Thursday, April 14, 2011

Would electing members of the Public Utility Commission make them more accoutable?

In Lyle Larson's latest weekly recap he lays out his latest bill in committee:

HB 1302: Our own intuition and numerous studies tell us that elected representatives are more accountable and far more likely to do what we, the voters, want because they risk being thrown out of office if they don’t. In Texas, most industries are regulated by different state agencies, many of which are lead by a board or commission appointed by the governor. For some agencies, this process seems to be sufficient, but for other agencies, especially those that oversee our basic needs, such as energy, water and transportation infrastructure, voters should choose the regulators. HB 1302 would abolish the Public Utility Commission (PUC), transfer its duties to the Railroad Commission (RRC) and rename the RRC the Texas Energy and Communications Commission (TECC). Many people have long questioned the Public Utility Commission's lack of transparency and lack of accountability to Texans. Since 1991, there have been several legislative efforts to consolidate and streamline the PUC and Railroad Commission (RRC). With the PUC slated for Sunset review this session and as Texas faces a daunting $27 billion shortfall, the 82nd Legislative Session is the optimal time to pursue and achieve this change.  
But would adding more responsibility to an elected commission actually have this desired effect?

Voter turnout in Texas is abysmal.  Here is a chart from the Texas Secretary of State's website.  VAP stands for Voter Age Population.  As you can see the historic election of Barack Obama had the highest voter turnout at 59.9% of registered voters.
 I point out this out because everyone was excited about this election,
yet the turnout was only a little more than half of the registered voters and
only 45.5% the the VAP voted.

When you get to what are perceived as less important races, like the Constitutional Amendment elections, the turnout is a joke, 8% of Registered Voters and 5.77% of VAP.

So how many of y'all out there know what the Public Utilities Commission does?  How many know what the Railroad Commission does?  I'd guess most of you don't have a clue. (Don't worry, I'm going to write some posts about these later.) 

There's another problem with relying on the voters to choose members for this important commission.  Even though people turn out to vote, they don't check all the boxes.  I know I'm guilty of this, there are so many elected officials, it's not only hard to keep all of them straight, sometimes there just isn't any information out there about them.  For most people, they can't be bothered with taking the time to learn about candidates other than the President and the Governor, and most of this information comes from political advertising, a very poor way to get the real dope.

Adding more duties to the Railroad Commission is a bad idea.  Even the Sunset Advisory Commission doesn't agree with this.  
Change in Statute
S 1.1 Continue the Public Utility Commission for 12 years.
The Sunset staff report on PUC, published in July 2010, concluded in Issue 3 that Texas has a continuing need to regulate the electric and telecommunications industries and oversee evolving competition in the industries. The report left pending the question of whether these regulatory functions should be continued at PUC or in other agencies until completion of the Sunset staff reports on TCEQ and the
Railroad Commission. Now that these other reviews have been completed, staff recommends that PUC be continued for 12 years, with additional functions as indicated in the recommendations below.

S 1.2 Transfer gas utility regulation from the Railroad Commission to the Public Utility Commission.
This recommendation would transfer the responsibility that resides at the Railroad Commission for gas utilities to PUC. Under the recommendation, PUC would administer these regulations under the same original and appellate jurisdiction over rates as currently exists at the Railroad Commission. The transfer would include the Railroad Commission’s existing efforts regarding utility rates and services,
consumer complaints, reports, and audits. Generally, the same regulatory approaches that exist now in gas utilities statutes would continue to apply at PUC, including provisions for interim rate adjustments, cost-of-service adjustments, and cost-recovery surcharges. Collection of the Gas Utility Tax would also
transfer to PUC. The recommendation would provide for the transfer to be completed by March 1, 2012, and would provide for planning and coordination to occur between the Railroad Commission and PUC to implement the transfer. A transition team would be established with high-level employees of both agencies to develop plans regarding the transfer to PUC of obligations, property, personnel, powers, and duties for gas utility functions and sharing of records and information. The team would develop ways to coordinate on areas of interrelated responsibilities, such as the impact of the Railroad Commission’s pipeline safety requirements on the rates of gas utilities. The recommendation would also require the agencies to develop memoranda of understanding, as needed, to implement the plans developed by the transition team. Statute would require the memoranda to be completed by February 1, 2012.
Perhaps commissioners will be accountable to the people who elect them, but so few voters actually choose these officials, their focus will be much narrower than implied by Larson's bill.

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