By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Sen. Perry Lee, R-Mendenhall, said legislation the Senate passed Wednesday does not strip away the power of the three-member Public Service Commission to regulate rural water associations, but “just clarifies” existing law.
The bill, which passed the Republican-led Senate 33-16 primarily along party lines, has been criticized by Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and others for removing the authority of the panel to regulate the approximately 950 rural water associations across the state.
After the bill passed the Senate on Wednesday, Lee was asked if the legislation was introduced in response to the efforts by Presley involving the North Lee County Water Association.
“They (rural water associations) don’t think the commission has the authority to issue subpoenas,” Lee responded.
The PSC issued subpoenas for North Lee in 2011 after allegations of mismanagement were reported in the Daily Journal. The North Lee board resigned and the director pleading guilty to lying about federal water reports.
Both Lee and Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, chair of the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee where the bill originated, said they were not trying to take authority away from the PSC, but just clarifying existing law.
Lee said under existing law, the state Department of Health is responsible for oversight as it relates “to everything from finances to water quality to management.” He said the PSC staff, which is separate from the commission, also has investigatory authority, while the commission’s authority is “to adjudicate.”
Lee added that in issues of service as it relates to individual customers, the commission also has authority. Plus, the customers of an association have the authority to remove a board through the court system.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, argued against the bill, saying rural water associations “are monopolies. The public elected the commission to look out for their interest, and I think it is doing a good job.”
Collins said “99 percent” of the rural water associations voiced support for the bill. She said in the coming years the law might need to be revisited to provide additional oversight of large associations, such as North Lee.
In an earlier interview, Presley said, of the bill’s supporters, “It’s obvious they don’t want to hold water associations accountable.”
House Public Utilities Chair Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, killed a similar bill, but said he would consider the Senate proposal if it passed that chamber.