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Democrats are battling in a primary to take on U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who remains the subject of a federal investigation into undisclosed payments from the Flagler Dog Track to his mother's company.
One of the top Democratic contenders is Joe Garcia, who lost two previous congressional races, including one against Rivera in 2010. This year Garcia jumped late into the race after Democrats recruited political newcomer Gloria Romero Roses. They are the top two Democrats competing in the newly drawn District 26, a closely split Republican-Democratic district that stretches from Miami-Dade to Key West.
Romero Roses attacked Garcia in a mailer:
"Trading on his cozy relationship with energy lobbyists to raise tens of thousands of dollars for his failed campaigns -- after he voted to raise our utility rates."
The mailer is referring to Garcia’s tenure as a commissioner from 1994 to 2000 on the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities and sets electric rates. A footnote cites multiple newspaper articles most of which overlapped with Garcia’s commissioner tenure.
We wanted to check if Garcia "voted to raise our utility rates."
For this claim accusing Garcia of raising utility rates, Romero Roses’ campaign sent us a list of what they said were multiple examples of rate hikes.
First, some background on the Public Service Commission. The governor appoints members to the commission who must be approved by the Senate. When utilities -- electric, natural gas, water, and wastewater -- want a rate hike, they must get the commission’s approval. The commission has to set rates that allow investors an opportunity to earn a reasonable return. The commission does not set rates for publicly owned or cooperative utilities.
We interviewed J.R. Kelly, the public counsel who serves as the public’s advocate for utility related matters. Kelly said he couldn’t speak to Garcia’s votes while on the commission, because Kelly started at the Office of the Public Counsel about five years ago -- many years after Garcia’s tenure ended. But he spoke to us in general about the commission.
The commission usually grants some percentage of the increase that utilities seek, he said. The utilities have the burden to prove that they warrant the increase. Electrical utilities can also get an increase to pay for rising fuel costs which is separate from any rate hike on base rates.
If a utility meets the burden of proof for the rate increase, "the commission is pretty much bound to approve what they are asking for."
Rate increase votes
We aren’t going to dissect here all the votes cited by the Romero Roses campaign. However, we did review the meeting minutes and news articles the Romero Roses campaign provided about those votes. We sent the list to Garcia’s campaign and they generally didn’t dispute the votes but raised some caveats, and we found some of our own caveats.
• One vote was a fuel surcharge -- not a base rate increase: When gas prices rise, electric companies are entitled to a fuel surcharge to cover their costs, according to state law. The Tampa Bay Times wrote that millions of Floridians would see their electric bills go up between $2.67 and $4.39 a month for the typical household in 2000 that used Florida Power and Light, Tampa Electric or Florida Power Corp. The minutes show he wasn’t participating in that vote though at some point he was at the meeting. Romero Roses' campaign obtained the minutes while our factcheck was underway and agrees Garcia didn’t participate in that vote.
• Many were increases only in certain areas of the state or had a limited scope. One vote in 2000 was a pilot prepaid electricity program for low-income customers designed to help them avoid service charges. A newspaper article said it would raise rates 8 percent but a commissioner described the program as "optional." The Fort Pierce News wrote that Garcia was in favor of the pilot: "That extra cost needs to be borne by those who are going to use it..."
There were two votes to raise rates for City Gas Company that served Miami-Dade and Broward counties -- one was an interim increase approved in August 1996 and the other was an increase approved in October 1996. Business Wire wrote that the interim hike equaled a 4.8 percent average increase while the Miami Herald wrote the October vote would raise rates on average $2.34 a month. Customers had a temporary 4.8 percent increase and then when the increase later became permanent it went up to 5.8 percent.
A 1997 vote allowed Florida Power to raise rates for 1.3 million customers by 40 cents a month for the average customer. Florida Power sought the increase to pay for a legal settlement. The commission’s vote sheet shows that Garcia voted in favor. Romero Roses’ campaign said that would have applied to the Miami area. Garcia’s campaign said it was cheaper for the customers to have the case settled and pay a small increase rather than Florida Power continue the litigation.
• Not every vote was technically a vote to raise rates: The commission voted in 1995 to direct Southern State Utilities to include three additional counties in its rate hike request. The utility had planned on excluding them. The Tampa Bay Times wrote in 1996 that the impact of a rate increase would vary -- some customers would pay about $30 more a month while others would experience a decrease. The Times wrote that Southern State Utilities was the state’s largest water utility and served customers between the Panhandle and Naples.
Garcia says he cut rates
We sent Garcia’s campaign a list of his commission votes cited by Romero Roses. Garcia did vote in favor of raising rates while a commissioner, said his spokesman, Jeffrey Garcia. But the campaign argues those votes do not provide a full picture of his actions on the commission -- including his 1999 vote in favor of a $1 billion settlement with FPL.
