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Advice and Dissent at the PUC BY W. GARDNER SELBY Austin HENRY “MOAK” Rollins gazed sternly at some of the 60 witnesses who trooped before him during fall hearings at the Capitol. The heavyset chairman of the Task Force on Public Utility Regulation then delivered lengthy questions and sometimes volunteered his own answers. Rollins marked such sallies by intoning, “It seems to me . . . ” perhaps daring witnesses to disagree. Rollins’s handling of the hearings suggested both that he had his mind made up and, perhaps fortunately for the task force, the former Public Utility Commission member turned utility consultant, would readily share his wish list on how to shape up the embattled PUC. Time was short, to say the least. Established by Governor Bill Clements in July, the nine-member task force \(with three members chosen by Clements, three by Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby and three by House Speaker Gib recommend changes to the commission’s structure. The hope was that a transformed PUC would temper the public wrangling that has made commission meetings the most dramatic show in Austin for nearly a year As the hearings ended in mid-October, task force members anticipated preparing a short list of suggestions in time for the November 14 special session of the Legislature. Among the options open to discussion were the creation of technical qualifications for appointed commissioners, a code of conduct, more expert staff, better definition of duties for the commission’s executive director, and clarification of the roles of the commission’s general counsel, now statutorily committed to representing an undefined “public interest. ” List or no list, nearly every speaker who went before the task force from a Grey Panthers of Texas messenger to a consultant to the Texas Industrial Energy Consumers Mary Jo Campbell and Marta Greytok opposed any changes to the PUC without careful legislative review. TIEC consultant Bill Avera warned, “A major restructuring of the PUC at this time may do irreparable W. Gardner Selby is an Austin-based journalist. damage to the economy.” Avera added later: “It’s not as if the PUC is unexamined.” In early October, Lena Guerrero, the Austin Democratic state representative and co-chair of the committee, perhaps unintentionally suggesting the futility of the quick study, said: “There really isn’t the time to go through the kinds of issues that we should.” It is possible that Clements expected as much when he revealed plans for the task force last April an announcement obviously well-timed to divert attention from the tense Senate confirmation hearings for PUC Chair Greytok and William Cassin, whose term ended in September. Indeed, the governor subsequently took a month more to name his appointees to the task force than members planned to spend drafting recommendations. The political purpose of the task force, loaded with a majority of Democrats, may have merely been to forestall Democratic gubernatorial candimaking public utility regulation an issue in 1990. The sight of the appointed legislators and citizens trying to understand all the give and take of the commission occasionally proved Committee Chair Moak Rollins humorous, if only because the assembled committee members told jokes about killing all the lawyers and listened to Cassin compare Commissioner Campbell to a rabid skunk. Like Rollins, several task force members showed either a pro-utility or proconsumer bent in their questions. After hearings began in September, members asked city, consumer and industrial advocates to consider making PUC meetings more private, expanding the commission to six or nine members, and ending cities’ original jurisdiction in utility rate cases. Those ideas yielded a generous “not at this time” from almost everybody. Promoting his view of things, Rollins characterized municipal intervention in rate cases as ultimately too costly to ratepayers. Cities routinely intervene in rate cases to present their challenges to proposed rate increases before the PUC; the cost of intervention is later passed to utility customers in each city. Speaking to that arrangement, Rollins compared city participation to handing a hired attorney a blank check. After the hearing, Rollins added: “There is a plethora of representation of the residential interests [before the PUC] .. . very frankly, the more participants you have, the more the total expenditure in the VIC HINTERLANG 4 OCTOBER 27, 1989