While the attention of most politicos is on the national political stage, local and state level races find themselves largely neglected. Such is the case of the race for Mississippi Public Service Commission. This three-member executive board is responsible for the regulation of the state’s electricity, water, telecommunications, gas, and sewer utilities.
“The agency is charged with assuring that rates and charges for services are just and reasonable, that the service rendered is reasonably adequate, and that any facilities constructed or acquired are required for the convenience and necessity of the public,” according the PSC’s website. Each of the PSC’s commissioners represents one geographic slice of Mississippi. Kicking up the most dirt is the race for the Southern Mississippi seat.
Hattiesburg oilman and Democrat Thomas Blanton is running for the PSC’s Southern District spot. The election will be held in November. Blanton’s history with Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Company, is a relationship worth exploring.
The PSC approved rate increases for Mississippi Power; a 15% increase for 2013 and a 3% increase in 2014. That was until Blanton filed suit.
As a result of Blanton’s legal complaint, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the PSC’s approved rate increases citing a lack of prudency. “The record is devoid of a ‘finding of prudency’ or that MPC’s expenditures were ‘prudently incurred,’ and for good reason no prudency hearings have been held. In the absence of prudency hearings, we fail to discern how a rate can be arbitrarily declared as ‘fair, just, and reasonable’ and/or ‘just and reasonable,’” the justices found.
Mississippi’s Supreme Court kicked the case back to the PSC with an order that included refunding rate payers. “The Commission is hereby instructed to (1) fix by order the rates in existence prior to its order of March 5, 2013; (2) fix no rate increases until the Commission is in compliance with this Court’s opinion; and (3) enter an order refunding the monies attributable to the rate increases allowed by the March 5, 2013 order,” reported WLOX.
Mississippi Power said the rate increases were designed to stave off an overall base rate increase of 35%. According to WLOX, Mississippi Power Corporate Communications representative Bill Snyder said at the time, “Mississippi Power is reviewing today’s ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court. It’s important to note that by approving the 18 percent increase in the 2013 rate plan, the Commission significantly mitigated what would otherwise have been a base rate increase of at least 35 percent. Our focus remains on developing a solution that is in the best interest of our customers.”
In July of this year, the PSC ordered Southern Company, who owns Mississippi Power, to refund $350 million to some 188,000 rate payers. Then in August, the PSC once again approved a rate increase, and again, Blanton appealed to Mississippi’s Supreme Court. Mississippi Power claims that without the rate increase, they will be out of cash by the end of the year.
Earlier this month, a blogger by the name of Eddie Curran divulged the details of an on-the-record conversation he had with Blanton. Curran spent much of his reporting and blogging career railing against Mississippi Power, which might explain why Blanton was so shockingly candid. If Curran’s account is true, Blanton’s motivations for securing a seat on the PSC are far from pure.
Blanton intends to take over Mississippi Power and has lined up a $600 million payment-to-arbitrage loan to do so, according to Curran. Blanton indicated the PSC has the power to revoke Mississippi Power’s certificate which enables them to operate. Should Mississippi Power conveniently fail to meet the requirements of the certificate, interested parties will move to right the ship. Those involved (Blanton’s statements imply a bevy of co-conspirators) in the electric coup are quietly lawyering up behind the scenes.
On his campaign’s Facebook page Blanton denounced Curran’s allegations, saying he has “no secret agenda.”
Blanton’s crusade against Mississippi Power is curious in its own right. That he’s seeking an office that would grant him regulatory control over a company with which he harbors either extreme animus or business interest? Worrisome at best. If Curran is right and Blanton plans to leverage his power as a Public Service Commissioner to squash, gut, and then purchase Mississippi Power, the ramifications to consumers and to the community Blanton would be “serving” are incalculable.
The ethical complications aside, how far will Blanton go to ensure Mississippi Power’s demise? And at what cost to the consumer? Mississippi would be better off not finding out.