ATLANTA - Next month's elections for Georgia's Public Service Commission are a referendum on a board majority that critics say is wed to business as usual and unwilling to consider fresh ideas.
Opponents say Republican Stan Wise and Democrat David Burgess vote consistently with a third commissioner on the five-member panel to uphold the interests of utilities at the expense of rate payers.
"There are two commissioners there who are really forward thinking and three voting the status quo,'' said Dawn Randolph, Wise's Democratic challenger. "Having this position change would really change the dynamics of the PSC.''
In their defense, Wise and Burgess say they've made steady progress rolling back rates, assuring adequate energy supplies and promoting a more diverse mix of energy resources.
"One of my opponents says we can reduce rates on Nov. 7 by magic by voting for them,'' Wise said. "It's not magic. It's serious, hard work, something I've done for a decade now.''
Burgess is being challenged in PSC District 3 by Republican Chuck Eaton and Libertarian Paul MacGregor.
Wise is defending his District 5 seat against Randolph and Libertarian Kevin Cherry.
Although the members of the PSC are elected statewide, each represents a district and must live within its borders.
District 3 consists of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. District 5 runs from Cobb County west to the Alabama border, then south through Columbus.
Eaton, 37, and MacGregor, 47, say they would bring real-world business experience to the PSC, unlike Burgess, who spent 17 years with the agency's staff before he was appointed to the board in 1999.
MacGregor has experience directly related to issues that come before the commission. He is vice president of a company that is the nation's leading provider of renewable energy.
MacGregor said Georgia isn't doing as much as other states to foster the development of renewable sources like wind or biomass, which would diversify its energy mix.
"It's important for the state to have some commitment to renewables,'' he said. "I just don't see Georgia coming to the forefront in these areas.''
Eaton, a Realtor, said a greater emphasis on renewable energy would help bring down high prices that are hurting Georgia's ability to compete with other states for new businesses.
"The PSC is going to have to change its mindset from an energy regulator to an energy advocate,'' he said.
Burgess, 48, said the commission is actively encouraging both energy conservation and renewable energy. But he cautioned that Georgia needs to move carefully.
"You've got to make sure this new technology is not only available but that it's reliable,'' he said.
Burgess described his staff experience with the PSC before becoming a commissioner as an advantage rather than a detriment.
"There is no substitute for knowledge,'' he said. "It's put me in a position to make very informed decisions.''
Burgess is the only Democrat remaining on the commission.
Eaton said that gives him an advantage in a state that is trending Republican and in a year where the GOP ticket is headed by a popular governor.
"I hope Sonny Perdue does very well and that he has very long coattails,'' Eaton said.
Burgess said he's not concerned about the coattail effect because Georgians have a track record of deciding each race individually rather than voting a straight ticket.
Randolph, 40, a consultant who lobbies state government on behalf of nonprofit groups, said she decided to run for the PSC after receiving a huge natural-gas bill last winter.
She concedes that it's too late to reconsider Georgia's decision in the late 1990s to deregulate natural gas. However, she said the current commission isn't aggressively looking for ways to make the market more competitive.
"It takes commissioners who will dig in their heels and not give in to Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light,'' Randolph said.
Cherry, 45, who runs a pest control business, said he would push to broaden Georgia's energy mix to include renewable sources.
"No one thing is going to be the answer,'' he said. "(But) if we could get an additional 3 percent to 4 percent from one form and another 3 percent to 4 percent from another ... the market will eventually pick what's most cost effective.''
Wise, 54, elected to the commission in 1994, agreed that Georgia needs to diversify its energy resources. Like Burgess, he argued that nuclear energy must be part of the conversation.
Georgia Power Co. is studying the feasibility of expanding its nuclear power operations at Plant Vogtle near Augusta.
Wise said he also supports efforts to launch a biofuels industry using the state's agricultural products.
But he said renewable energy can't be the entire answer in a state growing as rapidly as Georgia.
"I think it's affordable, sustainable and doable,'' he said. "But it's not going to take care of all the demand we'll have.''
Randolph and Cherry criticized Wise for accepting campaign contributions from utility executives.
Wise said restricting who can and can't contribute to PSC candidates would go against the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.