RALEIGH — A Republican lawmaker intent on muffling the state’s Public Staff agency withdrew his bill Wednesday amid a tide of skeptical questions from fellow legislators.
Rep. George Cleveland of coastal Onslow County agreed to pull the unpopular proposal and quickly slipped out the back door of the hearing room. He had spent a half-hour fielding questions from other lawmakers about the wisdom of tinkering with a 36-year-old state agency that advocates for the public in utility rate matters.
“It is a solution trying to find a problem that’s not there,” Raleigh lawyer Dwight Allen said of Cleveland’s bill after the hearing. Allen is a former Public Staff attorney who has represented Sprint and Progress Energy, among other public utilities, in private practice.
The legislative debate, before the state House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy, took place against the backdrop of a proposed rate increase request by Progress Energy. Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham noted that Progress had initially asked for an 11 percent rate increase but has since slashed that request by half after negotiating with the Public Staff. The Raleigh power company is awaiting a final rate decision from the N.C. Utilities Commission.
By and large, lawmakers were unnerved that Cleveland’s bill might trigger unintended consequences that would be regretted for many years. Cleveland’s proposal would potentially have exposed a small state agency to legal challenges that would be decided by locally elected judges.
The 75-employee Public Staff is essentially a law office, aided by engineers and accountants, that represents the residents of North Carolina before the N.C. Utilities Commission. The Public Staff’s settlements and recommendations carry much weight at the commission, although the commission is not bound by the Public Staff’s legal opinions.
The chairman of the commission, Ed Finley Jr., attended Wednesday’s hearing and afterwards expressed relief that Cleveland shelved his proposal.
“I was a little unclear what caused it to be introduced and what it would change in the current status of the responsibilities of the Public Staff,” Finley said.
The Public Staff also provides technical assistance on state energy policy to industry, to members of the public and to legislators and their staffs. It’s this function as a public clearinghouse that has rankled Cleveland.
Cleveland’s bill stipulated that the Public Staff can only take actions that are in the public interest. He said his legislation was necessary to correct the Public Staff’s tendency to take positions that were contrary to the public interest.
When pressed by lawmakers to provide an example of this breach of duty, Cleveland said he once received an email from a Public Staff staffer explaining that the agency’s technical advice is bound to follow the laws of the state. Cleveland suggested that following state laws may not always be in the best interest of the state’s residents.
“I’ve been here long enough to know that a lot of things (laws) that are passed are not in the interest of the using and consuming public,” Cleveland said.
Lawmakers kept pressing Cleveland to define what he meant by “public interest.” Isn’t it a fact, many asked, that the term is subjective and open to interpretation?
Several pointed out that there is no consensus on the public benefits of solar energy, nuclear power, coal-fired power plants and other contentious issues relating to energy policy.
“Who is going to make the determination that some piece of advice or opinion is not in the interest of the public?” asked Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary.
Cleveland replied: “I guess someone could take them to court and tell them they’re in violation, if they wanted to do that.”
Public Staff Director Robert Gruber, who has headed the agency for three decades, attended the hearing and defended his agency. But by the time Gruber was invited to offer his comments, Cleveland had yanked his proposal and was exiting the room.
“I’ve never heard anyone say we’ve acted in a political fashion at the behest of any administration,” Gruber said.