The Mississippi Public Service Commission could have new law enforcement agents if a bill in the legislature becomes law.
House Bill 1077 is sponsored by state Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, and would create a new division of PSC fraud and enforcement agents with full law enforcement powers, including that of civil asset forfeiture. The bill says these sworn law enforcement officers are required to enforce the state’s laws against fraudulent telemarketers and protect key utility infrastructure against theft or sabotage.
HB 1077 passed the first hurdle out of the House Public Utilities on February 17. The legislature has a March 12 deadline for floor action on bills from the originating chamber and HB 1077 is already on the calendar with time to spare. A similar bill in the Senate died on the calendar having not made it out of committee, but now the Senate will have another crack at giving the PSC unprecedented powers.
Even if the House doesn’t take it up before the deadline, bad ideas such as HB 1077 tend to come back like a boomerang in the Mississippi Legislature. Expect to see the bill return again next year. Adding law enforcement agents would greatly expand the scope of the activities regulated by the PSC and add greatly to its budget as all of these personnel would be required to be certified law enforcement officers. These officers require specialized and costly training.
According to the bill, the PSC’s new law enforcement division would have the ability to investigate other crimes, such as:
- False representation to receive money or property
- Exploitation of a vulnerable person
- Obscene telecommunications
- Mail fraud
- Identify theft
Does the PSC really need these policing services? These are all offenses already being investigated by existing law enforcement personnel working for the state Attorney General’s office and the Department of Public Safety, not to mention local law enforcement agencies.
Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee don’t have sworn law enforcement officers working for their public service commissions. Court action against telemarketing scofflaw perpetrators should be sufficient to protect Mississippians.
If lawmakers want to expand the PSC, they should consider converting the separate Public Utilities Staff to an office of the consumer advocate to ensure that ratepayers are always represented. During the battle over the Kemper Project lignite plant, consumers didn’t have a seat at the table and almost ended up paying billions in higher utility rates for a plant that was more theoretical than practical and was guaranteed to never work reliably as a baseload power plant should. Adding fraud investigators with badges and guns to the PSC isn’t going to prevent another Kemper Project debacle. It will cost taxpayers more money to duplicate services already provided by the AG’s office and the DPS.
Ultimately, HB 1077 is an attempt for the commission to expand their turf with very little measurable benefit to Mississippi’s consumers.
In 2013, the PSC looked a $7.5 billion dollar boondoggle straight in the eyes…and blinked. It took the election of two new commissioners to get the scoundrels out of the ratepayers’ wallets. Enough is enough!
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