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Nifonging the power companies

Disgraced North Carolina district attorney Mike Nifong made news a few years ago for busting a group of college boys, egging on a prejudiced public with lurid tales of race and rape.  In the end, Nifong was found to have known his charges were false, lost his law license and terminated his low-down career as a manipulator of the ugly side of human nature.  Sic semper tyrannus.

I’m a bit reluctant to level specific charges about how this relates to the electric companies in Florida, so let’s consider this a mere question about why sitting governor and senate candidate Crist is kicking the utilities in the ribs.  Appointing a bar owner with zero utility experience and zero big business experience to a term on the utilities commission makes no sense at all.  His other appointment of a newspaper writer and “think tank” member doesn’t look a great deal better.  Gov. Crist, don’t you think the public deserves PUC members who know something about their job?

In like manner, the recent decision by the Florida PUC to [mostly] deny the rate cases of Florida Power and Light and Progress Energy also makes no sense.  While the transmission system grows older, the PUC declines two utilities’ requests for infrastructure projects to be financed.  Note to the governor and PUC: You won’t get what you don’t pay for.  Florida’s rate base consists of an early 1980s rate base price plus a fuel charge.  In fact, let me repeat that: This is the first major rate base proposal since 1985.  What other business has had flat pricing for 25 years?

The only motive that seems to make sense — and again, I pose this more as a question than as an actual judgment — is that the governor hopes to gain public sympathy for his sagging senate candidacy by singling out the power companies for a drubbing.  We cannot but wonder if the new PUC members were offered their jobs with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge about how to express their gratitude for getting these cream-puff $130,000 per year appointments.  The public, unschooled in matters relating to multi-year, multi-billion dollar financing of major capital projects, is prone to think it’s about time the power company got its knuckles whacked. Everybody else is suffering, so why not you?

This is a mistake, of course, and involves just the sort of low-brow populism that the PUC was constituted to avoid.  You don’t get something for nothing, not even if the wires are coming to your house.  In the end, the power companies will simply build gas plants instead of nuclear and let future Floridians pay the fuel price — whatever that turns out to be.  Given the price of natural gas these days and the quietly ongoing revolution in gas extraction, there’s a realistic chance the PUC may have bumbled into the right decision on power plant construction.  But the transmission structure will definitely suffer, and Floridians won’t know that until the next big hurricane season when it takes four months instead of four days to get the electricity back on. There is no chance that this was the right decision on that subject.  Be honest: Do you expect a bar owner or newspaper editor to understand this?

Given the political situation of a Republican governor who has miffed conservatives by leaning left a bit too often, I’d need to be convinced that this was anything more noble or well considered than a Nifonging of the power companies.

The problem is perennial in politics — amoral self-promoters exploiting public prejudice and sowing  animus for the purpose of advancing a career.  We hope Gov. Crist will say something to persuade us that such a thing was farthest from his mind when he appointed these two people to the PUC.  So far he’s just taken credit for the PUC decision.  So much for a truly independent Public Utilities Commission.

Otto von Bismarck wasn’t the last guy to instigate conflict as a means to aggrandizing his own power.  Mr. Obama is trying it these days with the bankers, making them out to be enemies for the apparent purpose of distracting people from his own shortcomings.  That’s not to say that the regulatory structure around the banking industry can’t benefit from reform.  It is to say, however, that Nifonging people just to chum the waters of a discontented public is the exact opposite of leadership.  May a gracious God deliver us from such “leaders” and grant us men of integrity from the state house to the White House.

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