Haslam: Should TRA Be Abolished?

Gov. Bill Haslam raised the possibility of abolishing the Tennessee Regulatory Authority in the future and acknowledged that he ran into problems with Republican legislators by trying to name a Democrat to TRA earlier this year.
“Should there be a TRA, given the change in regulatory function?” Haslam asked in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “If so, what size should it be?”
He suggested that functions of the agency, an independent entity with directors appointed by the General Assembly and governor, might better be folded into the executive branch. The TRA, which wields both judicial and executive powers, oversees rates for some investor-owned telephone utilities as well as for investor-owned water, natural gas and electric utilities (though most former functions in regulating telecommunications companies were eliminated in 2009).
…TRA Chairwoman Mary Freeman said there’s “definitely a role” for the TRA.
“You have 49 other states that have public service commissions, and though we serve different areas, I think it’s a necessity,” she said.
Freeman said the TRA’s mission is regulating monopolies or near-monopolies and “trying to find that balance with the consumers.”
The agency has about 70 employees, including directors, attorneys and experts in utility operations and rates. In addition to its regulatory duties, the agency fields consumer complaints, conducts gas pipeline safety inspections, runs Lifeline linkup programs and operates telephone discount programs for the needy.
…McCormick said state lawmakers took issue with Haslam over his plan to appoint a Democratic supporter, Andrew Fowlkes (of Memphis), as a TRA director.
He said the idea of appointing Fowlkes, who is black, to meet diversity goals drew “some negative feedback” because Republicans believed a black Republican could be found to replace Freeman, who also is black.
“I’m sure he [Fowlkes] is a great guy … but he’s a Democrat, and I think a lot of our members didn’t feel comfortable supporting him for that position,” McCormick said.
Speaking to the Times Free Press, Haslam acknowledged GOP lawmakers’ opposition.
“Yeah, well, to be frank, there was some concern there,” Haslam said of the nomination, which ultimately was dropped. Fowlkes could not be reached for comment.
Haslam’s administration also dropped a push to cut the number of TRA directors from four to three as a cost-saving measure.
Freeman and Roberson, both Democrats whose terms are to end July 1, are expected to serve until replaced or a position is abolished.
When pressed whether regulation is needed, Haslam conceded that many companies overseen by the TRA are monopolies not subject to a competitive market.
“Maybe there is a need,” he said. “I don’t know enough to make a final call yet. Or maybe an existing state department can do it. We have state departments that oversee a lot of things.”

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