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Jack Latvala’s PSC bill passes first committee stop, but fate uncertain in House

A Senate bill intended to strengthen ethics requirements for the Public Service Commission and tighten regulation of utilities passed its first committee stop.

But Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, says the fate of the bill ultimately will lie in the House, where other Senate bills involving the PSC and utilities in recent years have not fared as well.

On Tuesday, his SB 288 passed the Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities on a unanimous vote with only one committee stop left.

But the House companion bill, HB 219, has yet to be heard at its first of four committee stops. Other bills involving the PSC have died or been weakened in the House in recent years.

“I think this bill will pass the Senate,” Latvala said. “We’ll just have to see where it goes from there.”

In 2010, a wide-ranging PSC ethics bill (SB 1034) was one of the first pieces of legislation to pass the Senate, only to die after the House amended the bill. The bill failed to get out of the Senate the following year.

In 2013, the Senate passed a tougher bill to clamp down on new nuclear plant fees charged by utilities only to have it weakened in the House.

Latvala said his bill this year was prompted by past complaints about the Public Service Commission meeting with utility representatives in private and more recent complaints about the electric utility serving his district.

SB 288 prohibits individuals from discussing with PSC members an issue that will be filed within 180 days. And the bill would allow the governor to remove PSC members who violate the law regarding ex parte communications.

The bill also prohibits the PSC from accepting a settlement if the Office of Public Counsel objects. The OPC in 2014 lost a Florida Supreme Court challenge to a PSC approved settlement of a rate hike for Florida Power & Light Co. customers.

Under SB 288, utilities would not allowed to charge a higher rate for more power used as a result of extending a billing period. And those who lobby the Public Service Nominating Council must be registered as a legislative lobbyist with the state.

Latvala’s district is served by Duke Energy Florida, which he did not mention by name during his remarks.

Duke Energy Florida was criticized last summer when it changed its meter-reading routes, causing some customers to be forced into a higher rate tier for electric usage because of the extended billing cycle, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

On Tuesday, a Duke Energy spokesman said the utility hasn’t taken a position on the legislation but would follow it through the process. Likewise, a PSC spokeswoman said the commission hasn’t taken a position on the bill.

SB 288 passed with support from groups including Sierra Club Florida, the Florida Retail Federation, the League of Women Voters and AARP.

But Jon Moyle, representing large industrial and retail electricity users, said the prohibition against ex parte communications should be extended to an unlimited time period before a case is filed.

And Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, thanked Latvala for taking on the issue but said a “transparent” energy planning process is needed to serve utility customers in Florida.

Latvala said that while some may want legislation that goes further, he wants a bill that will move through the Legislature and will establish confidence in utility regulation.

“The word ‘public service’ in Public Service Commission should remind everyone why they are there,” Latvala said. “They are there to serve the public. This bill should help remind them of that.”

Also Tuesday, SB 230, which prevents a customer from being charged a higher rate because of an extended billing cycle, passed the same Senate committee. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.

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