Bills seek to de-fang PSC
More often than not, the Public Service Commission sides with the utilities it regulates rather than Georgia consumers. Yet lawmakers this year are contemplating at least two bills that would bypass the commission's authority and hand utilities two early Christmas gifts.
The PSC, made up of elected officials from five districts across the state, determines how much profit companies such as BellSouth, Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light get to rake in, and how much money consumers have to pay those utilities each month.
One bill making its way through the Gold Dome would deregulate the wireless phone, broadband and voice-over-the-Internet industry. Currently, the PSC only intervenes when consumers complain of over-billing or quality of service issues, according to Commissioner Bobby Baker.
"This legislation officially strips us of any kind of direct regulatory authority," Baker says.
A more worrisome bill would allow Atlanta Gas Light to spend up to $300 million on a new natural gas pipeline from Elba Island to Atlanta, and recoup the costs by tacking an additional $2 onto every monthly bill.
Usually, it's the PSC's job — not the General Assembly's — to make such decisions. PSC staffers evaluate market demand and a utility's finances to determine whether such expenditures are justified, and determine the best method for a company to recoup its costs.
But the bill, which already has passed the House and will be discussed in a Senate committee hearing as early as March 15, would allow AGL to bill the cost of the pipeline to consumers, regardless of whether it's actually needed.
If it passes, the legislation will set a dangerous precedent that strips the PSC of one of its most important duties: determining whether utilities are justified in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that are billed to consumers.
Baker worries the pipeline isn't necessary because Southern Natural Gas already operates one line, and is building another parallel line — neither of which is funded with ratepayer money.
"You're going to have two pipelines that are not getting subsidies or are dependent upon getting payments from Georgia consumers as opposed to the AGL proposal contained in [the legislation]," Baker says. "That's a concern to me."
Baker also says that requests to work with the legislators who authored the bill — Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, and Rep. Jeff Lewis, R-White — were ignored.
Lewis says that, if the pipeline gets built, then consumers would benefit because "the logic of supply and demand would say the more competition there is, it's going to put downward pressure on prices."
But Will Phillips, associate state director for advocacy for AARP Georgia, doubts that consumers would benefit if AGL gets the pipeline.
"Just because we build another pipeline doesn't mean we're going to automatically discover a tenfold increase of [natural gas] output," he says. "If this pipeline is so necessary, then why do we need this legislation? It sets a bad precedent. Down the road, are we going to have other companies coming in here and request the same kind of thing?"
Editor's Note, 03.27.06: An earlier version of this article implied that the General Assembly had the ability to approve the actual construction of the pipeline. In fact, the bill only allows Atlanta Gas Light to recoup the costs of the construction by billing consumers. ?Additionally, the article stated that PSC members were elected from congressional districts - in fact, they are elected from one of five PSC districts. ?The article has been modified to reflect these facts.