Complete turnover at Mississippi Public Service Commission sparks talks of changes ahead of legislative reauthorization in the 2024 session.
Not since 1956 has the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) seen a complete turnover of its three Commissioners.
In fact, according to the Commission’s annual reporting, only five times after the inception of the PSC in 1884 has the Commission welcomed three new members all at once. The sixth time in the 140-year history of the PSC will be on January 4, 2024, when Chris Brown (R-Northern), DeKeither Stamps (D-Central) and Wayne Carr (R-Southern) are sworn into office.
Magnolia Tribune recently interviewed each of the new PSC Commissioners, seeking to gain insight into where they stand on a variety of issues as they prepare to take the oath of office.
How They Won
Brown, a business owner, comes to the PSC after serving in the Mississippi House of Representatives for three terms representing House District 20 as Republican. He replaces four-term Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, who chose not to seek re-election and instead ran unsuccessfully for Governor. No Democratic candidate qualified for the seat, leaving Brown unopposed in the General Election following the Republican Primary which he won over Tanner Newman by a vote of 61% to 39%.
In the Central District, Stamps, a former Jackson City Councilman, won a rematch with first-term Commissioner Brent Bailey, a Republican. Stamps, a Democrat, lost the 2019 election to Bailey by just over 2,000 votes. The next year, Stamps ran for and won the House District 66 seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives. This year, instead of running for re-election to the House, Stamps chose to challenge Bailey for the Central District PSC Commissioner post, this time winning the seat by just under 6,000 votes after the dust cleared and the results were certified.
As for the Southern District, Carr, a contractor and political newcomer, pulled off the upset of the General Election, beating first-term Commissioner Dane Maxwell in the Republican Primary by a vote of 53% to 47%. Maxwell was also serving as Chairman of the Commission. No Democrat qualified for the seat, leaving Carr to run unopposed in the General Election.
Transition into Office and Having All New Commissioners
Talking with Stamps and Carr, they both describe their transition to the PSC as “slow.”
The Central District race, being as close as it was, caused uncertainty as to whether current Commissioner Bailey would challenge the results or concede. While no official concession has come, given the time since the election was certified, any challenge by Bailey is increasingly unlikely.
When he spoke with Magnolia Tribune, Stamps had still not heard from Bailey. The incoming Commissioner said he is doing the best he can to be prepared for his new position.
“It’s been a preparation on our end but from his side there’s been no transition,” Stamps said. “If we had a normal transition, we would’ve had a lunch at the office by now, sit around and meet everybody but that hasn’t been the case. We’re preparing for either eventuality. If we walk into the office and there’s a paperclip left, we’ll be happy.”
Carr expressed a similar sentiment, saying he’s spoken to the other new Commissioners but has not pressed outgoing Commissioner Maxwell for information and he hasn’t reached out either.
“That’s, you know, part of politics, I guess, part of life. So, I haven’t bothered him, and he’s still my Commissioner until December 31st,” Carr said. “We’re kind of learning this as we go, but we’ll pick it up.”
In the Northern District, Brown said his transition is going well.
“I’m excited about serving,” Brown said, after attending a recent PSC hearing in Jackson.
Brown has been able to attend PSC meetings since August, diving into the business of the Commission since winning the seat in the primary. He’s already been involved in assessing a few items under his new purview, such as in Holly Springs. He thinks having three new people at the Commission “kind of just gives us all new energy.”
“We’re all three business guys and I think we’re add a different perspective, new perspective,” Brown said. “It should be good for the board, good for the Commission.”
Carr agreed, saying he thinks the new Commissioners will work together more than the outgoing board.
“I’ve met with Mr. Stamps and Mr. Brown, and we’re all on the same page. It’s about the citizens. It’s about our state, trying to bring economic development into our state,” Carr said. “We’re all on the same page.”
Stamps said the new Commissioners “won’t miss a beat.” He pushed back on the narrative that the incoming board is inexperienced and would be a step backwards.
“From my initial assessment of everybody, even though all of us are new to this role, all of us bring a unique skill set and a lifetime of experience to these roles,” Stamps said. “We’ve got a squad now that can tackle this thing for the next 20 to 25 years and take Mississippi where it needs to be and not get bogged down with some of our traditional barriers, lack of courage and lack of vision.”
