Why should north Alabamians care about Alabama Power rates? Because those rates are a symbol of how easily state politicians dupe voters.
The three members of the Public Service Commission hold statewide elected offices. Their role is to ensure Alabama Power does not abuse its state-created monopoly by overcharging ratepayers.
That role, of course, requires a healthy tension between the regulators and the regulated. The people of Alabama effectively have said Alabama Power can have its monopoly, but rigorous overview is needed to ensure rates are as low as possible.
The Mobile Press-Register — whose subscribers are within Alabama Power's service area — on Sunday published a careful report concluding that, even though Alabama Power can produce power less expensively than its sister company, Georgia Power, it charges much higher rates for residential and commercial customers.
A simple explanation for the disparity is that Alabama Power-affiliated political action committees contribute massive amounts of money to politicians in the state.
That's not a complete explanation, though, because it takes more than campaign money to win an election. It takes votes. If clear-eyed voters understood Alabama Power's influence on state officials and believed that influence was inflating rates, PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Jeremy Oden — who this month rejected a formal review of the monopoly's rate structure — would have short-lived political careers.
While Alabama Power rates have little impact on north Alabama, Cavanaugh's response to accusations — that she was more cozy with the utility than with the consumers who voted for her — followed a common strategy.
The proposed rate review, she said, was a plot by radical environmentalists. It was part of President Barack Obama's plan to undermine coal production. It would involve "fancy San Francisco lawyers" in the process. She did not bother to explain how a simple rate review — part of PSC's job and proposed by a Republican commissioner who opposes Obama policies — had any connection to these horrors, because she does not believe voters require an explanation. She is convinced she can push the hot buttons — environmentalists, Obama, lawyers — and Alabamians will reflexively support her.
Politicians throughout the state use the same strategy. The state GOP agenda released last week was little more than an anti-Obama rant. If voters despise Obama enough, state politicians figure, they won't pay attention to bad policies that invariably help corporate contributors while hurting a struggling state.
Most Alabamians oppose Obama's policies. That's fine. The problem is that Cavanaugh and others have figured out they can get away with anything, as long as they bash Obama in the process.
A healthy suspicion of government is laudable. By fixating on Obama, though, voters are giving state government a free pass.
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