Commissioners: Law allowing utility to hide rate impacts is unfair
Two out of the three Mississippi Public Service Commissioners think a law that has allowed Mississippi Power Company to hide the rate impacts of its proposed $2.4-billion power plant is unfair.
Under state law, a utility is allowed to designate as confidential any information it wants to keep out of the public view.
To uncover the information, a third party must make a request through the Public Records Act. The utility then has 30 days to petition Hinds County Chancery Court to rule in its favor or turn over the documents if the court chooses not to rule in its favor.
The 190,000 customers of Mississippi Power Company have little idea what effect in real dollars the Kemper County clean coal plant would have on their monthly electric bills.
Outside Commission proceedings, MPC has said rates will go up “about a third” whether Kemper is built or a natural gas-fired alternative is used.
Commissioner and Chairman Brandon Presley made a motion on May 20 to open a docket to consider amending the rule pertaining to confidential document filings. Presley believes the Commission ought to have the authority to allow or disallow a utility to mark information as confidential.
Commissioners Leonard Bentz and Lynn Posey voted to table the issue until the June 3 Commission meeting.
“This rule does nothing but protect the utilities…and to heck with the consumer,” Presley said. “We (the commissioners) are the representatives for the public interest, but if a consumer comes to me and asks me what the addition of this power plant is going to do to his rates, I have to say, ‘I’m sorry. The utility told me I can’t tell you that,’” Presley said.
Bentz has said he is also unhappy that rate impacts for Kemper are hidden from Mississippi Power’s customers.
“Those numbers should be made available to the public,” Bentz has said. “The ratepayers need to know the impacts. When the bills go up, they’re not going to call (company CEO) Anthony Topazi. They’re going to call me … The whole story is not getting told.”
While Presley does not favor the Kemper plant, Bentz did vote for an April 29 order that conditionally approved the project. Bentz’ district comprises most of the citizens who will be paying for the plant if it goes forward.
“It is frustrating. I want to build this plant, but I want everybody to know exactly what is going to happen when we build this plant. I have to look Gulf Coast residents in the eye and tell them I did everything I could to get the information on the table,” Bentz said.
Commissioner Lynn Posey doesn’t have a strong opinion about the law.
Regarding the rule, Posey said, “I don’t know a reason why off the top of my head (rate impacts) would be confidential… I would not object to looking into it.” However, as the law is being interpreted now, the court has the ultimate authority, and “to some extent that’s probably not a bad thing,” he said.
MPC filed a request for a rehearing on the plant, saying the conditions put forth in the April 29 order make the project impossible to finance. The Commission has said it will likely rule on that motion on May 26.
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