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Always On

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Much has been made about Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn’s call for formal hearings on utility rates in our State.

So fierce is the dislike of Dunn in certain quarters, he now faces a runoff with fellow Republican Chip Beeker to determine who will represent Place 2 at the PSC.

For some Dunn is a populist hero; for others, he’s a radical environmentalist.

I don’t think Dunn is either. To me, he is a victim of the ambitions of his assistant David Rountree and others who find companies like Alabama Power a convenient political target.

For the most part utility monopolies are not loved by anyone except their shareholders. They do however make great punching bags, for columnists, environmentalists, advocacy groups and politicos trying to score a few points with populist sentiment. But no matter how hated the utilities may be, try doing without one for a few days and then see how you feel.

The idea of ranting about utility rates is an old saw, popularized in Alabama by former Gov. George Wallace. Political historian Steve Flowers in his column, Inside the State House, had this to say:

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“He [Wallace] was considered the most ardent race baiter in America. However, when this boogieman ran its course, Wallace found another enemy: the Alabama Power Company. In the 1970s Wallace focused his venom toward the Power Company and fought and cursed it at every turn. The Power Company paid a heavy price at the hands of Wallace.”

By the time Wallace was through vilifying Alabama Power, the company was barely hanging on by a guy wire. But, like any pugnacious business competitor, Alabama Power found away to survive and did so by using the political tools available.

Perhaps it is a personal suspicion but when groups like AARP get involved in fighting utility rates, I can only wonder if it’s not just to enhance their own business interests? Likewise, I question those who use litigation to “protect the environment,” while paying silk-stocking attorneys to do their bidding. Of course lawsuits (successful or not) are a good way for non-profits to encourage donors to make greater contributions to the cause.

Poor Commissioner Dunn is a man in the middle, who rarely speaks, choosing rather to let his assistant do his talking for him. A few years ago Dunn and Rountree request that I visit their office for an interview. It turned out to be one of the most bizarre interviews of my career. For almost 45 minutes I asked Dunn questions that Rountree answered. Dunn, barley spoke during the encounter. He was pleasant and even likable when we talked about trivial things, but when it came to policy, he deferred to his assistant. It didn’t appear then and it doesn’t appear now, that Dunn has an agenda of his own. It’s not certain that Rountree has one….other than keeping his job.

Dunn may be a good public servant, but it’s not easy to tell what he’s accomplished or plans to if reelected, because only Rountree seems to know his thoughts. The only thing I can discern is that Dunn has aroused the populists, many on the right, and kindled the flames of environmental protectionists on the left.

As an individual who distrusts both the political left and right, I have grown weary of Dunn and his assistant, as well as the whole idea that Alabama utilities are a vast conspiracy against the environment and the people.

But, demonizing power suppliers is a popular thing; even our President seems to think so.  Using the power of the EPA, the President plans to regulate power companies in such a way as to guarantee that power rates will skyrocket over the next 10 years. The President is worried about greenhouse gases, but unlike the average hand wringer, he is using unfounded presidential power to regulate utilities through fear.

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When the power goes out in rural Alabama, a lot of things go wrong that don’t go wrong for city dwellers. 20 years ago when a storm came through our family farm, the power was almost certain to go out for an unknown period. Today that rarely happens, the lights may flicker, but the power stays on.

Last Thursday a powerful storm passed through Etowah County, the power went down and things went from bad to worse. If you live in the country on an old homestead as we do, chances are your water comes from a well, and your sewage flows to a septic tank.

When the power goes out, there is no water to be had. This lack of water adds exponentially to the inconvenience of a power outage. And as time goes by, the lack of water takes its toll, yes, we can go to the store to buy drinking water, but that flushing thing is no small problem.

In the past, we never knew when the power would come back on. But, on Thursday, I was able to use the internet on my cell phone to notify the power company that there was a power outage. On the website they gave me an estimated time the problem would be fixed and a representative of the company called to make sure I knew my problems was being resolved. The power came back on three minutes ahead of schedule, and life on the farm went back to normal as the water flowed. The power was only out for an hour.

The power outage reminded me why I don’t mind paying my utility bill. It also reminded me of all the consternation caused by Dunn and Rountree, as well as the others who are using the State’s utility rates for political gains.

Just a few decades ago when the power went down it stayed down.

Today it’s just barely a flicker.

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Yes, Alabama Power is always on, and I am happy about it.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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