Originally created 02/04/03

Bill would change utility regulation



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Bills in the General Assembly would change the way the Public Service Commission regulates utilities in South Carolina.

The seven-member panel considers rate increases for power companies and regulates the telecommunications industry.

Its members are elected by lawmakers and are each paid more than $75,000 a year.

Questions were raised last year about the qualifications of candidates for the commission and its ability to protect the public's interest.

One bill would prevent family members of legislators from being elected to the commission. It also would require commissioners to have a college degree and experience in a field related to regulating utilities.

The measure also would create a separate office within the commission to act as an advocate for the public.

The PSC deals with complex issues that directly affect residents, said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, sponsor of a reform bill in the House.

"The public ought to have confidence that we are appointing the most qualified and best candidates we can to fill those positions," Smith said.

Last year, elections to the commission were held up as questions were raised about family ties and qualifications.

Four commission candidates were related to members of the General Assembly.

Also, Mignon Clyburn, chairwoman of the PSC, is the daughter of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

The PSC staff acts as both advocates on issues and advisers as the commissioners make decisions.

Lawmakers asked the Legislative Audit Council to determine whether the staff and commissioners improperly talked with companies being regulated.

The report is expected Tuesday.

Sen. Tom Moore, D-Clearwater, co-sponsor of a Senate bill on the commission, said he thinks a better structure should be put in place.

"The effort is to define, refine and build the needed barriers between the commission and staff so that the public has confidence and respect for the system," Moore said.

Mignon Clyburn would not talk about the pending bills, but said the PSC is looking at changes of its own.

A report by the commission last fall recommends creating separate staffs to advise commissioners and to act as advocates for parties petitioning the PSC.

"If you are a conscientious person and steward, you are always trying to put things in place to better your agency's processes," Clyburn said.