Let it be

March 22, 2013 

These days, even when Republicans in the General Assembly are lukewarm to an off-the-wall idea from one of their own, they’re inclined to vote it through committee and move it through the process of getting on the law books. That seems to be the case with a bill from Onslow County Republican Rep. George Cleveland to pull the reins on the Public Staff, which advises the N.C. Utilities Commission on rate hikes from power companies and all matters pertaining to utilities regulation.

Cleveland’s bill is but a paragraph, and from his comments in a House committee meeting appears to represent his response to certain notions he has about the Public Staff that are based on ... well, there’s the rub.

Cleveland, an outspoken archconservative, said that the Public Staff has been an advocate for the Democratic Party agenda. But he had no specific examples of that. His bill says in part, “The public staff shall not give any advice, guidance, or opinion in any proceeding or other matter before the commission that is not in the interest of the consuming public.”

As The News & Observer reported, Cleveland was asked by his colleagues at one point to define “public interest” and he didn’t do so well. He said that under his bill the Public Staff wouldn’t be able to advocate for the agenda of a governor, even though he did reckon that the governor’s interest and the public’s interest might be the same sometimes.

Said his fellow Republican Rep. John Blust of Guilford County, “That’s a hard term to pin down as to what exactly is in the public interest or not.”

Good grief. The Public Staff, headed by Executive Director Robert Gruber for 30 years (he’s been appointed to five terms by governors of both political parties), has done a good job looking out for consumers with regard to rate hikes and other parts of utilities regulation since its creation in 1977. In that time, and especially under Gruber’s leadership, the Public Staff has used its bully pulpit responsibly and gone up against some formidable companies such as Duke Energy and Progress Energy.

In fact, it may be, though it’s hard to “pin down” as Blust might say, that Gruber may have rubbed some legislators the wrong way when he called for Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers to step down during an investigation of the Duke-Progress merger.

Still, it’s hard to figure where Cleveland got his nose out of joint with regard to the Public Staff. (Although this is the legislator who once proclaimed that there was no “extreme poverty” in North Carolina.)

As The N&O reported, Gruber apparently tried at the House Committee on State Personnel meeting (where Cleveland’s bill was discussed) to explain the Public Staff to the man from Onslow County. He introduced himself and talked with Cleveland after the meeting and noted that his agency is not partisan and is charged with following policies established by the General Assembly.

Gruber feared that the bill as written might be seen as a way to keep the Public Staff from answering public inquiries about utility matters, including questions from energy companies themselves, and from legislators and the general public.

This is fixing something that’s not broken. While there isn’t much to the bill, if it’s enough to worry Gruber that his agency, which has done noble work for the public, might be negatively affected, then the bill should perish quickly. Cleveland clearly didn’t consider the consequences of drawing legislation because he just had a notion that appeared difficult to prove. He did not make his case.

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