"At the time that was the largest decrease ever by far and it outweighed any increases that took place during the previous six years," Jeffrey Garcia said.
In May 1999, the PSC unanimously voted in favor of the $1 billion settlement reached by the public counsel at the time, Jack Shreve. The settlement translated to a monthly average savings of $5 a month for three years.
Joe Garcia told PolitiFact that people paid less on utility bills in 2000 when he left the commission compared to 1994.
"By the time I was done, utility rates had gone down," he said. "Peoples’ phone bills had gone down. Peoples’ gas bills had gone down. Particularly in the gas and telecommunication area we opened up competition so peoples’ rates automatically went down.’"
Garcia didn’t have documentation to prove that the $1 billion FPL cut washed out votes for increases, but he pointed to Miami Herald editorials in 2000 that described him as consumer friendly.
"Mr. Garcia was committed to consumer protection, yet admirably even-handed in balancing the diverse, competing telecommunications interests of the region," the Miami Herald wrote in one editorial in 2000.
Another 2000 Miami Herald editorial praised Garcia as the "consumer friendly" head of the commission and said he repeatedly sought legislative funding to promote a federal program to help provide poor families with telephones.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from Pasco County who long battled a water utility, said it's wrong to claim that the $1 billion cut for Florida Power and Light would wipe out other utility increases everywhere in the state.
"For them to suggest let’s balance it off because he voted for a rate cut for FPL, how does that help people in Pasco County?" Fasano said, because Pasco consumers aren’t served by FPL. "It doesn’t."
Romero Roses said Joe Garcia "voted to raise our utility rates." He did take votes in favor of utility rate increases while serving on the Public Service Commission between 1994 and 2000. The role of commissioners is to review rate increases and determine if they are warranted and if so grant them.
But Garcia’s tenure on the commission can’t be boiled down into a simple sentence. Some of those increases contain caveats -- for example, they were limited to only part of the state or to certain customers. Garcia also voted in favor of a $1 billion settlement for consumers who used FPL.
Whether all of Garcia’s votes for increases or decreases add up to on average less or more for a consumer could vary depending on where that consumer lived at the time.
We rate this claim Half True.
Florida Public Services Commission, Overview and key facts, Accessed July 31, 2012
Gloria Romero Roses Congressional campaign, Public service commission votes, 1995-2000
PolitiFact, "David Rivera wrong about Joe Garcia’s vote on utility rates,"Oct. 14, 2010
Miami Herald’s Naked Politics blog,"David Rivera challengers: ‘Enron’ Joe and ‘lying’ Gloria in Democrat mailer war,"July 18, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, "Southern Bell signs $1 billion settlement," Accessed in Nexis, Jan. 6 1994
Tampa Bay Times, "Official criticizes utility company," Accessed in Nexis, Sept. 16, 1997
Tampa Bay Times, "Aloha customers finally get their wish: good, clean water,"Aug. 25, 2011
Miami Herald, "State cops, prosecutors were ready to charge U.S. Rep. David Rivera until the case fell apart,"July 16, 2012
Florida Times-Union, "Utility’s rate hike enrages residents," May 10, 1997
Tampa Bay Times, "SSU hangs onto rate boost of $7.9 million,"Aug. 3, 1996
Orlando Sentinel,"Utility customers win compromise rate rise,"Aug. 16, 1996
Business Wire,"NUI’s City gas granted $2.15 million interim rate increase,"Aug. 13, 1996
Miami Herald, "City Gas gets ok to raise customer rates,"Nov. 1, 1996
Sarasota Herald Tribune, "Lower rates to start in April," March 17, 1999
Tampa Bay Times, "PSC approves 60 percent increase in utility’s rates,"May 5, 1999
Tampa Bay Times, "Taking a bit here, there/Electric bills will climb due to higher oil prices," May 17, 2000
Miami Herald, editorial, "Punchlines Gov. Bush Must Choose or Lose," Aug. 23, 2000
Miami Herald, editorial, "Phones Are a Life-Line But Companies Keep Low-Cost Service a Secret," June 10, 2000
Tampa Bay Times, "Florida Supreme Court Says Duke Energy's Proposed Power Plant Is Illegal," April 21, 2000
Interview, Jeffrey Garcia, spokesman for Congressional candidate Joe Garcia, July 27, 2012
Interview, Vladimir Gutman, campaign manager for Congressional District 26 candidate Gloria Romero Roses, July 27, 2012
Interview, Joe Garcia, candidate for Congressional District 26, July 30, 2012
Interview, J.R. Kelly, Public Counsel, Office of the Public Counsel, July 27, 2012
Interview, Bev DeMello, spokeswoman for the Florida Public Service Commission, Aug. 2, 2012
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