reform on the way, but when?
(Week of May 28, 2002)
MAY 24, 2002 - - Reform is coming to the
state Public Service Commission. The only question is when.
You might not be familiar with the commission.
But a peek at your phone bill, power bill or gas bill will remind
you the state's utilities are regulated monopolies. Their rates,
which generate about $7 billion in revenues annually, are set by
whom? The Public Service Commission.
Just four weeks ago with elections for the seven-member
commission scheduled by lawmakers for late May, there was only a
little talk of PSC reform. But following the explosive May 14 release
of a screening report on the 25 candidates seeking to become commissioners,
calls for reform flowed like lava.
The report, issued by the screening panel of six
lawmakers and four citizens, is highly critical of the commission's
leadership and cozy relationships with regulated industry. Here's
"The complexity of many of the issues challenging
regulated industries today has overwhelmed some of the Commissioners
rather than challenging them to commit to providing leadership and
the hiring of sufficient and capable staff to meet issues head on.
Most troubling was the failure of the Commission to articulate and
adhere to clear standards of due process and ethical behavior which
would protect the public interest and not elevate the special interest."
Whew! Add to that reports of a troubling number
of candidates for the $76,000-per-year job who are related to lawmakers
or have marginal knowledge of what the commission does and there's
a ripe environment for reform.
Proposed reforms include staggering terms of commissioners;
prohibiting spouses, siblings or children of lawmakers from being
PSC candidates; providing enforceable prohibitions on private discussions
between commissioners and staff with officials from regulated industries;
and structural reforms to better serve the public interest.
For years, there have been whispers that things
at the quasi-judicial PSC weren't kosher. But legislative overseers
never had any real proof. Evidence, however, came in April when
a recently retired deputy consumer advocate broke the informal code
of silence and complained. She testified about private discussions
between regulated industries and commissioners - conversations the
screening commission says are wrong and unlawful by commissioners.
With reform moving now like a speeding bullet,
it's up in the air whether the 25 current candidates for the commission,
including six incumbents, will face a vote by lawmakers later this
month. If not, current commissioners would continue to serve until
a vote next year.
Senate Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston)
plans to bring up a reform bill next week in Columbia. He says current
PSC candidates, who have been glad-handing with lawmakers to curry
favor for months in hope of their votes, may be left in the lurch
because it's important to have reform before elections.
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison (R-Columbia)
agrees, but says with only two weeks left in this year's session,
there might not be enough time to do comprehensive reform right.
Delayed elections might hurt some current PSC candidates,
such as Dick Richardson, married to Rep. Becky Meacham-Richardson
(R-Fort Mill). If reforms are put off, he might not be an eligible
candidate. And that, others say, would be wrong because it would
change the rules in midstream.