9 Investigates utility companies' thin lines

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For Jim McLemore of Orange County, Progress Energy's rate hike last year hit him in the pocketbook and he said, for many, the average $3 to $4 a month in higher costs add up.

"Fair to say more than you'd like?" asked investigative reporter George Spencer.

"Oh, yes. Oh, yes," McLemore said with a laugh. "That's for sure."

Utility rates in Florida are regulated by the Public Service Commission. Commissioners are appointed by the governor and then confirmed by the State Senate, which should keep leaders totally independent.

But 9 Investigates found in practice, there's often just one degree of separation between regulators who set the rates you pay and the powerful utilities they regulate.

The common link is almost always the governor.

"The separation isn't as wide as consumers might think?" asked Spencer.

"Yeah, there's definitely been a conflict," said Lonnie Thompson of the Florida Consumer Action Network.

In just the last year, Gov. Rick Scott's re-election committee has received big donations from several of the state's biggest utilities.

Last April, the Let's Get to Work committee received $100,000 from Progress Energy.

In December, it got another $100,000 from AT&T and this month, it received $50,000 from Florida Power and Light and $15,000 from Gulf Power Company.

"Money in Tallahassee speaks very loudly," said Thompson.

Each of the PSC's five members was originally appointed by a previous governor and then re-appointed by Scott.

Scott's donor list is also not unique. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who originally appointed four current commissioners, also took money from each of the major utilities that recently donated to Scott, with the exception of Gulf Power Company.

Even though the Senate must vote to confirm the governor's appointments, it too has been criticized in recent years for helping to oust consumer-friendly commissioners.