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Editorial: More PSC candidates won't solve problems with SC utility regulation

PSCDebate

Rep. Russell Ott questions Rep. Bill Sandifer Thursday as the S.C. House debates reopening filing for four Public Service Commission seats. (Cindi Ross Scoppe)

We’d like to be encouraged by the fact that the Legislature is poised to reopen filing for four seats on the utility-regulating S.C. Public Service Commission after a screening panel declined to nominate any of the candidates.

We’d like to believe that means the panel wants better candidates — candidates who know more or who aren’t so close to the regulated monopolies they’re supposed to oversee.

And that might be the case. After all, the reason we have a nominating commission is to prevent the Legislature from electing people who just barely meet the too-minimal legal qualifications for the job.

Or it might be an attempt by the Public Utilities Review Committee to go out and recruit some candidates more to the utilities’ liking, or to make sure some of the candidates it found qualified don’t actually get elected.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so cynical; the panel is, after all, doing what state laws expect it to do if it isn’t happy with the quality of the candidates. But the fact is that some of the regulated utilities’ best friends are members of that committee. The fact is that the law hasn’t changed since the last time the panel nominated some of these same candidates.

Goodness knows we need a better Public Service Commission.

It’s true that the Legislature left the PSC with little choice but to keep approving rate increase after rate increase as Dominion predecessor SCE&G poured billions of dollars into the nuclear reactors that it eventually abandoned mid-construction. And that the commissioners, who must grovel before lawmakers to win and keep their jobs, were reflecting the will of the Legislature.

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But regulators never raised objections, or serious questions, even as environmentalists warned that the project was spiraling out of control. And as they’ve demonstrated with their schizophrenic handling of solar energy rates, they still don’t completely understand that their job is to protect ratepayers in return for the Legislature allowing utilities to operate as monopolies.

When the House passed a bill in 2018 to improve the caliber and conduct of the commissioners, it felt a need to include a requirement that commissioners “question the parties thoroughly during hearings of contested cases when appropriate” before reaching decisions. That’s because the commission too often wasn’t even going through the motions of applying rigorous standards to the utilities’ requests.

That bill also barred the screening committee from ignoring professional qualifications, as it was allowed to do, and it sought to put some minor constraints on the too-cozy relationship between regulators and regulated.

But the Senate refused to pass the bill, so commissioners still aren’t expected to ask questions when utilities make their case (although some do), and the screening panel is still free to nominate candidates who don’t meet any of the woefully minimal job requirements.

More troubling: Even if that bill had become law, it wouldn’t have addressed the larger problems with populating the PSC.

The first problem is that commissioners can only be removed from office mid-term if they’re convicted of a financial crime or a crime of moral turpitude. Even members of the state Ethics and Election commissions — and the Santee Cooper board, which serves as its own regulator — can be removed, without a conviction, if they refuse to do their jobs or take other actions that could make them subject to criminal prosecution.

The second problem is that the Legislature has given itself the job of both screening and electing the commissioners. Since we often end up with uncontested PSC elections, that means voters have little recourse when commissioners don’t protect the public. When 170 people are in charge, nobody’s in charge.

There’s little choice but for the House to give final approval today to legislation to reopen filing. But if we want better commissioners, the Legislature needs to create more rigorous job criteria and remove the union-like job protections for commissioners. And it needs to divide the job of screening and selecting commissioners with the governor, so the two branches can check each other’s decisions.

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