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Sumner tries again for election of public service commissioners

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Introduced for the tenth year running is a bill that would change the way the state's three public service commissioners are selected.

House Bill 2042, sponsored by Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, would have commissioners not appointed by the governor but rather elected by the voters of the state.

"I was a sponsor of the bill in 2004 with another delegate, and I've done it every year since," Sumner said. "I did it because of constituents who were interested in electing commissioners."

Some of her constituents feel that if commissioners were elected rather than appointed, they would be more accountable, she said — a reference to frustration with rising utility rates.

All three of the current commissioners live in Charleston.

"They're not representative of even the geographical regions of the state," she said.

It's unclear how many people would be good candidates and would go to the effort of running.

"You want commissioners that have experience and understanding of the utility industry," said PSC spokesperson Susan Small.

The range of areas regulated by the commission is broad, Small pointed out, including the electric, natural gas, telephone and water and sewer utilities as well as gas pipeline and railroad safety, landfills and solid waste carriers, transportation of hazardous materials and more.

"Finding suitable candidates who have no current financial interest in the industries they regulate — it's not as easy to find commissioners as you might think."

The three commissioners regulate these areas with a staff of about 280 and a budget of about $26 million.

The idea is subject to the same criticisms that always accompany election over appointment: politicizing the selection process, putting the office holders in the pockets of the regulated.

All of the surrounding states' commissioners are appointed by governors or, in the case of Virginia, the state's General Assembly.

In fact, only "a handful" of states practice election of commissioners, according to utility lawyer and regulatory expert Scott Hempling.

"Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota: elected by the people," Hempling said. "Maybe a few more."

This bill has never gotten out of committee, according to Sumner, and it has never been placed on an agenda.

"I hope that at least the Committee on Government Organization would take a look at it," she said. "Let's see if this is something that would be beneficial for the people of West Virginia and if it could save the taxpayers money on their utility bills."