Unintended Consequences 

The PSC is gone, but is its replacement just as political?

The PSC is gone, but is its replacement just as political?

The state Public Service Commission was abolished four years ago when Republican Gov. Don Sundquist convinced lawmakers that the scandal-plagued agency needed replacing.

The Legislature decided that no longer should the agency’s directors run for their offices in popular elections using campaign money from the very industries they regulated. Complete with strict new rules about keeping its leadership out of politics and choosing its directors by appointment, the Legislature created the Tennessee Regulatory Authorit (TRA).

But are the politics back? In short, it looks like it.

The TRA’s lopsided political identity—two of the three directors are Republicans and one is a Democrat—has prompted House Democrats to become advocates for the odd one out, Memphian Sara Kyle, who is, almost inarguably, the most political member of the group.

House Democratic Leader Jere Hargrove is sponsoring a bill that would make Kyle the agency’s next chairman and then would rotate the top position annually among the three. It’s a preemptive strike to keep the two GOP directors—Lynn Greer and Melvin Malone—from tossing the chairmanship to one another.

Until now, the chair has been elected unanimously by the three members. Greer served a two-year term, and Malone will wind up his two-year stint as chairman at the end of June. Hargrove wants to make sure that Kyle—appointed by House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh—gets a shot at the job too.

”Take these personalities out and put any three people in there, and equity would say that it ought to rotate,“ Hargrove says.

His bill would also create an exemption to the prohibition against directors engaging in political activity. It would allow them to campaign for immediate family members. That part of the legislation is a not-so-veiled effort to allow Sara Kyle to participate in the political races of her husband, state Sen. Jim Kyle.

”Speaker Naifeh is pretty interested in this because his appointee never gets to be chairperson,“ Hargrove says, failing to note that there have been only two cycles of chairmanships since the inception of the TRA.

Predictably, Sundquist is against the Democratic-sponsored measure, suggesting the bill only reinjects politics into an agency that—given its mission to regulate telecommunications—ought to be free from partisan squabbling.

For his part, Greer sees no need for the legislation. ”I think the present statute is adequate and addresses the issue as it should,“ he says. ”It leaves it in the hands of the three directors to select their own chairman for a two-year term, and I think that’s the way it ought to be.“

Meanwhile, neither Malone nor Kyle would comment. Would Greer and Malone shut out Kyle? ”Well, the fact is that decision has to be made in an open forum in a public discussion, and I do not know that,“ Greer says. ”But the first chairman was elected by a unanimous vote, the second chairman was elected by a unanimous vote, and I would expect that the third chairman would be elected by a unanimous vote.“

Small victories

There may well be only a handful of Tennesseans who routinely request to see and copy the reams of public documents generated by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

But for those who do choose to navigate the cumbersome bureaucracy that inhabits part of the L&C Tower, the experience can be expensive. The department has had a long-standing practice of gouging citizens who want copies of public records. TDEC charges 50 cents a page, and a coalition of at least 18 environmental and consumer protection organizations recently put their foot down. Pointing to federal regulations that directly challenge such obscene pricing, they threatened several months ago to sue.

Now, TDEC is backing down. Officials plan to make up to 25 copies free, then charge 25 cents a page after that. As obscure as the impending change may seem, it is nevertheless a solid victory from a state department that is only slightly less impenetrable than the fiefdom otherwise known as the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Of course, nothing in state government is easy. Rather than simply make the change, TDEC officials have scheduled a ”rulemaking hearing“ for May 18 to formally consider the new costs and take public comments on the issue.

The change would be an about-face for TDEC. Officials had staunchly defended the state’s pricing practices, which apparently are among the worst in the nation.

”I’ve done work in eight or 10 states, and I’ve never seen anything as expensive as Tennessee,“ says Rick Parrish, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va.

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