The November 2018 midterm elections led to a nationwide spree of nonstop political commercials, first time candidates, and fundraising battles. Although Alabama had a top-line election in the office of governor, many other state and federal offices were up for election as well, and Alabamians could also vote on several state constitutional amendments. Two of three positions on the Alabama Public Service Commission were up for election as well.
The Alabama Public Service Commission, or PSC, consists of a president and two associate commissioners who are elected to serve four year terms. The commission has existed in some form since 1881, although its duties have evolved over time. For instance, the commission primarily regulated railroads in its early days, but now it mostly regulates electric utilities such as Alabama Power, the electric utility that covers the lower two-thirds of the state (“APSC Mission & History.”). The commission does not regulate the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the electric utility for parts of northern Alabama (Buckner and Stein). Additionally, the commission regulates car insurance, railways, natural gas pipelines, and some telecommunications services (“APSC Mission & History.”).
The Republican incumbent for Place 2 on the Alabama Public Service Commission, Chris “Chip” Beeker, is a catfish and cattle farmer from Eutaw. Beeker, 70, was a member of the Greene County Commission from 1986-2006. He ran for a place on the Public Service Commission in 2010 and was defeated in the Republican primary by Terry Dunn. In 2014, he ran again and beat Dunn in the Republican Primary before winning the general election (Buckner et al). Beeker defeated a primary challenger in Robin Litaker, a former state teacher of the year. In 2016, Beeker consulted with the Alabama Ethics Commission as to whether he could lease land to a company that would sell solar energy to Alabama Power: The Alabama Ethics Commission voted against the deal, which was determined to be a conflict of interest, 3-2 (Pillian).
Democratic challenger Kari Powell, 36, is a graphic designer from Homewood. She was a first time candidate who completed the Emerge Alabama training program (Buckner et al). Powell filed the paperwork to run for this position 40 minutes before the deadline and did not have a primary challenger. She was inspired to run by her grandmother, who wished she had advanced her own political ambitions beyond serving on her local school board (Buckner and Stein).
Beeker’s platform included a priority on maintaining coal jobs in the state, as he believes this will keep local jobs and keep energy prices down (Buckner et al). Although Beeker wants to stress a mix of conventional energy sources, such as coal and natural gas, for Alabama Power, the Public Service Commission does not have much control over which energy sources are a priority for the companies they regulate. Beeker also stressed safety on the job for PSC-regulated industries to voters (Lyman). He wants to make it easier for PSC-regulated companies to be financially competitive compared to similar companies in other states and countries. Additionally, Beeker wants to promote rural internet access, although this is not an industry overseen by the Public Service Commission (Buckner and Stein).
Powell’s biggest facet of her platform was to force the Public Service Commission to hold its first full-scale rate hearing since 1982. This hearing would require expert witnesses and testimony before the PSC would be allowed to affect a major change to energy rates (Buckner et al). She believed this would bring down rates for Alabamians (Lyman). Currently, rates are adjusted by small amounts in informal hearings. The last commissioner to push for formal rate hearings was Terry Dunn, who was defeated in the 2014 Republican Place 2 primary by Beeker (Pillion). Additionally, Powell wanted to provide more education and awareness on how the Public Service Commission’s decisions affect utility rates for Alabamians. Powell also wanted to eliminate what she called a “solar tax,” which is a fee that homeowners who install solar panels must pay Alabama Power to use electricity from the power grid as a backup. Powell believed that this fee made it hard for the average citizen to affordably install solar panels on their homes (Gardner and Luckie).
Although the Democrats had national momentum on their side, Beeker handily won the race with around 60% of the vote. Beeker raised $170,550 during his campaign, whereas Powell raised $45,779.62 (Buckner et al). This result was not surprising for many reasons. Alabama is a very conservative state, and conventional wisdom with regards to elections shows that incumbents have a large advantage when they run for reelection. Additionally, Beeker’s massive fundraising lead over Powell would have been challenging for Powell to overcome. As PSC President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh was not up for reelection this year and did not win the Republican primary runoff for Lieutenant Governor, and Place 1 Incumbent Jeremy Oden won his race, the commission remains comprised of the same three members for at least the next two years.