Ignoring a plea from the Republican chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority and criticism from Democratic legislators, a Senate committee Thursday approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans for a transformation of the agency.
“Maybe it’ll work. Maybe not,” said TRA Chairman Kenneth Hill of the Haslam plan. “Why go there and inflict damage to the utilities of Tennessee and to the people of Tennessee … then have to come back and fix it?”
Hill, appointed to the TRA by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, said the utility-regulating agency is working extremely well, cutting back on costs on its own, operating at a lower cost than any similar regulatory agency in the Southeast and earning top scores in national ratings in such areas as enforcing gas pipeline safety.
In contrast, he contended that the governor and Herbert Slatery, the gubernatorial legal counsel who has served as point man in pushing the bill through the Legislature, has never explained why an agency “doing a good job” needs to be changed.
The central feature of Haslam’s bill (SB2247) is to eliminate the current four full-time director positions — one of them held by Hill — and replace them with five part-time directors. It also creates a new position for a full-time executive director of TRA.
Initially, the bill called for the governor to appoint the executive director. That has been changed to have the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker to jointly appoint the first executive director, who would served two years while conducting a “top-to-bottom review” of the agency.
Thereafter, the part-time board would appoint the executive director. Board appointments would be divided between the governor, the House speaker and the lieutenant governor. They would have to jointly agree on two appointees.
Hill and Henry Walker, an lawyer who practices before the TRA and served as general counsel to its predecessor agency, said part-time board members would be inexperienced in the technical matters TRA deals with and the executive director would effectively control the agency.
TRA directors sit as judges in rate cases and Walker said that using part-time directors would be the equivalent of having a state Supreme Court made up of part-time judges with the clerk of the court appointed by the governor and controlling information that goes to the part-time court.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, whose wife is a TRA director, said the legislation is “another in a series of bills where the Legislature is shifting authority from the legislative branch to the executive branch.”
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, disputed that proposition, saying the Legislature “ultimately has the hammer” to revise the agency again if deemed necessary and to oversee its operations and finances.
Slatery said the bill is a “much better model” for providing efficient service to consumers at the lowest price. With a part-time board, he said, appointing authorities would have “the best possible pool to choose from.”
The Senate panel approved the bill 8-3, all no votes coming from Democrats, clearing it for a floor vote next week. The House bill has cleared three committees with solid Republican support with one more to go.