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Selection may lead to special election

If the governor appoints state Rep. Ken Littlefield to the PSC, a special election might be held to fill his House seat.

Published August 26, 2006

If state Rep. Ken Littlefield gets appointed next month to the Public Service Commission, he would continue campaigning for a legislative seat that he knows he would soon leave.

That would mean a special election for House District 61, a scenario that might ensure that the seat remains in the Republican column.

"It's all about keeping that particular legislative seat in the hip pocket of the Republican Party," said J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of South Florida.

The cost to taxpayers for such a special election: an estimated $120,000.

Littlefield is among six finalists for two vacancies on the PSC, the body that regulates utilities in Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush will fill the seats by Sept. 15. If Littlefield gets one of them, he would have to step down from his $31,000-a-year part-time legislator's job.

But the Wesley Chapel Republican has said that even if he is appointed, he would keep campaigning until the Nov. 7 general election, when he faces Democrat Donovan Brown. Given that Littlefield, who is seeking a fourth full term, has raised $16,800 to Brown's $1,850, his victory seems likely.

This week, Littlefield said he would stay in the race because he wants to be in Tallahassee for an anticipated special session this fall on Florida's insurance crisis.

There's another reality: It's too late for Republicans to put up another candidate for the seat, so if Littlefield drops out, he hands the job to the opposing party.

District 61 covers a wide swath of central and east Pasco and makes a small jut into north-central Hillsborough County. Fifty-eight of Pasco's 153 precincts are in the district; five of Hillsborough's are.

A special election would require all the usual mechanics.

"We'd have poll workers, poll worker training, polling places, absentee ballots, probably early voting," said Pasco Supervisor of Eections Kurt Browning.

He estimated Pasco's cost at $100,000. Hillsborough assistant supervisor of elections Jim Reed put that county's figure at $20,000.

How might Littlefield and his party sell that to the public?

"He'll ... take the high road. He'll say, 'Yes, I could have stepped aside, but we needed to have a fairly fought campaign,' " Benton said.

And, Benton said, there's validity to Littlefield's argument for attending the special session.

"I can agree there needs to be some representation: 'Until I'm out, I'm still in as your representative,' " Benton said. "He does have a point there."

Littlefield originally won the seat through a special election in 1999 when his brother, Carl, vacated it to take the No. 2 job at the state Department of Elder Affairs.

Ken Littlefield sits on several committees. He chairs the House Utilities and Telecommunications Committee and is a member of the Water and Natural Resources Committee.

During this year's campaign, he has taken at least $4,000, about a quarter of his total contributions, from groups representing utility interests - namely phone and electric companies.

T-Mobile USA Inc., BellSouth Employees' Florida Political Action Committee, Verizon State PAC and the Florida Telecommunications Association each gave him $500, campaign records show.

In 2003, Littlefield voted for a controversial bill that loosened the regulation of phone companies in Florida. It set the stage for the largest local phone rate increase in state history.

This year, the Legislature repealed a portion of that law allowing automatic annual rate increases to customers. Littlefield also voted for the repeal.

On the power side, the Progress Energy Employees' Florida State PAC and Teco Energy Inc. also each gave $500 to his campaign.

It's not uncommon in Tallahassee for members of regulatory committees to take money from utility interests.

As a member of the PSC, though, Littlefield would have a different relationship with those groups.

PSC members have the ultimate regulatory authority over utilities in areas of rate regulation, competitive market oversight and monitoring of safety and service.

Until last year, commissioners were forbidden from accepting anything from any business that owns or controls any public utility regulated by the commission.

But in the 2005 session, legislators passed and Bush signed a bill specifically allowing PSC members to attend conferences and meals subsidized by utility interests.

Littlefield sponsored that legislation in the House.

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:37:38]

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