FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House narrowly approved a bill Wednesday to create a task force that could recommend the state elect its Public Service Commission rather than let the governor continue to appoint its members.
At issue is who decides the makeup of the PSC, which must approve utility rate increases, and whether electing its members would make the PSC more accountable to ratepayers or more easily influenced by utility companies giving large campaign donations.
Originally, Senate Bill 151 called for the three-member appointed PSC to be replaced by a seven-member elected PSC. After several changes on its way to the House floor, the current version, approved by a 48-46 vote, now calls for a task force to study "alternative methods" of selecting commissioners, with a focus on "protections for vulnerable ratepayers."
If the Senate concurs with the House changes, the bill goes to Gov. Steve Beshear for his signature or veto.
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In the House version, the task force will include three representatives and three senators, to be named by House and Senate leaders, and it will make a report by Dec. 15.
Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, gave an impassioned floor speech in favor of SB 151 and a revamped PSC. Hall invoked George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Winston Churchill; the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote; and the recent civilian uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
"The people want power to make their own decisions. But God forbid that we ask if the PSC should be publicly elected!" Hall said. "Do you represent the widows, the orphans and the poor in your community?"
In his private life, Hall owns a construction company that has received millions of dollars in work from Mountain Water District in Pike County, a utility the existing PSC has criticized for various reasons. The PSC also removed two of the district's board members in 2009 for failing to meet residency requirements.
Hall has said his relationship with Mountain Water District has nothing to do with his support for the bill.
House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown criticized the bill. He argued that House and Senate leaders have said they want an elected PSC, so they simply will select task force members who will reach that conclusion.
For a credible study of the PSC, Hoover said, the task force should include business leaders, consumer advocates and others who have warned lawmakers that an elected PSC could be influenced by utility companies' campaign donations, raising rates higher than ever.
"The truth of the matter is, this study is a joke, it's a farce," Hoover said. "This bill does not smell good. Even if it's a study, it doesn't smell good."