TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Bills that supporters say would tighten the rules governing the panel that sets Florida's electric rates are moving toward passage in the state Legislature, but some say they're not enough to end what they call the panel's too-cozy relationship with big power companies.
Several bills filed early in the legislative session regarding the Public Service Commission have been combined into a grab-bag of proposals that stem from controversies over utilities service, several involving Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK).
The proposal would set a 12-year term limit for the PSC's five members; require them to take ethics training; expand prohibitions on private discussions with power company officials; and require those who lobby the committee that recommends commission nominees to register. The commissioners are appointed by the governor with Senate approval to four-year terms and are paid $131,036 annually.
The bill would also limit service deposits power companies can require and prohibit them from changing billing cycles to push customers into higher rate categories, among other measures.
Backers of the bills say stronger changes need more deliberation and depend on coming changes in federal energy regulations.
"What's important to me is that we move forward with reform," said state Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. "I don't think this is a one-and-done scenario."
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, sponsor of the Senate bill, said it's a first step.
"If we don't get the PSC's attention with this bill you can do things like go back to an elected PSC," he said. "People are very frustrated with the PSC."
The legislation, House Bill 7109 and a similar bill in the Senate, SB 288, omits other measures proposed by advocates of stronger reform.
Those include providing incentives for solar power; ending the practice of power companies collecting from consumers in advance the costs of building a nuclear plant; and prohibiting utilities from risking ratepayers' money on oil and gas exploration.
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who advocates the stronger measures, said Duke and its predecessor, Progress Energy, charged customers more than $1 billion in advance costs for a planned nuclear plant in Levy County and then cancelled it.
Last year, the PSC approved allowing Florida Power & Light to invest $191 million in exploration, and the company is asking to invest $750 million a year, exposing its ratepayers to the risks of oil drilling, Dudley said.
Many legislators now condemn advance cost recovery, but bill sponsor Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, said the Legislature shouldn't end it yet because new federal pollution rules are expected in June, possibly requiring expensive new plants or renovations.
"Maybe next year you'll see some sweeping energy policies come forward," she said.
Dudley said the legislation as proposed is "a step in the right direction, but it's more of a baby step than a big step."
He has proposed returning to an elected Public Service Commission, a system abandoned in Florida in 1978 by reformist Gov. Reubin Askew because of utilities' influence on the elections. Advocates say utilities could be prohibited from contributing to the campaigns, but one elections law expert questioned whether that would stop utilities from creating or contributing to independent committees that can run political advertising.
"What that does is ignore the reality of modern political life," said Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron.
In the 2014 election cycle, Florida Power & Light, Duke and TECO, three of the state's largest power companies, donated $11.7 million to state candidates and political committees, including $3.4 million to the state Republican Party and $1.05 million to Let's Get To Work, the independent committee working for Gov. Rick Scott's re-election.
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