Charlie Crist – my way or the highway


Recap and analysis of the week in state government
The News Service of Florida

Usually not one to wade too deeply into policy issues in Tallahassee, the governor who wants to be senator nonetheless told the Florida Public Service Commission this week how they should vote on a proposed $1.3 billion rate hike for the biggest power company in the state.

Gov. Charlie Crist has said before that he does not think the PSC should grant Florida Power & Light’s request for higher rates, but this week he said he may not reappoint any sitting PSC commissioner who feels differently.

Speaking to reporters, Crist said he did not think that hearings on the company’s rates should be postponed because of a flurry of controversy surrounding potentially inappropriate communications between the utility and the commission, as some opponents have suggested. But Crist, who has called the rate increase request “excessive,” said he will be paying close attention to the hearings as he considers appointments for the seats currently held by PSC Chairman Matthew Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian.

Carter and McMurrian, who were both appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006 were among the nominees sent to Crist by the PSC’s nominating council earlier this month, but Crist let them know the path isn’t completely clear.

While Crist was letting the current commissioners know that it might be his way or the highway, some in the Legislature are suggesting a change in the PSC selection process.

Spurred by the conflict-of-interest charges that have caused lawmakers and the press to both pay more attention to the PSC lately, Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he would file a bill that would allow the members of the Cabinet to appoint one member each and the governor to pick two commissioners, a change from the current all-gubernatorial appointment set-up.

Gelber said his bill would also allow the governor and Cabinet to appoint the PSC’s general counsel, which is currently picked by a legislative committee, and would require electronic communications between PSC staff and parties before it to be preserved and considered open records. Last week, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he would file a bill to end appointments altogether in favor of statewide elections.

The PSC’s conflict-of-interest flap hinges partially on allegations of improper cell phone text messages, so it was only fitting that Attorney General Bill McCollum sent a message of his own this week: that text messages are public record. McCollum, who is the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, said his office would begin automatically retaining the messages sent between state BlackBerry phones, which have been at the center of a PSC firestorm because critics say they skirt public record laws by not being readily available later.

McCollum stressed that for now he was not issuing a legal opinion on the PSC situation, but it was clear he hoped they got his message.

Even as it continued considering a $1.3 billion rate increase from the state’s largest power company, Florida Power & Light, the PSC was talking this week too about the conflicting situation which arose from several allegations that PSC employees have either sought to communicate with, or at least been in a position to communicate with, utility officials outside of the normal regulatory process.

In an internal affairs meeting, the PSC was considering recommendations from one of its members, Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, that seek to address the criticism. McMurrian, who has come under fire herself for attending a dinner with an FPL executive, proposed last week that PSC commissioners be held to the higher standards of courtroom judges instead of the looser norms for legislators, who are allowed to be influenced by participants.

Also, another PSC commissioner who has been previously accused of improperly communicating with utility officials, Lisa Edgar, said during the meeting that the panel should quickly replace its general counsel, Booter Imhof, who resigned last week, and use the hiring to send a signal that the panel takes the concerns seriously.

When it wasn’t plotting its future, the PSC, said it needs more time and scheduled more hearings on the FPL rate case next month. The deliberations were upended this week by revelations that the company spent more than $50 million on private charter flights that sometimes carried elected officials over the past four years. Critics argued that the company did not need a rate increase if it could afford the flights, but FPL lawyers said the planes were necessary to their business operations, capping another electric week at the PSC.

WHY ASK WHY?

The PSC was not the only corner of the capital city where questions were being raised this week. Senate President Jeff Atwater revealed his queries about a gaming compact negotiated by Gov. Crist with the Seminole Tribe before the Senate gives the final OK on a deal that would significantly expand gaming in the state of Florida.

And when the Legislature might consider the compact – a recent Tallahassee guessing game silenced by the inquisitive Senate president – depends largely on when the governor’s office provides acceptable answers to the Senate. Atwater suggested last week that a special session before November was unlikely given the many unanswered questions in the eyes of senators.

Atwater and James Rhea, staff director for the Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee, directed a nine page document to Crist General Counsel Rob Wheeler asking for answers to 24, multi-faceted questions regarding the compact. Nearly all of the questions are regarding definitions of terms such as “other casino-style gaming,” “video lottery terminals” and other terms related to the Seminole casinos.

It also asks several questions about an exclusivity clause in the agreement. In order for the tribe and state to enter into an agreement, the state had to give the tribe some sort of exclusive benefit that non-tribal casinos do not receive. So the Crist-inked deal calls for the Hard Rock Cafes in Tampa and Hollywood, and the tribal casino in Broward to be allowed to operate banked card games. It would also allow the tribe to keep card games that are already being offered at its Immokalee facility and add the games to its Brighton and Big Cypress casinos.

But Atwater’s lengthy list made clear Crist’s deal with the Seminoles was far from a sure bet because it left more questions than answers.

A CAPITOL COMEBACK

On the political front, the eyes of Tallahassee were cast eastward to the special election to replace the late Jacksonville Sen. Jim King. The race largely became a battle in the Republican primary between former House Speaker John Thrasher and Ponte Vedra businessman Dan Quiggle, but in the end, the latter was thrashed by the former.

When it was all said and done, Thrasher was the easy winner in the feisty race to replace the late Senate veteran. Thrasher, R-Orange Park, had about 13,200 votes in unofficial returns. His closest rival was Quiggle, who had 9,200. Stan Jordan and Art Graham were farther back.

With no Democrats in the race for the seat which includes parts of several northeast counties from north of Jacksonville to northern Volusia County, Thrasher is presumed to be the likely winner in a race with three write-in opponents in the Oct. 6 general election.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist phoned in a message this week to the Florida Public Service Commission that even as it combats a conflict-of-interest firestorm sparked by allegations of inappropriate cell phone communication with utility employees, he’s dialed in on how they vote on a proposed rate increase he thinks is too much.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Let’s see what the commissioners want to do and then I can have a better handle on who to appoint or reappoint,” said Crist making a thinly-veiled threat to two members of the PSC who are up for re-appointment this year in the hopes the panel will vote against a $1.3 billion rate increase from the biggest power company in the state.

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