(Note: This is a column written for the Knoxville Business Journal, also appearling HERE.)Perhaps the third time will be the charm for Gov. Bill Haslam in his dealings with the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, now that he has results from a ‘top-to-bottom review’ of the agency created as one of former Gov. Don Sundquist’s most-heralded accomplishments.
The TRA’s functions have been reduced considerably since 15 years ago, when it regulated the trucking industry and set rates for telephone customers. Those functions are gone.
But it still has significant duties, ranging from refereeing disputes within the telecommunications industry to oversight of sewer systems in subdivisions. And it still sets significant utility rates, an example being the privately-owned monopoly water company that serves Chattanooga.
Sundquist succeeded in his first legislative session abolishing what his office’s news releases always labeled ‘the scandal-plagued Public Service Commission,’ which in 1995 was headed by three Democrats elected by statewide popular vote. He got a couple of key Democrats — including now-Congressman Steve Cohen — to go along with the then-Republican minority to kill the PSC and replace it with the TRA.
Haslam, in his first legislative session this year, made two attempts to tinker with the TRA. Both fizzled.
Tennessee Regulatory Authority Chairman Eddie Roberson has announced his from the panel. This comes as Gov. Bill Haslam is engaged in a study on how to overhaul the agency that oversees many utilities in the state.
“Over this almost four decades, a sea of change has occurred in the field of utility regulation and I believe the TRA has navigated well through these changing times,” Roberson said in a letter of resignation to Haslam. The resignation is effective Oct 1.
Roberson’s term had actually expired on July 1, but he had agreed to stay on for an indefinite period as the governor’s study of the agency continues.
Haslam has assigned his senior advisor, Mark Cate, and legal counsel, Herb Slatery, to research the TRA with an eye toward revisions. They have interviewed all directors and some staff of the agency and are expected to draft legislation for next year’s legislative session.
Haslam’s administration introduced a bill in the Legislature earlier this year that would have reduced the number of TRA directors from four to three while making other changes, but he abandoned attempts at passage. The governor also nominated Andre Fowlkes, owner of a Memphis business named Innpowerment, as a director of the TRA, then withdrew the nomination after Republican lawmakers objected.
In addition to Roberson, Director Mary Freeman is also serving on the current four-member panel though her official term ended on July 1. The other two directors are Sara Kyle of Memphis and Kenneth Hill of Blountville.
Under the present TRA system, the governor, the speaker of the House and the speaker of the Senate each appoint one director and the four director is chosen by consensus of all three.
Asked for comment recently on the review by Cate and Slatery, Haslam spokesman David Smith sent this statement by email:
“As part of our review of boards and commissions, we’re having conversations with a number of stakeholders to understand the roles and functions from the perspectives of those involved including board members, staff, executive directors and representatives from the industries that are regulated. The TRA review is part of this overall process.”
Roberson served on staff of the TRA and its predecessor agency, the Public Service Commission, prior to his selection as a director. The old PSC, which had three commissioners elected by statewide vote, was replaced by the appointed commission in 1995 at the urging of then-Gov. Don Sundquist.
The TRA’s role has been substantially reduced with deregulation of the telecommunications industry and other developments, but it still has some oversight functions in telecommunications and oversees such industries as natural gas companies and private water utilities.
Roberson’s resignation letter may be found HERE.
Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed Andre Fowlkes to become a director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, succeeding Eddie Roberson on the four-member panel that regulates utilities across the state.
Haslam spokesman David Smith confirmed the appointment in response to an email request.
According to a resolution hailing Fowlkes appointment (passed by the Senate, it seems, before Haslam had officially announced his action), Fowlkes is owner of Innpowerment, a Memphis business “focused on empowering people to use innovation and take advantage of the resources and opportunities available to them.”
He is also a weekly business columnist for The Commercial Appeal, assists LaunchMemphis as Director of Civic Entrepreneurship, and serves on the
Advisory Board for the Memphis Area Teacher’s Credit Union as well as Economic Opportunities (a rehabilitation program for ex-felons), according to the resolution
The appointment, subject to legislative confirmation, comes with a Haslam administration bill pending in the Legislature that would reduce the number of TRA commissioners from four to three.
Roberson was appointed as a TRA director in 2006 by former Gov. Phil Bredesen after a career working for the agency and its predecessor, the Public Service Commission, since 1975.