Gov. Charlie Crist this week will name two members to the state Public Service Commission, the board appointed to keep Florida's utilities affordable and dependable.
It will be his last shot to appoint regulators who, as he puts it, represent the "best interest of the people, the consumers of our state."
The question: Will his picks get to do the job?
His 2009 appointments didn't last. The state Senate, which for years endorsed the governor's appointments, rejected David Klement and Steve Stevens. The official line was that the former journalist and accountant didn't have the smarts to follow complicated regulatory issues.
Political insiders gave another reason. "The power [companies] said, guess what, we don't want them up here so [they] said 'Hey ... maybe we can get rid of them,' " Sen. Mike Bennett told lawmakers before they voted on Klement and Stevens.
Klement and Stevens were awaiting Senate confirmation when they joined the three other commissioners to unanimously reject most of Florida Power & Light's largest rate increase request.
That has led consumer advocates and politicians to speculate about what will happen to Crist's latest appointments.
The governor will leave office in January 2011, long before the Legislative session begins. Some of the political movers who stymied last year's confirmations will be gone.
But with the new legislature will come new leaders, and perhaps, renewed calls to return the state to a system of electing utility regulators.
2011 decision makers
This year, the utility industry and its lobbyists have given more than $260,000 to gubernatorial candidates and their committees, most to Bill McCollum, who lost to billionaire Rick Scott in the Republican primary. That amount doesn't include hundreds of thousands more from political fundraising committees that receive hefty checks from the utility industry.
The next governor could replace Crist's last two picks before their names even go to the Senate - as Crist did when he was elected.
Scott, a former health-care executive, told the Sun Sentinel that he wants knowledgeable people on the PSC "who are independent thinkers and know that their role is to do what is in the best interest of the citizens of Florida."
But he said he also supports making it easier for utilities to raise rates: Scott writes on his website that he wants to change "PSC processes to allow reasonable energy production and expansion."
Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer and Democratic candidate for governor, has called for changing how regulators are picked. "The deck is stacked against those who expect fairness in their utility rates," said Kyra Jennings, a campaign spokeswoman.
The new PSC appointees - the ones named this week as well as Ron Brisé and Art Graham, whom Crist appointed in July - will face the Senate utilties committee for confirmation. It now includes Chris Smith, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale. He works for a law firm that represents FPL, an overlap that state police have suggested the Commission on Ethics investigate.
Smith told the Sun Sentinel last year that he stopped lobbying for the state's largest electric utility after he was elected to the Senate in 2008. He could not be reached recently despite a phone call and e-mail.
The most powerful man in the senate next year, President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, could change who's on the utilities committee. He also controls how the Senate handles the confirmation hearings.
He and his fundraising committee received more than $280,000 in campaign contributions from utilities and those who represent them this year and last. Haridopolos voted against Klement and Stevens.
"Any individual or business voluntary contribution to better government will have no impact whatsoever on my decision to ... appoint the very best members to the Commission," he wrote in an e-mail from his communications consultant, an AT&T lobbyist. "Political campaign disclosure requirements [that] I helped pass allow the public and the press to monitor whether this will be the case."
In addition, Haridopolos will appoint four senators to the nominating council, the 12-person board that recommends PSC appointees to the governor.
Next year's House Speaker, Dean Cannon, will appoint five nominating council members during his two-year term. He received more than $25,000 from utilities and their representatives this year and last.
Do ties matter?
Campaign money from utilities and their representatives and meetings with utility executives have little or no influence on decision makers, say those who were in powerful seats this year.
Atwater's efforts to ensure Klement and Stevens were voted on by the full Senate - and his vote for them - proves that utility contributions don't influence actions, said Brian Hughes, communications director for Atwater's campaign for chief financial officer. Atwater, whose nephew worked for FPL, didn't know about the job or help him get it, Hughes said.
Atwater said he didn't receive input from utility representatives and didn't tell senators which way to vote. Before the PSC nominating council reviewed applications this year, Atwater said he told legislators on the panel to protect the "integrity of the process" and "abstain from attending ...events that include institutions regulated by the PSC."
Tracy Duda Chapman, a member of the Nominating Council, said ties don't make a difference. "My decisions as a PSC nominating council member were based solely on the applications and interviews of the candidates," she said. "I voted for candidates based on who I thought were most qualified."
She's a member of the board of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, as are a number of utility executives. But she said she doesn't have business or personal relationships with them.
Yet Bennett concedes that lobbying "has to" have some influence on who ends up on the PSC regulating the state's utilities.
"I have to assume that they have certainly tried to exert their influence in the past, but I've not seen in personally," said Bennett, chairman of the nominating council. "I've heard people complain about certain people on the [PSC], but I've never had them lobby me."
The Nominating Council this year decided not to consider extending the terms of Nancy Argenziano and Nathan Skop, commissioners who were the most vocal critics of utilities. That decision led several consumer advocates to call for reconsidering how utility regulators are picked. Should commissioners be elected as they once were?
The decision on Argenziano and Skop "is the latest in a series of events that raise serious questions about what is driving decisions on the future makeup of the Florida Public Service Commission," wrote Lori Parham, the state director of AARP Florida, an advocacy group for seniors.
AARP Florida doesn't want commissioners to be elected but is open to other ideas, including requiring the PSC nominating council to include a consumer advocate, said Leslie Spencer, an associate state director with the group.
"Big changes are needed," Brad Ashwell, of the Florida Public Interest Research Group wrote in an e-mail last week. "Options could be restructuring the PSC so that it works more like an administrative court ... or removing the PSC constitutionally from the control of the legislature."
The Florida Consumer Action Network has opposed electing PSC members because it feared utilities would buy the election.
"Now, that question is moot," President Bill Newton wrote on the group's blog. "FCAN will work to build a coalition of consumer groups and other interested parties to fight for an elected PSC."
See how your state Senator voted on the PSC appointees this year at the Sun Sentinel's House Keys blog.
Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 and email@example.com.