Stamps said he sees three men in the new Commissioners with the vision to move Mississippi forward and the courage to see it through.
“So, I’m excited,” Stamps added.
Each new Commissioner listed their top issues coming into office.
For Brown in the Northern District, he sees tackling concerns in the Holly Springs Utility District in conjunction with TVA and MEMA is a top priority. He also wants to keep energy rates low and make sure power generation is reliable while working with water associations to provide clean drinking water. To do that, Brown is reviewing data and reports to ensure disruptions and “brown outs” are limited and those associations have what they need to serve their customers.
Stamps said in the Central District he wants to get the word out on the job possibilities in the utility space. He is planning an “I want you campaign” to champion workforce development for young people and veterans within state utilities. Adding to that, Stamps also says giving veterans an opportunity to succeed is a top priority for him. He wants to eliminate the state income tax for veterans.
“And the next priority is going to be to work so hard that the lazy people within in our sphere and peripheral to us work hard too, or get out of the way,” Stamps said. “We’ve got too many people doing time like government is a prison. You ain’t here to do time, you’re here to do work. So, we’re going to work, and hopefully that virus of hard work will become infectious across state government, and we can actually solve problems for Mississippi.”
In the Southern District, Carr’s priorities are listening to the citizens while providing reliable energy at an affordable rate.
“I’ve talked to Mississippi Power, Entergy and the co-ops, and they’ve offered their services. They’ve said after I get sworn in, they would be more than happy to bring me in and let me see what all they have going on,” Carr said.
Campaign Finances in the Spotlight
One of the hottest issues on the campaign trail in 2023 centered around campaign finances related to potential and sitting Public Service Commissioners.
Mississippi Code § 77-1-11 states that it is unlawful for a candidate for or current Public Service Commissioner to knowingly accept:
…any gift, pass, money, campaign contribution or any emolument or other pecuniary benefit whatsoever, either directly or indirectly, from any person interested as owner, agent or representative, or from any person acting in any respect for such owner, agent or representative of any common or contract carrier by motor vehicle, telephone company, gas or electric utility company, or any other public utility that shall come under the jurisdiction or supervision of the Public Service Commission.
Yet, donations from organizations, lobbyists, and persons who advocate for increased solar energy production and usage made headlines in the Governor’s race between Tate Reeves, the Republican nominee, and outgoing Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat. Reeves accused the Democratic nominee of taking illegal contributions from the owners of a solar company, Silicon Ranch, which drew the ire of both the donors and Presley.
READ MORE: Solar company cries foul over Reeves’ ad accusing Presley of taking illegal contributions
Such solar and renewable energy interests sought to influence the election, not only in the gubernatorial campaign but in the Northern and Central District PSC races as well. Incoming Commissioner Stamps told Magnolia Tribune that he believes upwards of $700,000 was spent by solar and renewable energy interests in the races against he and Brown.
Specifically adding those renewable interests into the code section pertaining to the prohibition on campaign donations for the sake of clarity is being bantered about by lawmakers ahead of the 2024 session. Stamps said he knows two people who will back the effort.
“I think you’ll have the overwhelming support of DeKeither Stamps and Chris Brown,” Stamps said. “It’s time to elevate how we regulate those entities and fully recognize those as viable sources of energy and regulation for the future.”
Brown agreed, saying anybody that comes in front of the Commission that benefits financially from the decisions Commissioners make needs to really be taken a look at.
“Solar and wind are alternative energies for power generation, and it can impact the rate base depending on how it’s deployed,” Brown said. “So, I think 100% that should be regulated by campaign finance, that that it should not be allowed.”
Carr, too, agrees with Stamps and Brown. He said simply that since renewables generate electricity and come before the Commission at times, he doesn’t think Commissioners should be able to take campaign donations from those interests.
“I didn’t take any from them and I wouldn’t have,” Carr said.
State Rep. Scott Bounds (R-HD 44), Chairman of the House Public Utilities Committee, told Magnolia Tribune that he thinks the issue does need to be addressed in the upcoming session.
“They [candidates and Commissioners] can’t take campaign contributions from utilities that they regulate, but they regulate renewables and they take campaign contributions from them. So, I think that does need to be addressed,” Rep. Bounds said. “If we’re going to have rules and laws and everything in place for one it needs to be a place for all of them. And so, that means the renewables and green energy and everything else. What’s fair for one is fair for another.”
