Bill envisions extra scrutiny of powerful Public Service Commission, which is already slated for a facelift
With a new governor in office and new commissioners coming to the Maryland Public Service Commission, the powerful utility regulator is about to get a significant makeover.
But that’s not enough for one lawmaker and some environmentalists. They are pushing for an independent study of the PSC’s staffing and operations, arguing that doing so will help the commission fulfill its growing responsibilities — including implementing the ambitious climate law that the General Assembly passed last year.
“Let’s make sure they have the resources and tools they need to be on track with [the] Climate Solutions [law] and with the transition to renewable energy,” Del. Marlon Amprey (D-Baltimore City) said in an interview Thursday. “This is a pathway for them to be successful.”
Amprey, a member of the House Economic Matters Committee, has introduced a bill that would require the PSC to contract with an outside consultant for a study of the staffing capacity, structural organization, various operations and strategic focus of the agency.
The requirements would include probing whether current staff are able to address the PSC’s expanding responsibilities and have expertise in renewable energy sources and the threats posed by greenhouse gas emissions; whether each of the commissioners should have dedicated staff; whether seats on the PSC should be reserved for particular political parties; the relationship between the PSC and the utilities it regulates; whether the agency is effectively implementing its legislative mandates, particularly on climate change; and whether it is being responsive to ratepayers and sensitive to the needs of poorer residents.
“We know that we are in a transformational period in our state,” Amprey told his colleagues during a committee hearing Thursday. “The goal would be to have a third party assessment of how the PSC is doing.”
A legislative analysis estimates that it would cost the state about $200,000 in the upcoming fiscal year to pay for such a study.
Amprey is pressing his legislation at a time when the five-member commission is coming under intense scrutiny in recent years as state leaders sharpen and strengthen their goals for confronting climate change. Although the PSC has long been considered an obscure regulatory entity that deals with arcane energy policy, complex laws on utilities, gas and electricity generation and transmission, and consumer protection mandates, many environmentalists believe the commission hasn’t been proactive enough when it comes to shaping and implementing new laws and guidelines and, in particular, has been too deferential to utilities that promote and rely on fossil fuels.
And these same environmental leaders cheered Gov. Wes Moore’s decision in late January to rescind two of the recess appointments his predecessor, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), made to the PSC last summer, and they looked ahead to June 30, when the five-year term of the PSC chair, Jason Stanek, another Hogan appointee, expired.
Moore (D) nominated two people to serve on the PSC last month, including Fred Hoover, a former leader of the Maryland Energy Administration, to serve as chair. But the other nominee, Juan Alvarado, withdrew his nomination following criticism by environmentalists and lawmakers about his work for the natural gas industry. That still leaves two vacancies on the commission for Moore to fill, though the two Hogan recess appointments, Patrice Bubar and Odogwu Obi Linton, are expected to serve until their successors are sworn in.
In a statement to Maryland Matters Thursday, a Moore spokesperson, Carter Elliott IV, said the administration is continuing to vet candidates.
“Gov. Moore and his Appointments Office are conducting a thorough and deliberate search,” Elliott said. “The administration hopes to have nominations put forth in the near future.”
Amprey’s legislation for an outside audit of the PSC calls on the commission to report its findings and recommendations to the governor and four legislative committees by July 1, 2024. The PSC would be required to provide updates on the implementation of each recommendation in the report to those same committees three times between Jan. 1, 2025 and July 1, 2026.
The lawmaker’s push for an outside study of the PSC comes as the commission is undergoing its own internal study of its staffing and resources, through a workgroup of stakeholders that includes representatives of utilities and the Office of People’s Counsel, a state agency that represents consumers’ interests on utility matters. The workgroup published an initial report in late December, though a follow-up is expected.
The PSC’s interim internal stakeholder study acknowledges the agency’s expanding responsibilities and the extra scrutiny it is receiving from policymakers in the General Assembly and other interested parties that follow the commission’s proceedings. However, it noted that the PSC yielded many personnel responsibilities in 2015 to the state Department of Budget and Management (DBM), which also exercises control of the commission’s annual budget plan. One recommendation: take the hiring responsibilities away from the budget agency.
“DBM does not…have the technical or practical understanding needed to make decisions about who should be certified as qualified for many PSC positions,” the interim study says. “At the same time, the State (through various agencies) actively litigates before the Commission and seeks to influence its decisions in work group and other settings. Allowing another State agency to exercise significant authority over the hiring and funding abilities of the Commission limits aspects of the Commission’s functional independence.”
The workgroup also recommended adding at least 13 additional positions to the agency to fulfill its mission.
Amanda Best, the PSC’s deputy executive secretary and chief operating officer, testified Thursday that “the commission is already addressing the issues outlined” in Amprey’s legislation through its internal study. She said the agency isn’t opposed to the bill but isn’t ready to delve into some of the issues the measure would require.
But Amprey and the environmental leaders who testified suggested that the agency’s ongoing study and the one envisioned in the bill aren’t the same.
Amprey’s proposed report “requires a significantly different skill-set,” said Josh Tulkin, Maryland director of the Sierra Club. “It’s difficult for an agency to fully and sufficiently assess itself.”
Amprey made a similar argument.
“Sometimes you need that outside viewpoint,” he said.