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.
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