Candidates spar over the role of lobbyists
by W. Winston Skinner
The three Republican candidates for Public Service Commission came to Newnan for their first forum – with lines clearly drawn between longtime PSC member Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and his challengers.
Craig Lutz, a Hall County commissioner who formerly worked in the telephone industry, and Lavonia attorney Doug Kidd both positioned themselves as being outside the current system, which they painted as too close to utility companies and too friendly with lobbyists. McDonald, who has served on the utility regulating board since 1998, said he is running on his record.
Brant Frost V, Coweta County Republican Party chairman, was moderator for the 90-minute forum at Golden Corral. About 35 people attended.
PSC positions technically represent geographical districts, but candidates run statewide.
While Kidd, Lutz and McDonald have been criss-crossing the state seeking votes, Frost noted Thursday night’s gathering was the first public forum to include all three Republicans. The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Daniel A. Blackman, a business manager from Atlanta, in November.
Serving on the PSC is “a great challenge and a great responsibility,” McDonald said. He pointed to utility rates that are 15 percent below the national average in Georgia and to the state’s being rated as one of the top five in pipeline safety.
“We’ve replaced all the cast iron pipe in the state, and now we’re removing some of the older plastic pipe. I could tell you about other states across the nation that are far behind,” McDonald said.
Lutz worked for BellSouth/AT&T and was involved in the deregulation of the telephone industry. “I’m the most qualified person to be on the Public Service Commission,” he said.
Kidd, a former journalist who has his own law practice, said he has been struck by the increasing amount of his office’s electric bill. Georgia Power has had “four rate increases over the past four years,” he said.
“There didn’t seem to be anybody on the consumer’s side,” Kidd stated. “I’ve been to 105 counties. People are very, very upset with their power bill. It doesn’t matter if it’s municipal, REA or Georgia Power,” he said.
The PSC can make a difference for Georgians’ bills because electric rates are “not going up because of market forces,” Kidd said. “They’re going up because of government forces.”
He said Georgia Power is guaranteed a 10.95 percent return on its investment in the power system. That is “the second highest rate of any utility in the Southeast,” he said.
“I believe the PSC has the power to set the power rates at a reasonable level,” said Kidd, who pledged to look for “a little room … the next rate case that comes up (where) we can return a little savings back to the consumer.”
Kidd also was vocal that there is a need for ethics reform at the PSC. Decisions should be made by members “without being taken to dinner and golf outings,” he said. “I don’t think we should cap expenses (spent by lobbyists). I think we should ban them.”
McDonald conceded that some lobbyists are friends and that he golfs and hunts with them. He gets information from lobbyists, as well as many other sources.
“Ethics are right here in the heart. You can have all the ethics you want on paper, but you don’t have ethics if they’re not in the heart,” McDonald said.
“It’s important to put a person in there who has some ideas. If you vote for an empty vessel, the easiest people to fill that vessel are the lobbyists. They’re there every day,” Lutz said.
Kidd said there is a reason the body is called the Public Service Commission and not the Utility Commission. He said the focus should be the consumer and not a company that has “hired somebody who is your friend to lobby you.”
He said any meetings between PSC members and lobbyists should take place at the PSC’s office. There is “no reason to go out on somebody’s else’s dime outside the office,” Kidd said. “I would like an outright ban on any contact outside the office.”
Kidd said McDonald has served honorably. “He’s just playing the game the way the game’s played,” he said. “This is an important election. This is an election where, if we want to bring about change, we can bring about change.”
All three candidates said they like the current method of selecting PSC members – with them being elected rather than appointed and with them running statewide. There also was general agreement that they would like better regulation of the program that provides free cellular telephones to poor Georgians.
The federal program is “rife with fraud,” Kidd said, but he said any state effort to regulate the phones would be “probably pre-empted by what the federal government is doing.”
McDonald noted an effort by the PSC to add a $5 fee to the phones was struck down by a federal court.
“I have struggled with how that (having phone service) somehow became a natural right. … That was a decision that was made many, many levels above us,” Lutz said.
McDonald said the focus by the PSC on the phones is already having some positive impact toward reducing fraud. The fraud problem is “the kind of drum that has to continually be beaten… to rein in some of these freebies our government likes to give out,” Lutz said.