TRA to become TPUC (back to the future in names?)

The House has given final approval to a bill changing the name of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority to the Tennessee Public Utilities Commission. The measure (SB747) also declares that board member of the agency will be known as ‘commissioners’ rather than “directors.”

It was introduced at the request of officials of the agency, according to the sponsors, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville. On the House floor, Marsh told colleagues that Tennessee is “one of the few, if not the only” state in the nation where the agency vested with utility-regulating authority has board member known as directors.

As a matter of Tennessee history, the name change might be seen as a return to another era. The agency was initially established as the Tennessee Railroad Commission in 1897 with three elected “commissioners” to regulate fees charged by railroads. It’s duties were expanded to include broader oversight in 1919 and the name was changed to the “Railroad and Public Utilities Commission.”

There were other transitions over the years – railroad oversight was dropped, electric utility oversight and regulation of trucking rates added – and the name was changed to the Public Service Commission in 1955. There were still three commissioners, one from each grand division, elected by popular vote.

In 1995, after an array of scandals mostly tied to trucking regulation and political donations, the PSC was abolished as one of the first efforts of Republican Gov. Don Sundquist – accomplished with support of a few key Democrats, who then held a majority in the legislature (most notable, perhaps, being then Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, now a congressman).

Trucking oversight was eliminated from jurisdiction of the replacement agency, named the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, and transferred to the Department of Safety.

As established, election of TRA board members (Democrats had always won the PSC seats) was eliminated. TRA had three members – one each appointed by the governor, the House speaker and the Senate speaker – and they were declared to be “directors.”  In 2002, a fourth director was added – to be named jointly by the governor and the two speakers.

The positions were full-time with substantial salaries, though TRA functions continued to be cut — most notably with deregulation of the telecommunications industry. (The PSC and TRA once regulated telephone rate increases and they were sometimes subject to heated disputes.)

In 2012, the legislature – at Gov. Bill Haslam’s request – eliminated the full-time TRA board and replaced it with five part-time “directors” and a full-time executive director. Appointments are still divided between the governor and the speaker.

State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, was the last elected PSC commissioner. She remained on the TRA – appointed by longtime Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh – until resigning in protest over Haslam’s 2012 revision. She was among those voting unanimously for the name change in both the House and Senate.

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