Plant Vogtle, rural broadband and renewables dominate Georgia PSC race

The Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) is one of the least known, yet critical state offices.

The five-member body’s roles and decisions affect the daily lives of Georgia residents, yet rarely attract public interest.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of Plant Vogtle

Set out among the roles of the PSC on the commission’s website is the “authority to set rates, require long-range energy plans, provide for the safety of natural gas pipelines and protect underground utility systems from damage,” all while “ensuring that consumers receive safe, reliable and reasonably priced telecommunications, electric and natural gas services from financially viable and technically competent companies.”

But one recent decision has put them in the spotlight.

Last December, the commissioners granted Georgia Power, one of the utilities it regulates, a go ahead to keep construction going at plant Vogtle, the nation’s only new nuclear project, whose construction has been financed by ratepayers in the state since 2009.
The decision made in 2009 requiring ratepayers to finance Vogtle costs consumers in the state $100 dollars each year. That decision is among many that have raised the profile of the commissioners.

PSC commissioners are elected statewide. They are paid $118,781.37 annually and there are no limits to the terms the commissioners can serve.

This primary race has attracted six candidates besides incumbents Chuck Eaton and Tricia Pridemore who are defending their seats at the commission. The primaries set for May 22 will feature three races.

Democrats John Noel, Lindy Miller and Johnny White are on the ballot in the District 3 race. If none of the three democratic candidates gets over 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be called.

The winner will then run against Eaton, who faced no challenger in the primaries.

In the second race in District 5, Pridemore, the third woman to serve at the commission will face fellow Republican John Hitchins in the primary. Dawn Randolph and Doug Stoner will run against each other in the third primary race for the democratic ticket. The winners in the two races will face off in the November elections.

Sara Henderson with Common Cause Georgia observes that a significant percentage of voters leave the voting booth without choosing a candidate for the position, partly due to a lack of knowledge about the impact of the PSC’s decisions on their day to day lives.

“Folks going to the booth vote for the Governor, maybe the Lieutenant Governor and then walk out,” said Henderson. The race receives close to 30% drop off rates, according to Henderson.

Liz Coyle, Executive Director at Georgia Watch a consumer watchdog group said besides Vogtle, which dominated recent primary debates organized by the Atlanta Press Club, the commission will next year be making key decisions that will affect the consumers and companies in the state.

The commission will be approving Georgia Power’s new 20-year Integrated Resource Plan, in which the company highlights its long-term energy plans and how to meet them. The commission will also be deciding whether Georgia Power can raise rates.

“That is what I will be thinking about when voting,” said Coyle adding that voters need to pay attention to the PSC elections.
Democrat Lindy Miller, who has raised the highest amount in contributions so far, said the recent approval by the commission of Georgia Power’s request to keep construction going at Vogtle, has raised the visibility of the commission and how its decisions matter.

“A lot of people across the state don’t know about Vogtle, but they know their bills are going up,” she said.

Incumbent Tricia Pridemore said she will focus her career at the PSC to protect ratepayers from rate hikes.

“I want to protect the Georgia taxpayers from unnecessary rate hikes,” said Pridemore who has served four months at the commission since being appointed.

Most PSC candidates argue commissioners have not made it a priority to provide broadband in rural areas.

“Our rural friends know Atlanta has high speed internet- why don’t they?” argued Noel, a democratic candidate for the District 3 primary.

But a PSC spokesperson says the PSC does not have regulatory authority over broadband.

“It would be up to the legislature to change the law not the Commission,” said a PSC spokesperson.

As the candidates cris-cross the state to garner the support of early voters and those waiting to cast their ballot later this month, discontent is high among aspiring candidates about the performance of the sitting commissioners. The candidates argue current commissioners have not fully represented the interests of Georgia consumers on some matters.

Eaton disagrees. He said the commissioners have made great decisions in support of businesses and the well-being of consumers in the state.

“It’s easy to criticize every decision made at the commission, but we are the ones responsible to make sure there are no black outs,” he said.

History of PSC

The Public Service Commission was formed in 1879 under the name ‘Railroad Commission of Georgia”. The name was changed to PSC in 1922.

The commission became a constitutional body in 1943.

The commission has five elected officials who serve staggered 6-year terms.

In 1998, the legislature ruled each of the commissioners must reside in the districts they represent 12 months prior to an election.

Commissioners are elected by voters statewide.

The primaries will be held on May 22. Commissioners will take office on December 31 following general elections set for November 6th. incase none of the candidates in the three primary races or one general elections gets 50 percent of the overall vote, a runoff will be called.

Each commissioner is paid $116,452 annually. PSC commissioners are considered state executives.

Breakdown of the three primary races

District 3

Republican Chuck Eaton is running unopposed in the primaries. He will be defending his seat against one of the three Democratic candidates- John Noel, Johhny White or Lindy Miller- who wins the May 22 primary.

District 5

Gov. Nathan Deal’s appointee Tricia Pridemore who was named to the position in February will face fellow Republican John Hitchins in the primary. Pridemore was appointed by the governor to fill an unexpired term.

Democrats Doug Stoner and Dawn Randolph are the candidates in the District 5 Democratic primary.

Issues the candidates are running on

Lindy Miller (D) District 3

Issues - Lowering customer bills, creating jobs and investing in the future- renewables

“It takes work to make this a seat for the people,” - Miller

Difference with main primary challenger John Noel- My focus has been and continues to be about social justice and providing a voice for the future.

Chuck Eaton (R) District 3

Issues- Diversifying the states energy options, growing the economy and jobs.

“I am very confident in what I have done in the past to help grow the economy and grow jobs. People can judge that by themselves.”

John Noel- (D) District 3

Issues: Power, Natural Gas, Telecoms- the utilities that the PSC regulates.

“We need to guarantee these vital services at great rates for our citizens while making industry accountable for safe, sustainable technology.”

Dawn Randolph- (D) District 5

Issues- Providing reliable and safe energy

Affordable and fair bills- The PSC must guarantee all Georgians the lowest rates

Sustainable- Encourage use of alternatives and renewable resources

“Fair means working in the sunshine so we all have that knowledge about decisions made by the commission,” Randolph.

Doug Stoner- (D) District 5

Issues- More investment in solar energy , Vogtle overbudget and needs to be stopped, rural broadband a necessity.

“I am a bridge builder and very competent,” Stoner

Tricia Pridemore- (R) District 5

Issues-Vogtle provides diversified energy options, protect Georgian from rate hikes, diversify the energy portfolio in the state and improve energy infrastructure

“Keep rates low, keep them as low as possible,” Pridemore

John Hitchins-(R) District 5

Believes in a free energy market arguing it encourages innovation.

Southern company shareholders should bear the burden of Vogtle- not ratepayers

“There needs to be a separation between the people on the PSC and the folks they are regulating.” Hitchins