PUC Plays Musical Chairs

Smitherman to head up state-wide electricity regulators.

The Public Utility Commission has little effect on most Austin Energy-utilizing readers of this blog. But the state body that regulates non-municipality electric and telecommunications providers, has just had a significant staffing shift on its three-seat ruling board.

At his own request, current chair Paul Hudson has stood down, and has been replaced as presiding officer by fellow commissioner Barry Smitherman. While Hudson will stay on the commission as an ordinary member, this still sends a message. Hudson oversaw the transition to deregulation of the electric market that took place in most of the state last year: the shift had been sold as bringing price cuts that have since failed to materialize. As chair, he was the sole voice that spoke up for preventative regulation, to prevent price gouging or another Enron. Former Harris County ssistant district attorney Smitherman has instead always supported punitive regulation, and said publicly that he believed the first choice should always be to let the market play itself out.

While Hudson rarely out-voted Smitherman and the equally anti-interventionist third commissioner Julie Parsley, his position of chair meant his concerns were at least given some weight. Market watchers and consumer advocates will probably be watching future PUC adjudications to see how the switch of seats shifts the situation.

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