Watchdog report says power companies wield too much influence in florida legislature ideal gas questions

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You won’t see a line item for the "nuclear cost recovery fee" that Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light collect each month for future construction of new nuclear power plants. That’s because legislators last year voted down an amendment that would have required them to disclose the fee to customers, something they knew the two companies didn’t want to do.

Lawmakers allowed utilities to collect the fee in 2006, and when the companies tamped down their plans to build new facilities and used the money for other needs, such as upgrading existing nuclear plants, legislators kept the fee in place despite complaints from consumer advocates.

The legislative journey of the nuclear cost recovery fee is but one example of how Florida’s power companies control the legislative agenda in Tallahassee, according to a new report by Integrity Florida, a nonprofit Tallahassee research and watchdog group. They say millions of dollars in campaign contributions and an army of lobbyists help keep corporate interests ahead of the public interest, and are calling on lawmakers to make the power companies more transparent and more accountable.

"Our state’s monopoly power corporations have demonstrated how politically influential investments can be profitable,” said Dan Krassner, president of Integrity Florida and one of the authors of the report Power Play: Political Influence of Florida’s Top Energy Corporations. "The volume of spending on campaigns and lobbying give this industry an outsized influence."

The report was paid for with a grant from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), an advocacy group that wants Florida to adopt more electricity options. An advance copy of the report, to be released today, was made available to the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.

By contrast, he said, utilities like FPL "are actually working in the best interest of customers." The company, which serves 4.5 million electric customers, used the nuclear cost recovery fees to improve its nuclear program, saving customers "tens of billions of dollars."

It found that between 2004 and 2012, the companies infused more than $18 million into legislative and state political campaigns and spent more than $12 million over the past five years hiring lobbyists. The report also detailed a pattern of favoritism toward utilities by regulators at the Public Service Commission and the Legislature.

"You don’t have interest groups that are able to go toe-to-toe with utilities companies so what happens is, they basically get their way,” said Sen. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, who tried and failed to push through a repeal of the nuclear fee last year.

It cites news reports that found 18 former state officials with current ties to FPL. Some worked for FPL, while others joined lobbying firms that represented the company. In addition, five former PSC commissioners, including the current executive director, have worked or are working for FPL.

FPL spent the most on lobbying — $4.7 million — and typically employs up to 33 lobbyists in any given year, the report found. TECO spent $4.2 million and employs up to 31 lobbyists per year. Duke Energy spent about $2 million since 2007 and employed 16 to 20 lobbyists a year. Gulf Power spent $1.7 million and hired 11 to 15 lobbyists every year.

One persistent opponent of the power companies has been the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has a lobbyist in Florida. The company commissioned the report because, unlike other states in the Southeast where the organization does business, Florida has seen "a breakdown in any proper oversight of the utilities and any real consumer protection," said Stephen Smith, SACE executive director.

"When you have so much money being strategically targeted at key representatives and key senators and all the collateral ability of the corporations to spend, wine and dine, what ends up happening is the public interest gets drowned out,” he said. "It’s pay-for-play politics that is not in the best interests of consumers."

He believes the public interest safety net that is supposed to be shielded by the Public Service Commission, which is appointed by the governor from a list of applications compiled by a legislatively-controlled nominating council, has also been "shredded by the utilities."

Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Democrat from West Palm Beach who serves on the legislator-controlled nominating council, told Graham: "I cannot commend you enough for really getting a grasp on the board, working together and making Florida a better place for all our utilities and most of all our consumers."

Bubriski responds: "If your assumption is we’re screwing consumers, it’s a fundamentally wrong assumption,” he said. "(Our customers) are paying less than they did five years ago and less than the national average. We think that’s a big deal."