But solar and renewable interests weren’t the only reference to PSC Commissioners and campaign finance laws this election cycle.
As reported by Magnolia Tribune in May, there exists an intentionally complicated web between public utilities, contracted entities through the PSC representing its interest, and Commissioners when it comes to their campaign finance donations. Further clarifying such entities and their activities in terms of campaign finance is also being explored by lawmakers.
As previously noted, the Mississippi Public Service Commission is no stranger to questionable gifts or money changing hands between Commissioners and regulated entities, contractors, or those with an interest before the Commission.
In 1988, two Public Service Commissioners were indicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges related to a $165 million lawsuit settlement between Mississippi Power & Light Co. and supplier United Gas Pipeline, which was followed by the PSC’s approval of a major rate hike in 1985. Another incident occurred in 1992 at the PSC when Commissioner Sidney Barnett was arrested just six weeks after taking office. He was charged with 15 counts of accepting campaign contributions from companies the commission regulates.
Changes to the Commission?
The three new Public Service Commissioners come onboard in a legislative year where the Commission’s very existence is up for consideration by lawmakers. The PSC must be reauthorized this session to allow it to continue its work of regulating telecommunications, electric, gas, water and sewer utilities.
Rumors are flying around the Capitol and across the state of some ways lawmakers may seek to change the composition of the Commission. Those rumors have ranged from making the Commissioners all appointed instead of elected to keeping the three elected Commissioners while adding two or even four appointed Commissioners to the body. Those appointments would likely be left up to the Governor.
State Rep. Bounds has heard the chatter around possible PSC composition changes. He told Magnolia Tribune people are talking about it ahead of the start of the 2024 session.
“It’s a topic of conversation. People are talking it, more along the campaign finance lines,” Rep. Bounds said. “I can’t tell you what other legislators might have on their mind. I don’t have any plan right now to introduce legislation that would appoint the PSC. You know, I would be telling you a story if I didn’t tell you that conversation wasn’t being talked about all over the state.”
Commissioners-elect Brown, Stamps and Carr have all heard the rumors as well. All are opposed to any such changes in the Commission’s composition.
Brown points to a conversation he had with a friend who is a Georgia Public Service Commissioner, who is in the leadership of National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), the national association representing State Public Service Commissioners. He said studies have shown that elected commissioners have a better command on the subject matter.
“They’re a little more in tune with the subject matter that the Public Service Commission regulates or overseas, as well as being longer serving,” Brown said.
Brown noted that adding appointed bureaucrats creates another set of issues to consider, such as who controls the bureaucracy.
“Would you rather have elected officials or bureaucrats running any agency out there, especially those that are elected now?” Brown asked.
He also sees a problem in how complaints are handled, in that instead of having elected officials addressing matters in their direct office, citizens unsatisfied with the appointees would bypass the appointed Commissioners and likely go straight to those who appointed or confirmed those Commissioners.
“So, the [Mississippi] Senate gets a whole lot more interactive with the complaints,” Brown said.
To Carr, he sees it simply as matter of allowing the citizens a direct voice into the work of the PSC.
“Well, you know, the citizens put us in there and I feel like if we’re going do that, they need to talk to the citizens,” Carr said. “The people speak through elected officials.”
Carr added that being able to vote on PSC Commissioners gives citizens a voice in regulating their utilities.
Stamps went a step farther, saying that such talk has “an undertone” that makes him sick.
“You know one of the things about those comments and conversations is that they have an undertone to them,” Stamps said. “That undertone makes me sick. And one of the things about that undertone, I’ve dealt with it my whole life. But one thing I’ve always done, I’ve always made the situation better.”
There has long been talk of adding a dedicated consumer advocate to the Public Service Commission or Public Utilities Staff in an attempt to balance the voice of the utilities making their case before Commissioners. However, as with previous Commissioners, the incoming Commissioners view this as their role for the citizens.
“That’s pretty much the premise of the whole Public Service Commission, is to be the consumer’s advocate, right?” Stamps said.
“We’re elected by the citizens, and I feel like if we’re doing our job, there shouldn’t be a need for it,” Carr said.
Brown expressed that he would be an advocate for the consumers but was willing to research the idea further.
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