By AMY McCullough I STAFF WRITER
At a hearing last week regarding whether Mississippi’s public utilities should be able to hide certain documents from the public, several utilities spoke out in favor of leaving the Public Service Commission rule just as it is.
A state agency’s interpretation of the rule in question allowed public rate impacts of Mississippi Power’s recently approved $2.4 billion Kemper County IGCC Plant to be hidden from the public view.
Only the Office of the Attorney General and one concerned citizen spoke on behalf of the public, respectively arguing for transparency in government and ethical conduct.
The Public Service Commission voted yes to the Kemper plant without constituents knowing how the pricey plant would impact their monthly electric bills. Commissioners Brandon Presley and Leonard Bentz complained publicly in May about the rule preventing them from revealing the information to ratepayers.
Presley proposed amending the Commission’s rule pertaining to confidential document filings, which resulted in the Sept. 14 hearing.
Rule 6 of the Commission’s Rules for Practice and Procedure, which also applies to the Public Utilities Staff, does not specifically allow utilities to hide public rate impacts. However, under the Public Utilities Staff’s interpretation of the law, utilities have been allowed to hide information at their own discretion.
Representative for the attorney general, Sondra McLemore, said, “Utilities have overused their right under the current rule to deem documents confidential…Transparency of information should be the norm, not the exception.” McLemore explained that without transparency, the public is harmed and regulators cannot make good decisions.
McLemore cited state law, which says that confidential information from public utilities shall be exempt from the Public Records Act — with the exception of information related to changes in customer rates.
As referenced by McLemore, Mississippi Code section 73:21:1 (1) states: “Commercial and financial information of a proprietary nature required to be submitted to a public body, as defined by paragraph (a) of Section 25-61-3, by a firm, business, partnership, association, corporation, individual or other like entity, shall be exempt from the provisions of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983; provided, however, that nothing herein shall be construed to deny access to such information submitted to a regulatory agency by a public utility that is related to the establishment of, or changes in, rates regulated by such agency.”
The only concerned citizen who spoke at the hearing was Brent Bailey, state facilitator of the 25 X 25 Alliance, a renewable energy initiative.
Bailey said he supported the opinion of the attorney general.
Additionally, Bailey spoke in favor of ethical behavior: “Just because it is legal to sequester certain information from the public view does not mean it is the right thing to do,” he said.
Bailey also noted the number of utilities and lawyers present and expressed his concern for the “lack of consumer advocacy voiced in the room today.”
Other stakeholders attending the hearing were Entergy Mississippi, Atmos Energy, Bellsouth Telecommunications, Mississippi Rural Incumbent Local Exchange Companies, South Mississippi Electric Power Association (SMEPA), Telepak Networks and Centerpoint Energy.
Stone didn’t give a yes or no
Controversy surrounding the confidential rate impacts from MPC was the impetus for the hearing.
However, when pressed by Presley about whether he disagreed with the attorney general, MPC attorney Ben Stone of Balch & Bingham’s Gulfport office, said he would not object to ultimate ratepayer impacts being made public, provided any proprietary information regarding how the power company arrived at the dollar amounts was not included.
On behalf of MPC, Stone, who is also chairman of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, sequestered customer rate impacts of the Kemper plant in Aug. 2009. Documents detailing the rate impacts did not include any proprietary information regarding how the power company arrived at the dollar amounts. Yet, Stone kept them hidden from the public view.
After filing a public records request, the MBJ obtained the rate impacts in July.
According to the document, the average residential customer will see a $60-per-month rate increase by 2014, which is more than a 45 percent rate increase, based on the current MPC rate of 11 cents per kilowatt hour and an average customer usage of 1,200 kilowatt hours per month. This calculation stands in contrast to March company statements that rates would go up “about a third.”
When releasing the information to the MBJ, Stone said in a statement that the rate information in the document had become inaccurate in light of the Commission passing its orders approving the plant and granting it a certificate of public convenience and necessity, since those orders would result in a different rate treatment than previously assumed.
The Commission’s order of conditional approval of the plant, which was accepted by MPC, raised the cost cap of Kemper from $2.4 billion to $2.88 billion.
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