Power grab? Mississippi utilities get new economic development abilities

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In the classic board game Monopoly, players buy up properties and place hotels and houses upon the squares to earn rent from other players. The only properties in the game where hotels and houses aren’t allowed are the two utilities and two railroads.

By   / April 6, 2015 / www.Watchdog.org

Phot Graphic: Steve Wilson

In the classic board game Monopoly, players buy up properties and place hotels and houses upon the squares to earn rent from other players. The only properties in the game where hotels and houses aren’t allowed are the two utilities and two railroads.

That might no longer be the case in Mississippi. Senate Bill 2093, signed into law byGov. Phil Bryant and passed unanimously with no debate by the Mississippi Legislature, gives the state’s regulated utilities the ability to engage in “economic development activities.” That includes providing capital, investment or acquisition and development of business or industrial sites and necessary infrastructure services needed to attract new businesses or industry.

And here’s the kicker: if those investments don’t work out it’s power customers that’ll be on the financial hook.

Hattiesburg businessman Thomas Blanton, who is running for the Southern District commissioner for the Mississippi Public Service Commission, argues that SB 2093 is a massive power grab for utilities.

“It’s pure, unadulterated corporate socialism,” Blanton told Mississippi Watchdog. “It’s pure fascism. By passing SB 2093 into law, Mississippi has been transformed into a plantation economy with a sharecropper structure. We now owe our souls to the company store.

“There’s nothing conservative about it at all. It’s too much power for a power company to have.”

The utilities see it as giving them the ability to create new jobs and lure business and industry to the state.

Mississippi Power spokesperson Natalie Anne Campen told Mississippi Watchdog via e-mail the company would use the power granted them under the law to possibly expand “transmission and distribution lines, or updating other equipment to meet (customer) needs.”

“We have made investments in economic development activities for decades and this bill reinforces that commitment,” Campen said.

The law isn’t just limited to industrial sites. The line that opens the floodgates is the phrase “undertake economic development activities…including (but not limited to)…industrial sites.” That means utilities could invest in just about anything, subject to approval of the PSC or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the case of the state’s nonprofit electric power associations, known as cooperatives.

Originally, the bill was aimed at the state’s electric power associations to enable them to build substations and other infrastructure to service industrial parks. When the state’s two investor-owned utilities felt the law would give the EPAs an unfair advantage, the Legislature added amendments that put Entergy and Mississippi Power into the law as well.

The law guarantees utilities a rate of return from investments, even if they don’t work out. According to the law, utilities would be shielded from retroactive, punitive action from the PSC, even if the infrastructure ends up being a substation to nowhere or their investments fail.

Utilities can also buy natural gas reserves at today’s low prices and bill their hedge against price increases to the rate base, subject to the approval of the PSC or FERC.

One would think there’d be a lot of debate on what could be a game-changing legislation for the state’s regulated monopolies, the public utilities.

There was little to none.

“We’ve had a long day,” state Sen. Terry Burton said Feb. 11 when SB 2093 was brought up in the Senate. “This is a bill that should generate no questions and no concerns and no debate. There is no controversy on this bill. This would simply allow electric power associations to conduct economic development activities and Mississippi Power and Entergy had some concerns.

“They’ve worked out the details, Mississippi Power, Entergy, TVA, the EPAs are on board with the bill and that’s what we have in front of us to allow them to do economic development activities in the areas where they serve.”

It took under two minutes for SB 2093 to fly through the Senate unanimously. In the House, there were no objections raised and it too passed there without a single nay vote.

http://watchdog.org/210178/mississippi-utilities/

 

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