Sun Sentinel // Editorial
Florida used to elect the people who are supposed to protect you from sky-high rates for water and electricity, but because utility companies became their biggest campaign donors, it didn’t work out so well. That said, today’s appointment of members to the Public Service Commission is working no better.
The process of selecting PSC members has become a theater of the absurd, for which utility customers are paying an intolerable admission price.
The problem was evident again Wednesday when the nominating council cut former Comptroller Robert Milligan from a list of 24 candidates for three board positions.
The 14 who survived include a sitting legislator and four former legislators. That’s no surprise, considering that legislators occupy half the seats on the nominating council. Nor will it be a surprise if Gov. Rick Scott selects one or more of those five cronies. Legislators find the post especially attractive because it pays $131,000 a year and generously pads the pension credits they earn for their part-time service in the Florida House or Senate.
The deliberate omission of Milligan, who didn’t get a single vote, is unforgivable. In modern times, no Florida public servant has earned more of a reputation for independence, intelligence and integrity than the retired Marine lieutenant general whom the Republican Party recruited in 1994 to take on and defeat a five-term Democratic incumbent.
Among other things, Milligan helped put an end to the seedy practice of allowing the banking and securities industries to contribute heavily to the campaigns of incumbent comptrollers, who then served as the state’s banking commissioner.
A similarly seedy situation exists today, with utility companies contributing heavily to the campaigns of state lawmakers, who in turn serve on the PSC nominating council or appoint those who do. History shows these lawmakers favor applicants friendly to the utilities they are supposed to watchdog.
As just one example, after four of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s PSC appointees turned down rate increases for Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy in 2010, the Senate refused to confirm two of them and the nominating council refused to renominate the others.
Sighs of relief undoubtedly erupted in corporate boardrooms across Florida at the news that Milligan won’t be on the PSC, even though he sought to serve only the remaining 15 months of the unexpired term of Jimmy Patronis, another ex-legislator. Scott recently appointed Patronis, a Panama City restaurateur, to be the state’s chief financial officer.
Until 1978, the PSC’s three members were elected. Then, Gov. Reubin Askew and House Speaker Hyatt Brown lobbied intensely to switch to an appointed five-member board. Askew believed wisely chosen appointees would better serve consumers than career politicians.
But the price of that reform was to accept legislative control of the nominating process, and it didn’t take long for the process to turn sour. In short order, the council refused to renominate Askew appointee Robert Mann, a former legislator and judge with a luminous reputation for integrity. Instead, the council nominated a powerful senator’s haberdasher who was grossly unqualified.
In that instance, press coverage and public outrage shamed the council into putting Mann back on the list and he was reappointed. If outrage still had teeth in Tallahassee, Milligan would be back on today’s list, too.
All this matters because the PSC is supposed to safeguard consumers from unjustifiably high utility rates, but has developed a reputation for cozying up to the companies it regulates.
It’s time to revisit how PSC members are selected.
Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, is meeting now to consider structural changes in state government.
We’ve heard some support for returning to an elected PSC, with a strict ban on donations from regulated companies. We don’t favor this approach because even if you were to bar utility money, it could still seep in through the back door. Besides, utility regulation is highly technical and requires people who have knowledge of what they’re doing. Appointments made on merit are best, as Askew tried to show.
One possibility would be to have a merit screening panel appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and members of the Cabinet, so no one entity controls who gets nominated.
Another would be to eliminate the Legislature altogether and have the governor and Cabinet select PSC members from among the recommendations of a merit retention panel. That way, if the utilities get everything they want, it’s easier to fix blame.
The chances of this happening are a long shot, given that legislative leaders have appointed 18 of the commission’s 37 members.
But someone needs to speak up for everyday consumers, not just the special interests in Tallahassee. History shows Milligan would have done so. And he didn’t get a single vote.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.