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Public Service Commission: The insider vs. the reformer

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Oh, sweet Jesus — Bubba's back.

That thought crossed the minds of many political junkies when "Lauren McDonald" popped up as a GOP candidate for the Public Service Commission's Northern District. McDonald, once known as "Bubba," is a one-time commissioner who also served 20 years in the state House as a Democrat. He had an abysmal record on the five-member state agency that decides how much we pay to turn on our lights and heat houses, but he's hoping voters didn't pay attention.

To put it more bluntly: McDonald epitomizes a utility and special interest lapdog.

In one notable 2001 rate-hike case, he passed off a last-minute letter sent to him by a Georgia Power lawyer as his own idea. He claimed the plan would return $118 million to customers – turns out the number was more like $5 million. The episode convinced Commissioner Angela Speir, a pro-consumer warrior whose decision not to run placed the seat in contention, to push for a ban on private communications between commissioners, and the lobbyists and lawyers for utilities they regulate.

In another case, McDonald voted for a settlement favoring textile makers. Days prior to the vote, he received $10,450 in contributions from the industry. What a ka-winkee-dink.

This year, unsurprisingly, his campaign is heavily funded by utility lobbyists and executives.

Fortunately, voters have two other choices – one of whom is very qualified. Democrat Jim Powell is an energy consultant and former U.S. Energy Department official. He wants to stick up for consumers and to guide the state toward a future less dependent on fossil fuels. By all accounts, he's well-balanced and cerebral fellow, with the background and discipline for the complex issues that come before the commission. (The other candidate is Libertarian Brandon Givens.)

Powell's demonstrated his integrity by swearing off contributions from lawyers and lobbyists for utilities. He's been rewarded with Speir's endorsement, even though she's a Republican.

He's also been fighting a tough battle to keep his name on the ballot. Just before the July 15 primary, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel revived a challenge of Powell's residency in the district, even though a Superior Court judge had dismissed it weeks earlier (commissioners run statewide but must live in specific districts). Handel booted him off the ballot, but a day before polls opened, a judge granted him a stay. Though signs declaring him off the ballot remained at polling places, Powell won 85 percent of the vote.

Despite losing again at the state Court of Appeals, Handel's continued her dogged challenge. Now, Powell, who's never before run for political office, is waiting for his chance to finally settle the matter in state Supreme Court. The fiasco has hindered his ability to raise money and is forcing his campaign to spend a lot on lawyers. But it hasn't stopped Powell from campaigning. And his candidacy has become something of a cause celebre for Democrats, who view Handel's efforts as akin to the tactics used in Florida in 2000 to hand George W. Bush the presidency.

The stakes aren't as high in this race as they were in that one, but the next few years will be a pivotal time for the commission. The most pressing issue is whether Georgians should pay $6.4 billion upfront for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, one of two Southern Co. owned and operated nuclear plants in the state. At the same time, carbon taxes may well raise costs at Georgia Power's coal-fired plants, increasing pressure on the state to take advantage of conservation, biofuels, wind and solar.

If Powell doesn't replace Speir, consumers will have only one true advocate on the five-member commission, Republican Bobby Baker.

McDonald says he's running on his record. Fair enough. Georgians should take a good, long look. Then, they should vote for Powell.

NOTE: A less competitive PSC contest pits Libertarian John Monds against incumbent Republican Doug Everett.

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