Friday, July 11, 2008

Angela Speir on the Public Service Commission and why it matters

Posted By on Fri, Jul 11, 2008 at 6:30 PM

The Public Service Commission sounds like a nonprofit organization that pairs high school students with soup kitchens. In reality, it's a five-member quasi-judicial state agency that plays a large role in not only how much you pay to keep your living room cool and your lights aglow, but what kind of energy generation a utility uses to make those modern conveniences possible. And at a time when energy prices are soaring and global warming continues to happen, it's perhaps one of the most important elected offices in the state.

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The PSC regulates most electric, telecommunications and natural gas rates in the state. They're in a tricky spot. On one hand, you can't put the pinch on customers and for the business. On the other, they can't choke business. The biggest item on its agenda is an upcoming vote in March to determine whether customers should pay for a proposed expansion to Plant Vogtle, a nuclear plant near Augusta.

The commission has become notorious for being chummy with the utilities they're supposed to regulate. Campaign contributions from lobbyists and lawyers who argue before them are commonplace. The commission also needs to learn the power of the "no." Of the last five rate increases that were presented by Georgia Power to the PSC, all were approved. UPDATE: Bill Edge of the PSC chimes in and lets me know "Georgia Power's proposed increases in 2004 and 2007 were cut by the Commission. In the 2001 rate case, the Commission actually cut Georgia Powers rates already in effect." One of them was necessary to clean up plants, but man, it'd sure be a shame for those companies to pay for that out of pocket, wouldn't it? In other words, it's been business-as-usual.

I posed three questions to Angela Speir, a widely admired commissioner who is opting not to run for reelection, about the PSC's role in Georgians' lives and why July 15's crop of candidates should be scrutinized. Here are her responses, along with a few endorsements for who she'd like to see join the commission. Note she doesn't endorse Doug Everett, the incumbent with whom she's served the last six years. (Click here to read CL's analysis of all July 15 primary races.)Why is it important?

While few people realize it, the decisions of the PSC directly impact every resident of Georgia and every business in Georgia every single day. The Commission is charged with ensuring that Georgians have safe, reliable, and affordable utility service. One of the most important duties of the Commission is setting reasonable rates - for example, how much Georgia Power can charge for electricity and how much Atlanta Gas Light can charge for natural gas distribution. But, the Commission also determines things like whether Georgia should meet its energy needs through renewable energy or nuclear power, whether a natural gas marketer that defrauds consumers will be held accountable, and even whether the corroded leaky gas main down the street gets replaced.

Why should people care about who gets elected to serve on it?

Who you elect will directly impact your wallet! Over the last 5 years, the annual bill for a typical Georgia Power customer has increase from $843 to $1,119, and a majority of the Commissioners approved every penny of that increase. That's a 34% increase! Some of those increases may have been unavoidable due to rising wholesale energy prices. But, much of it was unnecessary and unfair to consumers.

What should they look for?

Different Commissioners are going to make different decisions. Some will try to make balanced, fair decisions based on the evidence and based on what is best for Georgia. Others, frankly, will make politically motivated decisions based on backroom deals, gifts and campaign contributions. Voters should look for candidates who have honor, ethics and integrity - someone whose idea of public office is that of a dedicated public servant, not someone who looks at what they can get out of the office for personal gain. Looking at how a candidate runs his or her campaign, including who they accept money from, can tell you a lot about what kind of Commissioner they will be – will they enter office beholden only to the people? Or, will they enter office already beholden to utilities, lobbyists, or other special interests. For these reasons, Pam Davidson and Rick Collum have my vote and my support.

(Photo courtesy of the PSC)

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