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House PSC reform bill continues on fast track, but fate is uncertain

With the unanimous vote of the House Appropriations Council on Education & Economic Development, the House's plan to reform the Public Service Commission continues on the fast track -- for now.

The bill is light years away from the approach sought by the Senate, and passed during the first week of the session. The Senate attempts to tighten the communications between the PSC staff and the utilities they regulate while the House upends the PSC by separating the commissioners and their advisory staff from the staff that presents cases before it.

The House focus is on reining in the PSC, which House leaders have said has aligned themselves too closely with  Gov. Charlie Crist and electric customers over utilities, while the Senate bill is designed to rein in staff contact with utilities. 

The House originally had the advocacy staff housed under the Legislature, which is controls the candidates who are nominated to the PSC and is allowed to accept campaign contributions from utilities. The bill also strips the commissioners of the ability to initiate regulatory proceedings that require the utility companies to justify the need for new power plants or that raise or lower utility rates. That power would be left up to the regulatory staff and the commission would instead be judges.

Crist blasted that as a "power grab" by the legislature. The House amended the bill to put the regulatory staff under the Chief Financial Officer but, even with changes, Crist's staff has indicated he supports the Senate bill and not the House plan. 

Rep. Stephen Precourt, chairman of the House energy committee and the bill sponsor, said that given the vast differences in approach: "Next week, we’re certainly going to have a sit down and discuss all the issues on the table.’’ It won't be a “formal conference committee,” he said, but it won't be a public meeting either. Instead, it will likely be “getting the staff to look at what pieces and parts will actually fit together."