Donors to Georgia Public Service Commission members vested in decisions

  • Follow Government

ATLANTA — Four of Georgia’s utility regulators have accepted at least 70 percent of their campaign contributions from companies and people that could profit from the agency’s decisions, a review of five years of campaign finance records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed.

Back | Next
Wise  HO
HO
Wise

The fifth member of the state Public Service Commission, Tim Echols, campaigned on the promise that he wouldn’t take money from employees or lobbyists for businesses regulated by the agency.

Even so, nearly one in five dollars in Echols’ contributions came from people or companies whose business is affected by PSC decisions, the review found.

Together, the PSC commissioners took in nearly $750,000 in the last five years, records show. Two of them – Stan Wise and Chuck Eaton – are seeking re-election this year to their $116,452-a-year posts.

The donations from people with a direct interest in decisions are allowed under state law, as they are with most elected positions.

But their campaign opponents have pointed to the campaign contributions to argue the commissioners are beholden to utilities they oversee.

Wise and Eaton counter that fundraising can be challenging among average Georgians because few people are aware of what the PSC does. And they deny the money sways their votes.

PSC decisions affect how much many Georgians pay for natural gas, electricity and phone service. The outcomes of PSC votes are worth millions of dollars to utilities in the state.

A review of major decisions that have come before the PSC in the past five years shows utilities have received much – but not all – of what they have asked for.

Georgia Power donors

In the past five years, for example, Georgia Power’s rates have risen 24 percent, although they dipped in June. The PSC must sign off on the company’s rate changes.

Current and former employees of Georgia Power, its parent Southern Co. and its law firm, Troutman Sanders, poured $52,650 into the campaign coffers of four of the sitting PSC members.

A Georgia Power spokeswoman argued that including Troutman Sanders and other company vendors in an analysis of spending “is false.” But critics say including them is critical to capturing the full influence of the utilities on the PSC.

In 2010, the commission increased residential rates for Atlanta Gas Light customers, rejecting the PSC staff recommendation that they be cut.

Still, the increase, the first for AGL since the 1990s, was half of what the company requested.

Employees of AGL, whose costs are billed to residents through natural gas marketers, have contributed $23,850 to commissioners over the past five years.

The PSC also has approved millions of dollars in rate increases for Georgia Power since 2008, including advance collection of financing costs for Plant Vogtle’s new nuclear reactors, the first to be built from scratch in 30 years. The controversial fee was part of a $844 million tiered rate increase.

In a decision felt throughout the telecommunications industry, the PSC, in a split vote, decided against providing more oversight of rural telephone companies that seek state subsidies.

Critics complain the panel doesn’t look out for ratepayers.

“This is the most anti-environment, anti-consumer, pro-big business public service commission I’ve ever seen,” said Mark Woodall, the Georgia chairman of the Sierra Club.

Wise said the commission plays a critical role in encouraging Georgia’s economic development.

Who contributes

Utilities regulated by the PSC are banned from giving directly to members. Company executives, employees and their family members are allowed to contribute, however.

Vendors and law firms that rely on the utilities for work also can, and do, contribute.

“Troutman Sanders and its lawyers have a long history of supporting candidates across party lines in national, state and local races. We encourage our attorneys to be involved in the political arena and respect their civic right to do so,” said a statement from the prominent Atlanta law firm.

Most other states appoint their utility regulators, removing the need for campaign funds.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed campaign disclosures for all five
comm­issioners from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2012.

Some current commissioners joined the panel during that window, so their totals contain less than the five years considered in the review.

The analysis counted donations from current and former executives and employees of utilities regulated by the PSC in addition to law firms, lawyers, lobbyists, consultants and family members connected to the companies. Also counted were alternative energy companies, their lawyers and lobbyists.

Those groups funded the bulk of the commissioners’ campaigns.

Eaton received 85.9 percent of his donations from companies and individuals identified in the analysis.

Wise received 70.5 percent in donations from that same group.

Commissioner Doug Everett raised 94 percent of his money from those considered in the analysis, and Bubba McDonald took in 85.4 percent.

Commissioners say they were simply raising the money needed to hold their jobs.

Common Cause Georgia Executive Direct­or William Perry said the newspaper’s findings make the case for more restrictions on who may give. But that would require a change in state law, and there has been no discussion of such a change.

“It’s obvious they are comfortable accepting gifts from those working for the companies they regulate,” Perry said. “In general, the public would not be comfortable with that.”

Comments (4) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
DavidStaples
10
Points
DavidStaples 07/21/12 - 10:06 pm
0
0
Gifts

In all, Stan has accepted just under $14,000 worth of *reported* gifts just in his current term. This includes tickets to hockey games, baseball games, golf outings and several hundred dollar dinners. It's time for Stan to go back to insurance sales. Vote for David Staples on November 6th - http://www.VoteStaples.com

Techfan
6462
Points
Techfan 07/22/12 - 04:47 am
0
0
By definition, wouldn't the

By definition, wouldn't the Libertarian candidate think there shouldn't be any regulations on utilities therefore no need for a PSC?

DavidStaples
10
Points
DavidStaples 07/22/12 - 07:25 am
0
0
Yes and No

Techfan - if there was a free and open market for utilities, then perhaps there would be no need for a PSC. However, with the Territorial Electric Service Act of 1973 there is no competition. Did you know there are companies out there that would like to install solar panels on your roof and sell the power back to you by the kWh, but they can't in Georgia - it's illegal. When you have a monopoly such as Georgia Power, you must have some form of regulation to ensure that they don't have free reign to run roughshod over the ratepayer. (Notice how the EMCs in Georgia, which are owned by their members, don't face a lot of the same regulation that the investor owned utility does?)

Leonard Haynes
2
Points
Leonard Haynes 07/23/12 - 01:24 pm
0
0
Getting the facts straight

First, let me say that four years ago I retired from the energy industry and have worked for both Georgia Power and for its parent company. I am familiar with how the utilities are regulated in the Southeast and wanted to point out some errors in the discussion. First, the Territorial Act of 1973 did provide for competition for larger electricity loads and there has been a competitive market here in Georgia for larger loads since that time. Those larger customers get a one-time choice among any of the electricity suppliers in the state. A building the size of a typical High School or larger would get the choice. This provision of the law has resulted in a very active competitive market for these types of loads. The choice of electricity suppliers is made when the facility is built and is a one-time choice so that there isn't a lot of duplication of electricity lines and facilities. This type of competition has been good for job creation here in Georgia and at the same time made sure that this competition is not subsidized by other customers who aren't getting a choice.
I also want to point out that the idea of solar power companies putting their units on people's roofs sounds great, but as is often the case, the "devil is in the details". Your local electric utility (Georgia Power, Electric Membership Cooperative or Municipal Electric System) has spent a lot of money to provide the lines and the powerplants to serve customers. Those lines and many of the power plant facilities will still be needed for houses even when they have solar cells on the roof. When you take into account the cost of these facilities needed for back-up power, the the economics of solar doesn't look too good here in the Southeast. In fact, solar is not economical at all without very large subsidies.
One of the previous writers said that we need regulation of utilities. I agree with that. We need good and fair regulators that look out for customers, and also make sure that the utilities they regulate are able to make the types of investments in facilities that our state needs to continue to grow. The utilities her need to make those investments so that we continue to have plenty of reasonably-priced electricity for job-creating industries and businesses, and for us residential customers. I really believe that we've had that kind of regulation over the years, and I hope that we continue to have that kind of fair, balance regulatory process in the future.

Back to Top
loading...
Search Augusta jobs