Pinellas Republican state lawmakers say the gloves are off regarding Duke Energy and the PSC

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Paraphrasing the Howard Beale character from 1976's Network, Clearwater area state Senator Jack Latvala said today that he's "mad as heck and I'm not going to take it anymore" when it comes to the excesses of Duke Energy and the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC).

But a leading energy advocate in Florida still says the veteran Pinellas lawmaker's new proposal to rein in Duke and the equally controversial PSC is still not hard-hitting enough.

Flanked by state Representatives Kathleen Peters and Larry Ahern to his left and GOP House candidates Chris Sprowles and Chris Latvala to his right at a Sonny's Bar-B-Q in Largo, Latvala said he and his colleagues had been "besieged" over the past few weeks by their constituents regarding several issues concerning Duke, the exclusive energy provider in Pinellas County and up the west coast of Florida.  

Saying that "I don't think that we can turn our back any longer on the consumers who have to pay the bills for electric utility usage," Latvala announced proposed legislation that he says he will soon introduce in the state Senate and that Representative Peters will sponsor in the House. Specifically, the bill will:

1. Prohibit any utility company from charging customers a higher rate because of an increase in usage attributable to an extended billing period;

2. Clarify how much a utility company can receive regarding deposits and how the amount must be calculated;

3. Require anyone who lobbies any member of the Public Service Commission Nominating Council, whether a legislator or a non-legislator, to be registered in accordance with section 11.045, Florida Statutes; and

4. Require any money received by a utility company for implementation of demand-side renewable energy resources, to be used solely for those purposes.

The announcement was made at a Sonny's Bar-B-Q because Latvala said that Duke had recently informed the owner of the Largo eatery that his security deposit was going to rise from $7,345 a month to $24,605, the third time the Senator said that his office had learned of deposit issues with Duke this year.

But the issue that has seemed to galvanized Republicans to join Pinellas County Democrats in jointly denouncing Duke has been the recent situation regarding the utility's changes to its meter-reading process. That led to changes to their billing process that resulted in serious increases in some customers' energy bills. Senator Latvala said when he learned that was happening, he contacted Alex Glenn, Duke's CEO in Florida, to have him voluntarily discontinue the practice. 

When that attempt went nowhere, Latvala then contacted the PCS, and "for once they acted very quickly," requesting that Glenn testify before the board in Tallahassee. Ultimately Duke relented, and have refunded approximately $1.3 million in excessive charges back to consumers.

But Duke has no desire to return $54 million it has collected from consumers for nuclear equipment for the now-canceled Levy County nuclear power plant proposal that will never be built. Calling it "ridiculous," Latvala hinted that issue may be inserted into the proposed bill if the PSC doesn't make Duke refund the money (which they are not expected to do). 

Chris Sprowls, a Republican running against Democratic incumbent Carl Zimmermann in HD65 in Pinellas County, said if elected in November he would reintroduce in the House a version of the Senate bill that Pasco County state Senator John Legg proposed last year regarding the PSC. That bill would create term-limits of 8 years for PSC members, and would require that they come from specific geographic parts of the state in a way that would mirror how the state's court of appeals are broken up. 

Sprowls says he has learned by knocking on doors this year while campaigning that anger towards Duke and the PSC is at the top of many voters' minds. 

"Would I like to see the PSC (members) elected again?" Senator Latvala asked after being asked if he thinks that would make them more accountable. "Potentially," he replied, saying that there were pros and cons if that were to happen. 

But not everyone in Pinellas County think the legislative proposals go far enough.

"They do nothing to after the fundamental problems with energy policy in Florida," cautioned Susan Glickman, Florida Director of The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, adding that "I look forward to working with Sen. Latvala and others on doing something meaningful." Glickman says the state continues to remain on the sidelines when it comes to not taking advantage of alternative energy sources (like solar) because "big utilities stand in the way, and they have enormous influence amongst policy makers."

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