By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on May 23, 2019
When George Wallace entered the governor’s office for his second term in 1971, he took direct aim at Alabama Power Company and its frequent fights with the Public Service Commission (PSC) over rate increases. Wallace hired lawyers to oppose these rate increases. He also fought this monopolistic utility giant for more than a decade while he was in office. He never trusted them.
By 1978, Attorney General Bill Baxley had joined Wallace in his fight against Alabama Power’s rate increases. Wallace and Baxley were fighting for poor people, middle-class consumers, senior citizens on a fixed income, and small business owners. They did not want these consumers ripped-off by Alabama Power’s outrageous rate increase requests.
Wallace used his influence over all branches of state government -- the PSC, the Legislature, the judicial system -- to deny Alabama Power the rate increases it said were needed to finance new power plants.
Once Wallace left office in 1987, Alabama Power Company made a corporate decision to conquer the political scene in such a way that the company would never again be vulnerable to a populist governor. In the pursuit of this corporate goal, the company bought or rented every politician in the state who was “for sale” or “for rent.”
Alabama Power unleashed an army of lobbyists to wine and dine greedy, self-centered, legislators who were nothing but "political whores.” Eventually, Alabama Power seized control of the three-member PSC and the state’s judicial system.
In 1990, Alabama Power Company formed a non-profit foundation to hand out charitable gifts. Every group with any meaningful influence in Alabama that was not directly controlled by the company’s campaign contributions, advertising dollars, sponsorship agreements, and consulting agreements, was silenced through Alabama Power’s tens of thousands of cash awards to the “deserving” entities chosen by the company since 1990.
To counter scrutiny from investigative journalists, Alabama Power hired big-name reporters away from their newspapers and electronic media outlets. Then, the company found creative ways to financially support Cliff Sim’s Yellowhammer News (which was founded in 2011) and Bill Britt's Alabama Political Reporter (which was also founded in 2011).
In the last decade or so, Alabama Power Company was able to neutralize struggling daily newspapers like The Birmingham News, The Montgomery Advertiser, The Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press Register by using a combination of advertising dollars, event sponsorships, and consulting fees for seminar participants affiliated with these entities. This approach bought Alabama Power Company a form of protectionism from adverse media coverage.
Alabama Power also controls many of the popular “talk radio” programs in Alabama through advertising dollars and event sponsorships. Local television media outlets have been relegated to a low-priority status because they lack the resources to engage in serious investigative journalism.
In 2016, the Alabama Power Foundation funded a non-profit organization that purchased The Birmingham Times. This newspaper was owned by Dr. Jessie Lewis, a successful black businessman and former president of Lawson State Community College in Birmingham.
On a historical note, The Birmingham Times teamed up with George Wallace and Bill Baxley in 1978 to fight a request by Alabama Power Company for a gigantic rate increase that year. During the rate increase hearing, lawyers representing the Legal Services Corporation of Alabama, Wallace, and Baxley used a gripping story in The Birmingham Times to support their case against the rate increase.
The Times' story quoted a local man who recounted his painful ordeal with Alabama Power. He stated:
"I have four children. It was about the coldest day of the year when they (power company workmen) came out and cut off my electricity. I had not received a light bill. I went down to the office and wanted to pay half of my bill, and they refused me. I told them that I had not received my bill, and they said it was my mistake-not theirs. I didn't have anywhere to take my family that night, and one of my daughters caught the flu. She almost died."
After that night, the man said his family began using kerosene lamps for light.
This story humanized the plight of Alabama’s working class citizens and helped to stall the PSC’s action on the rate increase for many months. Ironically, The Birmingham Times would not be in a position to publish this story today because the newspaper would be biting the hand that feeds it. Even if it could publish the story, it would not matter one iota to a PSC that is totally controlled by Alabama Power Company.
This is the “new normal” in Alabama politics. Regulated businesses are using lobbyists, campaign money, charitable donations, sponsorship packages, consulting agreements, and a host of other nefarious schemes to buy favorable treatment from legislators, judges, regulators, and media organizations.
This “new normal” state of being for regulated businesses is also prevalent at the federal level, as evidenced by Boeing’s cozy relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration. As a result of Boeing’s air-tight control of the FAA, two brand new, unsafe, Boeing 737 MAX airplanes fell out of the sky and killed 346 innocent passengers and crew members in crashes since last October. The United States and other nations around the globe had to literally ground these unsafe 737 MAX jetliners in March to prevent further deaths.
Finally, Alabama Power Company has built a political fortress around the company since George Wallace left office in 1987. Its customers are underwriting the cost for this fortress each time they pay their power bills. On top of that, the taxpayers of Alabama carry the unfair burden of guaranteeing Alabama Power Company a five percent minimum annual return on the company’s equity. Whenever there is a shortfall in this guaranteed return on equity, taxpayers must make up the difference.
PHOTO: Alabama Power Company's Birmingham, Alabama headquarters.