Senators Back Effort to Cut Ties Between Utilities, Regulators

Duke Energy Florida
Posted at 4:26 PM, Feb 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-18 11:39:23-05

TALLAHASSEE, FL. (WTXL) - A measure intended to curb appearances of cozy ties between state regulators and electric utilities easily passed its first Senate test Tuesday, while the proposal's primary target remained low key.

The Senate Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee gave unanimous support to the proposal (SB 288), which sponsor Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said puts "teeth" in the oversight of the Florida Public Service Commission. However, Latvala said the bill is the product of dissatisfaction with Duke Energy Florida.

Latvala told committee members that while utilities in other parts of the state may have improved their services over the past few years, Duke Energy Florida, which serves 1.7 million customers from Central Florida through parts of the Panhandle, has "has gotten worse."

"A number of you are fortunate to have areas that are served by utilities that have a better response to their consumers, that have lower rates, or municipal systems that don't have the kind of issues that we have on the west coast of Florida," Latvala said. "It's probably hard to understand the number of emails, the public input that we get on this."

Duke spokesman Sterling Ivey said in an email after the meeting that the company is watching the issue. The annual legislative session starts March 3, and the House version of Latvala's bill has not been heard in committees.

"As I understand, the Senate version has one more committee stop while the House bill is not yet off the ground," Ivey said in an email. "Either way, we are far from seeing a final bill for the full House and Senate to consider. We are closely monitoring the legislation as it moves through the legislative process and will continue to follow the bill through several more committee hearings in both the House and Senate."

The measure, which is expected to have a tougher time in the House, takes aim at the amounts electric utilities can charge customers for deposits, seeks to assure that money collected for demand-side renewable energy be used for that purpose and would require members of the Public Service Commission to complete ethics training similar to the training lawmakers receive.

The bill also would prohibit utilities from imposing higher charges for increased electricity use due solely to extended billing cycles.

The billing item stems from an effort by Duke to redesign meter-reading routes, which led to changes in billing cycles. 

Duke customers are charged a lower rate for every 100 kilowatt hours of use up to 1,000 kilowatt hours, than for each 100 kilowatt hours above the 1,000 kilowatt mark.

The rerouting resulted in more than 200,000 Duke customers getting higher-than-usual monthly bills because extra days of standard electricity use were added to a single bill. After an uproar, Duke said last year it would credit those customers.

The billing rule change is also the topic of a proposal (SB 230) by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, which the Senate committee also backed unanimously Tuesday. 

Lobbyists for Duke didn't address the committee.

"I'm sure that they will show up in the process at some point in time, probably not ever standing up in a committee meeting, but their hand will be felt," Latvala said after the meeting.

Groups such as Sierra Club Florida, the League of Women Voters, the Florida Retail Federation, AARP and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy offered support for the Latvala proposal.

Latvala said he's "hopeful" the House will match the Senate measure, which only has to pass the Appropriations Committee before going to the full Senate. The House version (HB 219), filed by Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, has been assigned to go to four committee.