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Completion of the power plant in Kemper County is more than three years behind schedule.

Analysis: New PSC member Brown could be swing vote on Kemper

Marked for death by Republicans, Democrat Cecil Brown may end up playing a critical role when he takes up his new post as public service commissioner representing the Central District.

Four years ago, the Democrat was dethroned from his perch as chairman of the House Education Committee and bumped off the House Appropriations Committee by the incoming GOP majority. The onetime head of the Department of Finance and Administration was exiled from committees where he could most effectively use his knowledge of the state budget.

That didn’t mean Brown didn’t still carry sway. He was a frequent presence in floor debates, sometimes offering successful amendments that technically improved bills he opposed. But Brown struggled at times with being in the minority, cut off from the policymaking role of a committee chair. In the final two years of the session, he could sound worn-out or defeated during his forays to the microphone.

It didn’t help that Republicans dissolved his Jackson district, an amalgam of neighborhoods that straddled Interstate 55. The territory was cut up, with Brown’s home drawn into a ruby-red district meant to protect longtime northeast Jackson Republican Bill Denny.

Brown, though, escaped the GOP steamroller flattening so many Mississippi Democrats. The 71-year-old ran for the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

Only a fraction of Central District voters around Meridian are Mississippi Power Co. customers, but the troubles of the $6.4 billion Kemper County power plant dominated the race.

Republican Brent Bailey had a purer history of opposition to Kemper, having opposed it since 2010. Brown, on the other hand, had voted for the Baseload Act while a lawmaker, which allowed power companies to collect construction costs while building new power plants. He also voted for a $1 billion bond bill meant to help pay for Kemper at a lower cost to ratepayers than through traditional power rates. Kemper opponents saw the bond bill as a sop to the floundering unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Brown ran against Kemper anyway, pledging to “review” the Baseload Act and “ensure Mississippi families are protected from these outrageous costs.” Democrats had long believed they could win in the Central District, a 20 county wedge that also includes metro Jackson and parts of the Delta. Heavily outspending Bailey, Brown ran up a 15,000-vote margin in Hinds County that secured his victory.

Brown replaces Union Church Republican Lynn Posey, who had been the commission’s strongest supporter of Kemper. Posey may help approve a rate increase for Kemper before leaving the commission in December. But incoming commissioners are likely to decide how much Mississippi Power ultimately collects.

Combined with Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley’s re-election, Brown’s win gives Democrats a majority on the commission. With Presley’s string of votes against the plant, it could be Brown who casts the deciding vote. New Southern District Commissioner Sam Britton, a Laurel Republican, says he wants to protect ratepayers, but has taken a less oppositional position toward Mississippi Power.

Outside observers think the election means Southern Co. could have to absorb more losses. Moody’s Investors Service cut the debt rating on Mississippi Power two days after the election, saying the election “increases regulatory uncertainty and heightens the risk that the utility will not obtain full and timely rate recovery.”

For now, Brown is holding his cards close to his vest, saying he expects to learn a lot more once he’s sworn in. But Mississippi Power has admitted mistakes in the design and construction of the plant, which could translate into more losses for Southern Co.

“Ratepayers should not be paying for mistakes made by the company,” Brown said.

— JEFF AMY, Associated Press

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