Term limits for utility regulation consumer advocate picks up major amendment in Senate

A new law will term-limit utility consumers' chief advocate. Photo credit: Magnolia677 via Wikimedia Commons

Legislation to term-limit the state’s chief consumer advocate on regulation of electric and other utilities advanced in the Florida Senate Friday, although with an amendment grandfathering the advocate serving now.

Bill sponsor Sen. Wilton Simpson, a central Florida Republican, said he was inspired by legislative term limits that apply to senators and House members. “The new blood has been very good for the legislative process,” he said.

Critics suggested the real goal was to clip the wings of the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers before the Florida Public Service Commission.

The commission makes high-powered decisions about the kinds of energy offered to Floridians by investor-owned utilities such as Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy — and how much consumers pay for it.

J.R. Kelly is the veteran Public Counsel who has served in that role for more than 12 years.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward County Democrat, offered the amendment to exempt Kelly’s prior service from the four-year term limit proposed in Simpson’s bill (SB 7052). That would allow Kelly to stay in his post another four years. If then reappointed, he could serve up to another 12 years. The Senate adopted the amendment and approved Simpson’s amended bill, which faces a third and final vote in the Senate next week.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade Democrat, questioned why Simpson wants to term-limit the consumer advocate.

What are some of the fresh ideas that we want to bring to the Office of Public Counsel?” Rodriguez wondered, arguing that PSC hearings typically attract “tables and tables and tables of lawyers, the highest-priced lawyers in the state for the utilities” while there are few advocates for consumers.

Simpson did not describe what fresh ideas he might want to see.

The Florida office of Earthjustice, a public interest environmental-law organization, is among the critics of Simpson’s bill. The group contends that utilities and their lobbyists make hefty campaign contributions that unfairly influence the regulatory process, while the Office of the Public Counsel serves as an independent voice for Florida citizens.

Here‘s a link to an earlier Florida Phoenix story with background about the Office of Public Counsel.