- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Start thinking of him as Chairman Presley.

Brandon Presley has never been shy and retiring. But with a second Democrat coming onto the Mississippi Public Service Commission, the Northern District commissioner will likely take center stage at the utility regulatory agency.

With Democrat Cecil Brown of Jackson being sworn into the Central District commission seat, replacing Republican Lynn Posey of Union Church, Presley is likely to become chairman of the three-member body. They will be joined by Republican Sam Britton of Laurel, who takes over from Phil Bryant appointee Steve Renfroe of Moss Point. While Renfroe declined to publicly identify himself with a party, he supported Posey as the commission’s chairman.

Presley has already exerted influence at the commission over his two terms, even while in the minority, in part because he works hard. For example, he has served on a multistate panel that oversees Entergy Corp.’s transmission spending, and now is keeping an eye on Mississippi’s participation in a multistate organization that allows power to be shipped across a broad region, encouraging utilities to buy the cheapest power available.

The former mayor of Nettleton, Presley has also used the commission’s rate-setting power to subsidize the expansion of natural gas service to new residential customers in places like rural Pontotoc County and to encourage utilities to extend service to industries in places like an Oxford industrial park.

An aggressive regulator, Presley has pushed the limits of the commission’s authority. But he’s careful not to go too far. For example, most residents of Presley’s 33-county district get their electricity from cooperative and municipal utilities. Presley continues to try to regulate cooperatives in some ways, despite their continued claims that he has almost no power over them.

Recently, however, when the commission rolled out electric metering rules to try to make rooftop solar panels more economical and easier to install, Presley took what he could get. The commission basically decided that it would accept the Tennessee Valley Authority’s net metering rules for cooperatives it serves. And the remaining cooperatives got a year to propose alternatives to the commission, although their power provider, the South Mississippi Electric Power Association, has threatened to sue anyway.

Presley is a longtime opponent of Mississippi Power Co.’s $6.5 billion Kemper County power plant, but has also begun singing different notes on that subject. Presley originally voted against emergency rate relief in the summer, but gave a speech saying he recognized that the unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co. was in financial difficulty. Then Presley voted to keep a somewhat lower version of those rates in December, saying it was a rate decrease and that he wanted to find ways to begin resolving the financial mess that Mississippi Power has created with Kemper.

Elvis Presley’s second cousin passed up a chance to run for statewide office this year, but Democrats are still looking to him as a future gubernatorial candidate. Discussing politics with the Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps, author and Democratic strategist Jere Nash said he still likes Presley’s chances in a gubernatorial race. And unlike in 2015, when Presley would have faced the monolithic popularity of Phil Bryant, 2019 will feature an open race for governor. (And for lieutenant governor, and potentially for a number of other statewide offices.)

So that gives four years for Presley, who’s carefully tended to his home base in northeast Mississippi, to make a splash statewide. His recent actions, especially on Kemper and rooftop solar metering, could be the opening acts of a four-year chairmanship designed to do just that.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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