extended billing cycles and would require members of the Public Service Commission to complete ethics training similar to the training lawmakers receive.

"As an elected representative of people who have to pay electric bills, I have a responsibility to say enough is enough, and we need to try to rein in some of those practices," Latvala said. "And the worst situation that has been allowed to develop is the coziness between the investor-owned utilities and the Public Service Commission. That's staff and many, not all, of the commissioners."

The proposal also would require utilities to help customers get the most advantageous rates available and calls for the commission to periodically hold hearings and conferences outside of Tallahassee. Also, it would require that anyone who lobbies a member of the Public Service Commission Nominating Council to register as a lobbyist.

The governor selects Public Service Commission members from lists of names submitted by the nominating council.

Utility rates are one of the dominant issues in Pinellas County, which is served by Duke Energy Florida.

Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, is expected to file the House version of the bill.

"We can't make it so cumbersome that businesses will not be successful and citizens cannot afford to have an electric bill or their air conditioning or anything else," said Peters, who has support from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Rep. Chris Latvala, Clearwater Republican who is also the senator's son.

Duke Energy Florida spokesman Sterling Ivey said in an email that the company, which was Progress Energy Florida until completing a merger in 2012 with North Carolina-based Duke Energy, is monitoring Latvala's proposal as well as other legislation directed at electric providers.

"We look forward to reviewing the proposed legislation and working with state lawmakers to ensure any final bill is fair for all Duke Energy customers in Florida," Ivey said in the email.

While the power companies in Florida, dominated by Duke and Florida Power & Light, are highly influential in the Capitol, Latvala said he's been assured the proposal will be heard in committee and get "serious consideration."

Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has frequently clashed with the Public Service Commission, said Latvala's proposal "is a start."

"It's good that there is attention being paid to that," Glickman said. "If you can take the money out of it, then their influence will be limited."

Last March, a report from the Tallahassee group Integrity Florida argued that $18 million contributed to political campaigns by power companies between 2004 and 2012 helped advance the interests of shareholders over customers.

Latvala's bill was filed the same day former state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Republican from Panama City, was sworn in as a member of the Florida Public Service Commission and Commissioner Julie Brown was sworn in for a second four-year term.

The proposal follows a number of bills already introduced for the 2015 session aimed at limiting the power of the electric companies. Latvala said more are anticipated.

One of the proposals, by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, would place restrictions on changes in utility billing cycles. The proposal (SB 230 and HB 81) measure is a result of a controversy last summer when Duke's move to redesign meter-reading routes led to longer billing cycles,

The issue is also addressed in Latvala's proposal.

Sprowls and Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, have also have also filed a proposal (HB 199 and SB 170) that would limit Public Service Commission members appointed after July 2015 to two consecutive terms, divide the state into five single-member commission districts and prohibit elected officials from being appointed to the commission for two years after they leave office.


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