Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Public Service Commission may well be one of the most misunderstood jobs in Georgia politics. The five member board is charged with regulating some of Georgia’s utilities. Others, such as cable television and wireless telephones, are outside of their jurisdiction.
Electricity and natural gas distribution are their main focus these days. Land line telephones are decreasing in significance as technology is passing the industry by. Thus, much of what the PSC decides these days is about Georgia’s energy future.
Much of the decisions that the PSC makes are handcuffed by Georgia law and an increasing appetite for the General Assembly to regulate utilities via every more friendly regulations codified as state law. Senate Bill 31 continues to resonate as an example, with the legislature, not the PSC, deciding to pre-fund Georgia Power’s return on investment for two new nuclear reactors at plant Vogtle. The legislature also decided that large commercial users would be exempt from this rate increase, leaving residential customers and small businesses to pick up the tab.
Regardless, the PSC still has an important voice in not only the rates we are charged as consumers, but what kind of energy we will be produced in Georgia. The mix of coal, natural gas, and nuclear power is largely decided by PSC policy. Whether Georgia effectively adds solar and/or wind energy to the mix will also be in their purview.
One of Chuck Eaton’s strong points is that he is intellectually curious. He is a person who is willing to admit he doesn’t have all of the answers, and solicits opinions regularly on topics that interest him. This is not to say he doesn’t understand the issues – Far from it. He has a keen grasp on the various risks associated with coal as the EPA continues to push coal powered electric plants toward extinction. He understands that while natural gas prices are at historic lows right now, the history of the fuel is one of price volatility which could lead to wide variances in power costs. He understands that nuclear is cheap once the power plants are operational, but getting a plant built after 30 years since the last plant was built will present unique challenges.
Eaton prefers a balanced approach, with Georgia not putting all eggs in one basket. He’s generally pragmatic about the needs of the state, and balances the needs of Georgians with the requirements that those the PSC regulates are entitled to earn a profit as defined in state law.
While not someone I always agree with, Eaton is someone who can explain and is willing to defend his positions based on fact and underlying law. That’s a rarity in politics.
In short, I trust him. That’s also rare. He’s an incumbent that gets my vote. That’s getting more rare.
As for the other PSC seat, we have long time PSC member Stan Wise being challenged by former PSC candidate Pam Davidson. Wise has grown comfortable in the position, perhaps too comfortable. He is a reliable vote for the utilities and rarely shows disagreement with their requests.
Davidson, on the other hand, claims college degrees on her resume that she does not have and dismisses those who bring this up as playing “dirty politics”. She also said in a recent GPTV debate that she is not a lobbyist, despite the fact that she explained in the next sentence that she did register to lobby on occasions as required by Georgia law.
It’s difficult to recommend voting for either, but there is another alternative. South Cobb resident David Staples will be on the November ballot as a Libertarian. With no Democrat qualified in this race, Staples could make it interesting if he can pick off Republican voters who would like to see a change and combine those with Democratic voters who won’t vote for a Republican.
He may be pragmatic enough (a challenge for many Libertarian candidates) to pull that off. But as the PSC races receive little public attention, it is still a tall hill to climb. Regardless, we’ll have a few more months to determine if Staples is a viable alternative to the status quo, and if there is a viable electoral strategy to make that happen.