No one who didn't work for utility industries knows more about them than Jack Shreve, Florida's public counsel for 25 years. In that job, Shreve won consumer rate reductions and refunds totaling more than $6-billion. But though he worked for the Legislature, which reserved to itself the power to appoint and supervise the public counsel, lawmakers were curiously uninterested in what he might say about the laws that the utilities were lobbying them to pass. Though it was never in writing, their instructions were clear: "When we want your advice, we'll ask for it." They rarely asked. This year, for example, they enacted a $362-million telephone rate increase with enormous input from utility lobbyists but none from their own public counsel.
For those lobbyists, it had to be a nightmare come true when Attorney General Charlie Crist announced this week that Shreve is coming out of retirement to be his special counsel for consumer affairs. For the public, it's some of the best news in years. Shreve's primary responsibility is to watchdog the utilities, but he is also likely to pursue a keen interest in other consumer issues that were not part of the public counsel's portfolio.
By law - lobbyists had a heavy hand in writing that one, too - the Department of Agriculture is also the department of consumer protection. But with only a meager budget for that purpose, the department has never been empowered to do very much. The attorney general, however, has wide-ranging powers under the state's antitrust, trade practice and civil rights acts, as well as through his responsibility to see that the state, Florida's largest purchaser of goods and services, is getting the best value for the money it spends. By bringing Shreve on board, Crist is off to a good start.