by Alan Lange
A push to reign in an out of control Attorney General is winding its way through the Mississippi Legislature with a head of steam. SB 2295 is a bill that reauthorizes the authority for the Public Service Commission (PSC). But the legislature feels that the Attorney General’s power is so out of whack, they felt it incumbent in the bill to clarify legislative intent with regards to the jurisdiction of consumer lawsuits over rates and other regulated issues.
77-3-5. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, and subject only to the limitations imposed in this * * * chapter and in accordance with the provisions * * * of this chapter, the Public Service Commission shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over the intrastate business and property of public utilities and, for purposes of clarification of the existing scope of said exclusive original jurisdiction, such exclusive original jurisdiction extends, but is not limited, to: the establishment of retail rates; challenges, including customer complaints, to the amount of a retail rate or customer bill or whether such rate is just and reasonable; and challenges to the validity or accuracy of rates charged by a public utility, or to the accuracy or reliability of information submitted to the Public Service Commission by a public utility or other person in support of or in opposition to a proposed or approved rate, regardless of the legal theory upon which any such challenge is made.
The bill passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote. The language offered by the State Senate to answer this question does not take away the Attorney General’s ability to sue an electric utility. It just says he should go to the Mississippi Public Service Commission first. And since that group is run by two of Hood’s Democratic political allies whose job it is to regulate utilities and hold them accountable, why on earth would the Attorney General so opposed to going there first? Obviously, the PSC isn’t bent out of shape about Entergy – they are out promoting with Entergy about rate lowering moves they’re making.
The nexus for the clarification is Attorney General’s decade long jihad against Entergy that employed out of state contingency fee trial lawyers. The case has bounced from state court to federal court and has caused ratepayers and taxpayers millions in legal fees.
The House is in on this policy initiative as well. Although not related to SB 2295, HB 1238 sponsored by Mark Baker tries to limit lawsuits against entities that are regulated under the consumer protection act. Baker took to the House floor to close on the bill and pulled the lens back on the larger issue of the Attorney General bypassing regulatory agencies with lawsuits organized by and benefiting a select group of trial lawyers.
The House bill is now heading to the Senate.
The Attorney General’s record in suing businesses is far from unblemished. Remember that three Assistant Attorney Generals in the last decade HAVE GONE TO FEDERAL PRISON FOR JUDICIAL BRIBERY. Those were people acting under the color of law in a civil setting. That’s in addition to two attorneys and a former State Auditor all with close ties to him.
The bottom line is that all of this has cost. Again, when a state Attorney General goes on a legal fishing expedition against a regulated utility, taxpayers/ratepayers fund both sides of the fight. Millions of dollars, that could in essence go to lowering utility rates even further, have been wasted and there’s nothing to show for it. Entergy is being sued by the Attorney General for, as he put it, “fixing rates”. Yet, Entergy has passed their audits with the Public Service Commission every year and within the last two years is providing the LOWEST energy costs to customers nationwide out of 146 investor owned utilities.
Policymakers shouldn’t lay awake at night wondering why major Fortune 500 businesses aren’t domiciled in Mississippi. In spite of low costs and a regulatory friendly environment, it’s this sort of legal bloodsport that companies avoid at all costs. These two bills will be a barometer to see how the Legislature feels about trying to reverse that trend – or at the very least putting a check on it.