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PSC members: Politics played no part in Kemper plant decision

Brandon Presley

Brandon Presley

Baseload generation and the virtues of clean coal were not the only players on the roster as the Mississippi Public Service Commission weighed Mississippi Power Co.’s request to build a $2.4-billion coal-fired plant in Kemper County.

The political tug-of-war between economic development interests and ratepayer protection got a lot of playing time, too.

Commissioners voted 2-1 to conditionally approve MPC’s project, with a long list of conditions attached. Chief among those was a cap on the amount the power company could charge ratepayers to construct the facility, and a stipulation that ratepayers couldn’t start picking up the tab until the facility went online.

Mississippi Power has asked the PSC for a rehearing on the matter in an effort to remove the cost cap and to allow the company to charge ratepayers for the financing costs before construction. Under the PSC’s April 29 order, MPC would have to finance the project up front, but could recoup the cost — up to a maximum of $2.4 billion — once the facility started operation.

Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz, a Republican, voted to approve the coal-fired plant with the conditions attached, as did Democrat Lynn Posey, who represents the Central District. Democrat Brandon Presley, who represents the Northern District, voted against the facility.

Presley’s district is the only one in Mississippi that would not be directly affected by the plant – that is, ratepayers in North Mississippi would receive no electricity the plant generates, and wouldn’t have to pay the cost of constructing it. Kemper County is in Posey’s district, and the majority of MPC’s 190,000 customers reside in Bentz’ district.

Leonard Betz

Leonard Betz

Lynn Posey

Lynn Posey

“There is no upside for me (politically),” Presley said. “The path of least resistance would obviously be for me to go along because no one in my district will be directly affected by the rates or the plant itself.”

Still, Presley said he voted no because he felt the project would present too much of a financial risk to ratepayers, which is consistent with most of his positions since he was elected in 2007. In return, Presley has been labeled by business interests as one of the commission’s more populist members.

“It’s as if sometimes when you bring up, and this is outside of Kemper, issues or things designed to help the consumer, these utilities get insulted and say ‘how dare you,’” Presley said. “I personally have suffered a ton of criticism because I have been vocal about customer service policies, things I feel that are roadblocks to the consumer. You get pushback from companies all the time about that. I’m all for cooperation. I’m just not for roll-over-and-play-dead cooperation.”

The run-up to the PSC’s vote was filled with rhetoric praising the facility for its economic development potential. Gov. Haley Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, and some of their Republican counterparts, called the project a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind facility that would bring jobs to an area of the state that badly needs them.

Opponents of the plant, led by the Sierra Club, claim the plant is dirty and unnecessary.

Asked if he thought the build-up to the vote had become too politicized, Bentz said: “I would probably say no, but I’ve had the pressure put on me. Any decision you make in state government, politics are involved in it, whether it be on the industry side, the opponent side, the Sierra side, Republican, Democrat, whatever. But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to step back and do what’s right. That’s how I’ve approached this.”

Bentz, who was appointed to the PSC by Barbour before winning a full term in 2007, said in a phone interview with the Mississippi Business Journal that the politically convenient thing for him to do would have been to vote against the plant.

“People don’t want to spend money,” Bentz said. “They don’t want rate increases. It’s no different than in the insurance industry. The political vote is no. Do you want a rate increase? No. Ninety percent of the people don’t want a rate increase either. Brandon says he votes no because of the risk, and he has a good point. I’m not saying he made a political vote. He didn’t have to vote either way, because it will not affect his district. He had reasons.

“I am 150 percent for this project. I think it’s going to work. I think and hope it will be beneficial to the ratepayers in the long run, but I am not going to give the farm away in the name of this plant. We’re trusting but verifying.”

The PSC is a unique animal in that it is one of the few state agencies set up strictly for consumer protection, said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

“My observation has been that the PSC is very dang sensitive to voters. They are very populist in nature,” Wiseman said. “Usually the last thing the public service commissioners want to be accused of is siding with the power companies in something that’s going to increase customers’ rates. That seems to be as much as a motivating factor as anything.”


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About Clay Chandler

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