Philip Jones doesn't have the typical background for a utilities commissioner — most of what he uses as a WUTC regulator he learned on the job.
Philip Jones doesn’t have the typical background for a utilities regulator.
His two colleagues on the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission both have law degrees.
Jones graduated in 1977 from Harvard University with a degree in East Asian Studies. Other than a few economics courses, the majority of what he uses as a commissioner he learned on the job.
He says his lack of formal training gives him a different perspective.
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“It’s allowed me to become an open learner,” said Jones, a Republican who was appointed in 2005 by Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire. “I’m curious about many things.”
His colleagues say that curiosity in regional and national issues has helped him become vice president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). He is to become president in November.
Not bad for a commissioner who largely missed the schooling in law, economics, accounting or the environment many other regulators have.
As a commissioner, Jones oversees the state’s privately owned utilities including natural gas, electric, telecommunications, garbage and recycling, as well as transportation companies such as movers and bus services.
“It’s diverse. New things are happening all the time,” Jones said. “There’s always something new coming up.”
Often, the Spokane native said, he and his fellow commissioners need to interpret outdated laws the Legislature hasn’t addressed.
In such cases, “the burden falls on us,” Jones said. “We find ourselves increasingly doing things and making decisions that really the Legislature … should be taking care of.”
Jones said those interpretations are often what opens up regulators to criticism from the public, companies and legislators.
For example, the WUTC only regulates traditional wired-phone companies, not the increasingly popular Internet or cable communication. Jones said phone companies think they should be deregulated so they can better compete with Internet and cable businesses.
The commission also sets the rates Washington residents pay for utilities, such as gas and electric.
Jones said energy companies have asked for a rate increase every 12 to 18 months since he started. When companies such as Puget Sound Energy seek a rate increase, the request essentially turns into a court proceeding, with Jones and the other commissioners acting as judge.
The energy company has a representative, as do the consumers and major businesses, each arguing how much energy rates should be increased.
Jones said the commission has reduced each requested rate increase over the last seven years by 30-50 percent.
The skill of setting rates is near impossible to learn until you are on the commission, Jones said.
“It’s challenging because … it’s accounting, engineering, law and policy,” he said.
At NARUC, Jones is a member of the telecommunications committee — a topic he knew little about before joining. Jones said it took him two tough years and a steep learning curve before he became comfortable.
At the state, on the other hand, Jones focuses on energy — a topic he has been working in since the late 1970s.
After graduating from Harvard, Jones moved to Japan and worked as the director of the state of Ohio’s offices in Tokyo.
He was responsible for trying to convince businesses in Asia, such as Honda, to invest in Ohio and promote Ohio exports to Japan.
He worked in Japan for four years, which is where he started getting interested in energy and saw the tie between utilities and economic development.
That experience — and fluency in Japanese — helped him land a job in 1983 as a staff member when former three-term Washington Gov. Daniel Evans was appointed to the Senate.
Evans met Jones during his first run for governor in 1964, when Jones’ father managed his campaign in Spokane County. Evans said he hired Jones because he’d worked hard on Evans’ past campaign and because of his experience working with energy and businesses in Japan.
Jones was a lead staffer with Evans until 1989, primarily responsible for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, handling topics from hydroelectricity and nuclear-waste management to energy conservation. He also worked on international trade policy.
Working in the Senate, Evans said, Jones got a “deep immersion” in those issues.
“You learn a whole lot more in a short amount of time than you do in a long career in college,” Evans said.
Jones said that as a Senate staffer he was particularly good at gathering support for legislation. He also wrote amendments to bills, dealt with federal and Washington state agencies and met Evans’ constituents when the senator was busy.
“That was probably the best training … for this job,” Jones said.
The national regulators’ group hosts conferences to teach commissioners how to do their jobs more effectively, and Jones said those helped him as well.
Jeff Goltz, chairman of WUTC, said Jones’ unique background makes him a vital member of the commission.
Jones’ past work in the private sector and in business allows him to approach the job from a different angle than Goltz and the third commissioner, Patrick Oshie.
Both Goltz and Oshie have extensive experience in law, useful for the legal side of a commissioner’s job, but not the financial side.
“(Jones) just has a comfort level with that financial information, which is helpful to me … just like I help him with the legal stuff,” Goltz said. “It’s really important to have a diversity of experiences and a diversity of perspectives.”
Tom DeBoer, director of federal and state regulatory affairs for Puget Sound Energy, works with the Washington Utilities and Trade Commission and NARUC. He said the difference between Jones and the other commissioners is noticeable and comes from his background.
Jones tends to be more focused on policy and understanding the big picture, DeBoer said. He said Jones also loves working on national and regional issues, which makes him ideal for the NARUC presidency.
“His background is a little more varied than the other commissioners,” he said. “He’s always out asking questions and probing for answers.”
Connor Radnovich: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org