The Rules Committee cleared legislation for a floor vote that would impose term limits on the Office of Public Counsel, which serves as a consumer advocate for utility customers in the state.
The committee bill (SB 7052) positions the legislative branch to reappoint the public counsel every four years, with a 12-year cap on how long one person can serve in the role. But critics argue it would give lobbyists for big utilities more power over the state office that is meant to look out for consumers.
A majority in each chamber would confirm the public counsel every four years, starting in March 2021, and the Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight could remove the office holder, subject to a majority vote in each chamber.
The Public Counsel is the public’s advocate before the Florida Public Service Commission. The Public Service Commission makes decisions about utilities, including the rates customers pay for electricity and the charges utilities pass onto consumers for new equipment and power plants.
The public counsel also represents consumers in proceedings over water or wastewater utility rates before counties that have opted out of PSC jurisdiction.
Environmental groups such as Earthjustice oppose the legislation. Under the proposed legislation, the Office of Public Counsel would change dramatically starting next year, a time when utilities, like Florida Power and Light, will be seeking approval for higher electricity rates.
The group argues the legislation would gut the independence of the Office of Public Counsel.
Earthjustice points out the current public counsel, J.R. Kelly, has a history of standing up for citizens against the utilities and it argues he would no longer be eligible to serve because he has been in the position for more than 12 years.
“Since history shows that utilities and their lobbyists are enormous campaign contributors, this change could open the process to political interference, a February news release said. “Again, the role of the Public Counsel is to be an independent voice for citizens.”
No one spoke in favor of the bill.