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.
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.”