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Three legislators and incumbent regulator make short list for powerful utility panel

Source: 
Miami Herald

Aug. 12--TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Ron DeSantis was given four candidates to choose from Wednesday for his first appointment to the powerful board that regulates electricity, water and natural gas in Florida, and the list includes an incumbent Public Service Commissioner and three outgoing Republican legislators.

The 12 members of the Public Service Nominating Council interviewed five candidates and sent the names of four of them to the governor to fill the expired term of Donald Polmann, the current PSC commissioner who is seeking to be appointed to another four-year term. In addition to Polmann, the list includes Key Largo state Rep. Holly Raschein, St. Cloud state Rep. Mike La Rosa, Thonotosassa state Sen. Tom Lee.

The nominating council rejected only one candidate who made the interview list, Jonathan E. Shaw, a hydrogeologist for the South Florida Water Management District.

Three other applicants who had advanced to the interview stage withdrew their names. They were Zachary J. Coates, Tallahassee accountant and retired FBI agent, Erick A. Hamilton of Flint, Michigan, who works part-time at the Transportation Security Administration of the Department of Homeland Security, and Soman T. Varghese, a Fayetteville, Georgia, utility engineer.

The job of PSC commissioner pays $132,036 with generous pension benefits and comes with access to a full staff and the power to decide how much profit utilities are allowed to keep and how much to charge customers for water, wastewater and electricity services.

DeSantis must choose among the four applicants and the candidate must then get Senate approval.

During interviews in Fort Myers on Wednesday, the nominating council, which is controlled by legislators and former legislative staff members, clearly favored elevating their colleagues. The council unanimously advanced the applications of Raschein and La Rosa. Polmann received 10 of the 12 votes. Lee, a Tampa home builder and former state Senate president, received eight votes and none of them were from his former Senate colleagues.

For the past decade, the nominating council has been heavily influenced by the utility industry as the power companies, led by Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy, have become some of the largest contributors to individual campaigns and to legislative political committees, which can accept unlimited amounts of cash.

PSC members who have opposed utility rate requests and infrastructure plans have been rejected by the nominating council for reappointment, or not confirmed by the Florida Senate, and applicants who are not friendly with utilities have generally not been nominated by the legislatively-controlled council.

Voting against Polmann were two Pasco County members of the nominating council, Ann Marie Ryan, leader of the ad hoc Summertree Water Alliance Task Force, and Greg Giordano, assistant tax collector of Pasco County and former chief of staff to Mike Fasano, Pasco's tax collector, when Fasano served in the state Senate.

Voting against Lee were two of his former Senate colleagues: nominating council chair Sen. Kelli Stargel and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, the chamber's outgoing Republican leader as well as Michael Rahn, appointed to the council last Friday by outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano, and Joshua Kellam, a Palm Beach Gardens businessman.

Lee, who was Senate president from 2004-2006 and returned to the Senate in 2012, was a frequent critic of current Senate politics and what he considered its "transactional" operating structure. He left his term two years early this year to spend more time with his family, he said. He is married to Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

Lee cited his work as chair of the Senate's Infrastructure and Security Committee and the hearing he held on sea level rise, which he said led to legislation passed this year to promote electric vehicles. He said he brings with him his knowledge of government and the legislature and his judgment: "The ability to know what's doable ... how to bring parties together," he said.

A long-time ally of the utility industry, Lee did not mention that he also introduced SB 494 in 2018 that gave utilities the ability to build power poles and bury utility lines with less oversight. He also used the bill expanding electric vehicle recharging stations to tuck in a last-minute amendment that makes it easier for utility companies to build fuel pipelines for oil and gas in rural areas. Critics of the measure included environmental and clean energy advocates.

Lee reports a net worth of $5,778,780.

Raschein spoke of her work on environmental and water legislation and said she would "bring a different flavor to the table," because the PSC does not have anyone from South Florida currently on it. She said an important role on the PSC would be to "raise awareness important issues" such as the rate-setting process.

"I have to admit something to you, I did not grow up as a kid dreaming to become a utility regulator. I have to make that clear. I actually wanted to be a marine biologist," she said.

Raschein did not mention that she pushed a bill in the last legislative session that would have moved the Department of Energy away from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried's office into the Department of Environmental Protection, which is under DeSantis. Raschein, who is retiring from the Legislature because of term limits, holds jobs with Baptist Health South Florida and First State Bank of the Florida Keys. She reports a net worth of $233,188.

La Rosa, who is also retiring from the Legislature because of term limits, is the owner of two Central Florida-based real estate development companies and is vice president of a third. He reported his net worth as $179,502. He cited his work as chair of the House Commerce Committee, which oversees all regulatory committees in policy and infrastructure and his work on the Southern States Energy Board.

He sponsored legislation requiring term limits for the PSC, a bill that expanded wireless telecommunications infrastructure, and cited his work as Florida chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-leaning organization that is heavily funded by utility companies and includes among its services templates for pro-industry legislation.

"I believe that what I can bring to the table is understanding the legislative process of being able to communicate back to the Legislature and explain things that we're seeing as a PSC," LaRosa said.

Polmann was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2016 and spent much of his career as a registered professional engineer for the state of Florida. He has been an occasional critic of the utilities, questioning the electricity industry's reliance on natural gas and its plans to expand dependence on it. He also raised concerns about the requests by utilities to charge customers for costs associated with under-grounding utility lines and trimming trees.

He told the commission that one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business he sees is fixing the drinking water quality issues and wastewater issues for small regulated utilities that have limited funding resources.

"What is the long-term future for upgrading, particularly the underground infrastructure? It's very, very challenging," Polmann said.

He is a civil engineer who spent much of his career working for water utility companies and reports a net worth of $590,000.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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