COLUMN: PSC flap couldn't be less about ratepayers' interests

While a great deal of lip service will be paid to what’s in the best interests of Mississippi public utility ratepayers when Mississippi lawmakers return in special session later this week, the fact is that the Legislature’s failure to pass a budget for the Public Service Commission could not be less about the interests of those ratepayers. What the standoff is about is partisan politics – and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can make any claim whatsoever on the moral high ground.
Despite a $400 million state revenue shortfall and substantial across-the-board budget cuts throughout state government in 2009 and with more looming in 2010, Mississippi’s elected public service commissioners say they need additional staff – staff members who can readily analyze complex utility rate data and highly technical utility company audits.
By virtue of retirements and resignations, the current PSC isn’t the most experienced group in state history. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, D-Nettleton, is new on the job as is PSC chairman and Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey, D-Union Church. Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz has about three years experience.
But all three are capable, intelligent and honorable men. Posey has substantial experience as a former state senator who formerly chaired the Senate Public Utilities Committee.
House Democrats say that Senate negotiators agreed weeks before the budget deadline to approve a budget that provided additional staffers for the PSC, then reversed their position at the 11th hour at the direction of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. But Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said Saturday that he also had opposed any additional staffers for the PSC.
Some 20 years ago, the Legislature took power away from the elected PSC by creating the Public Utilities Staff. The action came as a result of a public corruption scandal involving former Northern District PSC Commissioner D.W. Synder.
In reaction to that scandal, the Legislature in 1990 mandated a reorganization of the Public Utilities Staff. The “old” PUS was abolished and the “new” strong PUS was established as a completely separate and independent entity from the elected PSC.
Under the new law, the governor appoints the executive director of the PUS to a six-year term, not the commissioners, and that director hires all Public Utilities technical personnel.
Mississippi needs additional “baseload” energy production as demand for electric power increases. Volatility in the fossil fuel markets is as visible as the nearest gas station.
Entergy wants to build a new nuclear power plant that will cost between $5 billion and $6.5 billion, depending on the eventual design selected. Mississippi Power Company wants to build a $1.8 billion “clean coal” lignite plant in Kemper County.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has sued Entergy over their rate practices and unsuccessfully challenged Mississippi Power’s application for the clean coal plant.
At the root of the current standoff over the PSC budget is a perceived political alliance between the PSC and Hood – despite the PSC denying his recent Mississippi Power motion.
Who’s kidding whom here? This flap is about partisan politics, not the best interests of utility ratepayers.
Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

Sid Salter