Bid to Strengthen PSC Ethics Has Been Weakened, Critics Say; Foes Say Legislation Being Considered Eases Utility Regulation

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Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- What began as an effort to rein in runaway utility rates and the loose ethics of the state panel that regulates them has been partly weakened and reversed in the 2005 Legislature.

Legislators are finalizing a pair of bills in the House and Senate -- SB 1322 and HB 1649 -- that critics say dilute the sponsors' original aim of establishing a stronger sense of ethics and independence of the Public Service Commission.

The five-member commission oversees residents' electricity, natural gas, telephone, water and wastewater industries but has come under growing scrutiny for an overly deferential approach to those industries.

Instead, the legislation poised for approval loosens regulation and allows phone companies to seek state permission to raise up to $70 million from customers to recoup storm losses such as the 2004 hurricanes. Energy companies already started receiving such approval from the commission in January.

It is unclear which bill has the better chance of passing before the Legislature adjourns today. They are virtually identical except for provisions that establish criteria by which local governments can offer phone service.

"This is a telecommunication company's dream come true, and consumers will pay the price," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who originally wanted to revoke the 2003 state law that allowed a $350 million telephone rate increase request.

But Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, defended a deal he brokered with the telecommunications industry and the governor's office. Constantine said no ethics language has been weakened and that the bills are the best he could negotiate with the House.

"I've done the exact opposite of what they said I've done," Constantine said of the bills' critics. …