Quizzed by lawmakers, and buffeted by political winds, regulators ponder an uncertain future.
Agree or not, utility commissioners are part judge, part regulator, and part politician.
Appointed or elected (em for some, that debate never ends (em commissioners face politics on all sides: from the governor, the legislature, the populace, and special interest groups. Add to that each commissioner's personal leanings.
Democratic, Republican, or Independent, utility commissioners often say political tags are meaningless. They fill six-year terms and step down. A new governor, often from a new party, appoints another panel.
But commissioners can't escape their political roots. Their jobs have always served as stepping stones to higher office. Think of Huey "Kingfish" Long, Louisiana Public Service Commissioner in the 1920s, who parlayed his anticorporate reforms into a powerful governor's seat and, later, a U.S. Senate post. Or consider, more recently, Christine Todd Whitman, the Board of Public Utilities Commissioner who commands New Jersey's governor's office. Today, however, those political roots threaten some of the traditional independence of state public utility commissions (PUCs).
To take the pulse of PUCs, PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY talked to five commissioners whose regulatory bodies are, or have been, caught in political crosswinds. Generally, these officials found it difficult to admit that they face anything more than politics as usual, or that precedents are being set.