Tanner Newman (left) and Chris Brown (right)
As the Republican Primary approaches, see what the two candidates vying to succeed a four-term Democratic incumbent Northern District Public Service Commissioner have to say about utility rates, energy sources, and ratepayer advocacy.
Four-term incumbent Brandon Presley, a Democrat, chose to run for Governor of Mississippi instead of re-election this year, leaving the Northern District Public Service Commissioner seat up for grabs.
Initially, three Republicans qualified to run: Chris Brown, Mandy Gunasekara, and Tanner Newman. However, earlier this month, Gunasekara was ruled ineligible after a lengthy residency challenge that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court denied her appeal. This left Brown and Newman to vie for the seat in the primary.
Since no Democrats or third-party candidates entered the race, the Republican Primary between Brown and Newman on August 8th will decide who will be the next Northern District Public Service Commissioner.
About the Candidates
- State Representative for District 20
- Served three terms starting in 2012
- Member of Freedom Caucus
- Business owner
- Constituent Liaison for U.S. Senator Wicker
- Local, regional campaign worker
- Director of Development Services, City of Tupelo
Question/Answer with the Candidates
Magnolia Tribune recently caught up with both campaigns, asking each the same questions pertaining to hot button issues related to their potential service on the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC). Below are their responses in full.
What is your view of how Commissioners should consider rate cases coming before the PSC from the regulated utilities?
In the State House, I have a proven track record of protecting the taxpayer. In the same vein, as Public Service Commissioner, you can trust me to prioritize the ratepayer and advocate to keep the cost of utilities low for our families and businesses. Any rate change will need to be justified through measurable ROI for the consumer, such as increased reliability and quality of service, but I will err on the side of lower rates for hardworking Mississippians.
When considering rate cases, Commissioners should prioritize the interest of the consumers while ensuring transparency, staying informed, and promoting fair and affordable utility rates. Factors such as service costs and infrastructure investments should be considered. Transparency and public participation are crucial in building and maintaining consumer trust.
Commissioners should strive to remain updated on industry trends, technological advancements, and regulatory best practices. This knowledge equips them to make informed decisions while promoting efficiency, reliability, and affordability in utility services.
Addressing challenges Mississippians face, such as high electric bills and a vulnerable power grid, is imperative. Utilities should invest in grid improvements and cost-saving measures for recovery and prevention. If power companies can’t keep the lights on, they shouldn’t expect a rubber stamp on rate increases.
In your view, how does solar play into the energy market in Mississippi?
As a businessman, I am for keeping all options regarding our energy needs on the table. I am for expanding opportunities to creatively lower rates or give consumers choices. I want our state to be on the cutting edge in this space, but not at the cost of hardworking Mississippians. Exploring supplementary options is fine as long as it’s to the benefit of the ratepayer and quality of service. At the same time, we must use common sense and be realistic in understanding the energy needs of our state and operate in a way that ALWAYS puts Mississippi First. I don’t care what the Biden Administration mandates, stable and reliable sources will be my priority.
Commissioners should be developing responsible policies that prioritize the interests of ratepayers while ensuring the long-term stability of our energy grid. Promoting diverse energy sources and creating a business-friendly environment is advantageous for consumers. Solar energy holds great potential in Mississippi’s energy market, considering our abundant sunlight. It is essential to maximize the utilization of our natural resources, particularly if it leads to reduced power bills. However, like any other power source, adopting solar energy requires careful scrutiny and economic evaluation before implementation.
What is your position on the use of coal by the regulated utilities?
As I said, I’m all about reliability and keeping rates low. I consider my approach to be “all of the above.” While companies explore the shift away from coal, I will say again that we must use common sense and be realistic in understanding the energy needs of our state. I believe there is a direct correlation between the strength of our economy and access to affordable reliable utilities. We have seen other countries fall victim to optimistic timelines and be forced to reopen coal facilities to meet the needs of their citizens. Right now, we need a President who prioritizes energy independence and Public Service Commissioners who prioritize the reliability and affordability of energy.
Mississippi gets just 8% of our electricity from coal. Entergy doesn’t have any coal plants in the state and Mississippi Power announced plans to close their last coal plant in the next decade. Cheaper alternatives have supplanted coal in the state. Building new coal plants is likely to require expensive upgrades, like the failed Kemper coal plant, which cost billions of dollars and never worked right. Just like other energy sources, if the numbers don’t work, we should look for other alternatives.
Would you support setting up an office of a consumer advocate to be a watchdog for ratepayers?
I have said time and time again on the trail that I will be an advocate for the ratepayer. At the same time, I have a record of shrinking the size and scope of government and cutting waste. I often find that politicians and agencies duplicate efforts rather than do the hard work to ensure existing government is operating efficiently, which burdens the taxpayer with additional costs. I believe there are already systems and resources dedicated to protecting consumers within the Public Service Commission. If I get elected, I will ensure those systems are operating efficiently and determine if additional positions are necessary to serve Mississippians well. At the same time, my pledge to voters is if you elect me to the PSC, you will be electing a watchdog for ratepayers.
The Consumer Protection Division of the Mississippi Attorney General’s office currently serves as the state’s general consumer advocate. However, considering the technical expertise required and the regulatory authority of the Public Service Commission (PSC) over utilities, it is reasonable to consider having a utilities-focused consumer advocate, or something similar, within the PSC itself. If a thorough review determines that the addition would enhance the decision-making process of the PSC, I would support its inclusion and work with the legislature to secure its funding. The focus would be on improving the PSC’s ability to make informed and fair decisions that prioritize the interests of the consumer.
How will you work with the regulated utilities to ensure grid stability and proper maintenance?
Many people don’t understand that the function of the PSC is quasi-judicial. I will ensure your complaints are heard, investigated, and, when warranted, acted upon quickly. I will also use this position to encourage companies to be proactive with infrastructure, rather than reactive, which I believe will ultimately be more cost effective, creating a win-win situation for everyone.
When it comes to stability, it is critical that we use common sense to guide our energy decisions. This means electing Public Service Commissioners who will put the needs of Mississippi first and who will stand up to the radical out-of-touch policies coming from the Biden Administration.
First and foremost, we must establish strong communication channels between the Public Service Commission and the utilities. Regular and open dialogue allows for the exchange of information, updates on infrastructure needs, and discussions on maintenance plans. This collaborative approach ensures that both the PSC and the utilities are aware of grid conditions and can address potential issues proactively.
Secondly, I would encourage utilities to prioritize grid stability and invest in necessary maintenance. This includes regular inspections, equipment upgrades, and timely repairs. By emphasizing the importance of grid reliability and the need for preventive measures, we can reduce the likelihood of outages and ensure that the grid is well maintained.
Additionally, I would support the implementation of performance metrics and standards for utilities, establishing clear expectations for grid stability and maintenance. Regular assessments and reporting on key performance indicators can help identify areas for improvement and hold utilities accountable for meeting these standards.