Should regulators who set your rates attend utility-sponsored conferences?

The state Public Service Commission initiated cost-cutting measures this year, but that hasn’t stopped regulators from attending conferences.

Some PSC members were slammed earlier this year for attending a conference in D.C and in 2009 for attending several conferences funded in part by utilities. Now, a utility customer says she’s had enough.

Alex Larson, a local gadfly from Loxahatchee, called commissioners out for their plans to attend upcoming conferences sponsored in part by utilities.

“I struggle to pay my bills in this economy but taxpayer money is being used for PSC members to [mingle with] the other utilities they regulate,” Larson wrote in an email Wednesday to Gov. Rick Scott. “Does anyone else have a problem with this?…How can the Florida ratepayers get fair treatment from the PSC?”

A Florida TaxWatch report released this month recommends there be “more restrictions be placed on taxpayer-funded travel by agencies” and suggests government employees use teleconferences and other electronic technology instead.

State law allows commissioners to attend conferences. It’s unclear how much the PSC will pay for the upcoming conferences since expenses are typically turned in after the events, but it spent roughly $1,000 for each PSC representative that attended the D.C. conference.

The upcoming conferences are in Orlando, which should save money, and they are also being attended by a host of other public officials, including legislators and state agency leaders:

Florida Natural Gas Summit: This conference, happening today and tomorrow, has panels that include a consumer advocate and an FPL vice president. Its sponsors include TECO, Florida Public Utilities and FPL. Commissioner Eduardo Balbis will moderate a panel that includes a TECO President Gordon Gillette, and Commissioner Lisa Edgar will moderate a panel with two natural gas companies that own pipelines in Florida but don’t appear to be regulated by the PSC.

Florida Energy Summit: This event is from Oct. 26 to Oct. 28 and it is hosted by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is now in charge of the state’s energy office. Its sponsors include TECO, FPL and Gulf Power. PSC Chairman Art Graham will be on a panel with other state officials, including former PSC Director Mary Bane, who is now Gov. Rick Scott’s energy advisor, and the agency’s new executive director, Braulio Baez, was invited to moderate a panel with a Progress Energy representative.

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