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Mississippi PSC candidates hate robocalls, but then differ

July 31, 2019
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In this Aug. 1, 2018 photograph Pascagoula, Miss., Mayor Dane Maxwell, right, and members of the Pascagoula City Council discuss an audit. Maxwell is a candidate in the Republican Party primary for Public Service Commissioner, Southern District, on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. (Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald via AP)
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In this Aug. 1, 2018 photograph Pascagoula, Miss., Mayor Dane Maxwell, right, and members of the Pascagoula City Council discuss an audit. Maxwell is a candidate in the Republican Party primary for Public Service Commissioner, Southern District, on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. (Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald via AP)

The 10 candidates running for Democratic and Republican nominations for the Public Service Commission agree the utility regulator should do more to crack down on robocalls and telemarketers. Beyond that, their priorities diverge. They’re competing to replace current central district Commissioner Cecil Brown, a Democrat who’s retiring, and southern district Commissioner Sam Britton, a Republican who’s running for secretary of state. Northern district Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, is unopposed.

One major issue facing whoever wins will be setting new rates for Mississippi Power Co.

Now, customers pay a separate rate for the $1.1 billion natural gas portion of the company’s Kemper County power plant, after current commissioners forced the company to stop work on making gas from lignite coal. Mississippi Power and its parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., absorbed $6.4 billion in losses. Mississippi Power will seek to roll the Kemper rate into regular rates, and seek a way to pay heavy debts.

“We won’t pay another dime for the mistakes that were made in the past,” said Nic Lott, running as a Republican in the central district.

That’s a popular and widely shared sentiment. But in addition to debt, Mississippi Power has surplus generating capacity, and could end up with more if it inherits an additional stake in a coal power plant in Escatawpa.

“It’s going to be a problem, said Ryan Brown, running as a central district Democrat.

CENTRAL DISTRICT DEMOCRATS

Four Democrats seek their party’s nomination in the Central District. Outgoing Commissioner Cecil Brown is supporting his deputy, the unrelated Ryan Brown. Like several other candidates, Brown voiced concerns that cell phone companies may be misleading their customers with overly broad service area maps. Brown said the commission has limited oversight over phone companies, “but whatever tools are in the toolbox, I’m willing to use them.”

Brown also said he’d emphasize energy efficiency for the poorest utility customers, citing heavy air conditioning use and leaky old houses. He wants to better marketing of solar energy, as well as possible shared “community” solar installations.

Democrat De’Keither Stamps also emphasizes energy efficiency, but for governments. The current Jackson City Council member wants to work with city and county governments and school districts to save energy and cut utility bills. He said lower utility bills would give governments more to spend on other things.

Central district Democrats Dorothy Benford and Bruce Burton didn’t respond to requests for interviews from The Associated Press. Burton said Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair that he wants expansion of high speed internet in rural areas.

CENTRAL DISTRICT REPUBLICANS

Central district Republican Brent Bailey said he wants to improve current rules allowing consumers to sell self-generated solar energy to utilities, building a “more advantageous framework.” Bailey also wants to complete the commission’s delayed promise of permanent energy efficiency rules to replace what were supposed to be temporary “quick start” programs.

“There’s been no appetite to expand into the comprehensive phase,” Bailey said.

Bailey’s opponent, Nic Lott, has ties to former Gov. Haley Barbour and the unrelated U.S. Sen Trent Lott, makes a more partisan appeal. As an African American, Lott said he has a better chance to win the majority-black central district.

“I’m our best shot at November,” Lott tells Republicans.

He said he would recruit businesses by touting Mississippi’s utility rates and seek cheaper ways to roll out high-speed internet than laying fiber optic cable. Lott also said he’s been talking to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker about ways the Senate Commerce Committee chairman can help staunch robocalls.

SOUTHERN DISTRICT DEMOCRATS

Southern district Democrat Connie Moran, former mayor of Ocean Springs, wants to focus on economic development, expanding access to natural gas, high speed internet and good cellphone coverage. The commission currently directs private natural gas utilities to use some ratepayer money to expand natural gas pipes. Moran said the commission’s solar rules can be improved and wants more focus on sustainable energy.

Southern district Democrat Sugar Stallings ignored interview requests.

SOUTHERN DISTRICT REPUBLICANS

Pascagoula Mayor Dane Maxwell said he’s running for the southern district Republican nomination because “there’s more I can do on a bigger scale.” He expressed concern about cell phone companies overpromising on coverage areas, but said he doesn’t want the PSC to seek additional regulatory authority. “I’m not a big fan of regulating everyone to a certain point where they report to us and to the feds,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell said he believed the commission could help attract additional infrastructure money to Mississippi. He also said he wants the commission to re-establish its emergency center, responding to utility outages after hurricanes and other disasters.

Kelvin Schulz, a Kiln contractor, said he’s running because he was unhappy with how the commission handled his complaints about telemarketers. Unlike Maxwell, he wants the commission to regulate cell phone and internet service and rates, which would require federal law changes. He pledges, unlike Britton, to not use the post as “a stepping stone to higher office.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy .

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