TALLAHASSEE (News Service of Florida) — The state Public Service Commission on Monday could suspend a long-scheduled hearing about increasing Florida Power & Light’s base electric rates, after FPL and some major power users proposed an eleventh-hour settlement agreement.
The Public Service Commission sent out a news release Thursday saying it would meet Monday, as scheduled. But it gave no clue about how it would address FPL’s proposals to temporarily suspend the hearing and decide on the settlement agreement by the end of August.
Two key opponents of the proposed settlement, the state Office of Public Counsel and the Florida Retail Federation, filed a document Thursday afternoon that said they don’t object to a suspension. But they reiterated their opposition to the settlement, which calls for a $548 million increase in base rates next year, and also said the PSC shouldn’t make a decision by the end of the month.
The retail group, and the public counsel, which represents consumers on utility issues, said their position on the suspension “is a recognition of the reality that the hearing cannot practically go forward on its current schedule, given the timing of the ‘settlement’ filing and the need for time and opportunity to respond to it fully without sacrificing the requirements of case preparation.”
FPL and three other groups that formally intervened in the rate case — the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, the South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association and federal agencies that are large electricity users — announced late Wednesday afternoon they had agreed to the settlement.
Early this year, FPL proposed a $690.4 million increase in base rates, a total that was sliced to $548 million in the proposed agreement. The public counsel and the retail federation, however, argue that FPL’s base rates should decrease — not increase — by $253 million in 2013.
The Public Service Commission scheduled the hearing on FPL’s original rate request to last from Monday through Aug. 31, as it prepared to listen to a parade of witnesses and deal with piles of highly technical information.
But along with the settlement proposal, FPL filed a request Wednesday to suspend the hearing until Aug. 30, at which point the regulators would consider arguments and evidence. FPL also requested that commissioners decide on the settlement Aug. 30 or, if that is not possible, the next day.
FPL said such a quick decision is necessary to allow time in September for a full-blown hearing if the proposed settlement is not approved. But while not opposing a suspension, the public counsel and retail federation objected to FPL’s proposed new schedule as “legally and logistically inadequate.”
Base-rate cases are among the most complex issues that go before the commission, and settlements have been approved in the past. It also is common for the public counsel and organizations such as the retail federation and the Florida Industrial Power Users Group to represent residents and business customers in the cases.
But the proposed FPL settlement is complicated, in part, because the intervening groups are split about whether it should be approved. Early this year, for example, some of the same groups agreed to a wide-ranging settlement with Progress Energy Florida that included an increase in base rates --- clearing the way for approval by the commission.
Possibly helping explain at least part of the split, a document filed in support of the settlement says most residential customers would see a “modest bill increase in 2013” if the agreement is approved but that most business customers would see their bills remain flat or decrease.
“The settlement agreement would promote economic development in the state of Florida by providing significant base-rate reductions and reasonable, competitive rates for many of Florida’s businesses that continue to emerge from the recession,’’ the document says.