OCT. 26, 2012 -- In the next 10 days, the window will close on applications for one of the most important – and best paying – state jobs, one that affects the lives of nearly every South Carolinian.
And it’s one of the least-known jobs in the state. Want to know what it is?
It’s being a member of the state’s Public Service Commission, which sits as judge and jury over everything from how much of a tree a utility company can trim to, more importantly, utility rates.
The PSC’s mission has been described as a “balancing act” as its seven members must weigh the pros and cons between competing interests of rate requests that utility companies need to stay afloat and consumer needs for good, reasonably priced energy and service.
And at $102,000 a year, the job is a bargain for the state, according to state Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg). The value of each of the PSC’s commissioners’ full-time job far outstrips their pay, said Hutto, one of six legislators and six laymen who review the PSC while sitting on the Public Utilities Review Commission (PURC).
How commissioners are picked
Every two years, the PSC replenishes roughly half of its commissioners through a rigorous review and examination process. Next Friday, the PSC will stop taking applications from citizens for four spots that will be voted on by the legislature next year.
There are seven commissioners – one from each of the state’s seven congressional districts. The four slots up for grabs now were supposed to already be filled, but because of congressional redistricting, the application process was put off for a year – similar to delays in other state boards.
Once the pool of applicants is completed, PURC staffers will vet and test the potential candidates, administering tough written and oral tests and examinations to make sure the candidates have a solid knowledge of the complicated fields and issues that the board tackles.
Once done with the testing and background checks, the PURC staff will issue a report, winnowing the field to a few candidates from each district for the legislature to vote on, in full, in the coming year. PURC staffers said the report would not be completed until after the coming legislative session begins in January. From there, the commissioners each serve four-year terms.
While the Office of Regulatory Staff does investigations into rate requests and other matters, it is the PSC that sits in judgment.
S.C.’s process is different
South Carolina, as is usually the case, has a different form of public service commission than many other states. In 2004, the state reformed its process so that the entire legislature voted on its members, potentially taking out the ogre of moneyed political support.
Currently, Georgia has elected members for its Public Service Commission, and election-year politics have mired current discussions over a rate-hike request.
Michael Couick, president and CEO of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, praised the current set-up and said that it was designed for mediation to rule the day, not politics-tinged myopia.
Couick argued that the PSC allowed the state to not be shackled to narrowing “case-by-case” decisions, but to establish broader statewide energy policy through both sides – in his case, consumer and generator – coming to the table as equals.
If it weren’t for the support of greenies like Ann Timberlake, executive director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, Couick’s comments could seem self-serving.
But Timberlake said she has “no stones” to throw at the PSC, but said she is worried that the public doesn’t know enough about its selection process and hearings. “There’s no conspiracy here; it’s just not very well understood,” said Timberlake.
If it were better known, then, she said there could be a bigger pool of applicants, especially from her green friends, across the state. “Up until now, it’s been a kind of ‘inside baseball’ position,” she said.
But, she pointed out, because legislators are blocked from applying for a spot on the commission for four years after they leave the General Assembly, it hasn’t become “ golden parachute” post-retirement job.
Currently, there is only one former legislator on the PSC. Also, candidates are required to have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. One of the current commissioners only has a two-year, associate degree, but was grandfathered in under the older strictures from before the PSC was reformed.
That being said, only one of the commissioners has an advance degree, and it is in law.
Hutto, fresh from a 55-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail (with his wife – calm down), said that the vetting process and the four-year delay makes sure the PSC is largely insulated from big-money candidates and political gifting from former colleagues.
“The tests they administer make sure whoever does apply has a very large and deep skill set,” he said.
Crystal ball: Considering how complicated South Carolina’s energy future is likely to be, with fights over and between nuclear and coal and renewable energy, it better be a deep skill set.
Bill Davis is editor of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.