UPDATED 12:15 PM
Louisiana regulators would reopen consideration of the $4.9 billion sale of Cleco Corp. if the buyers agree to discuss lowering monthly rates for about five years, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell said late Friday.
“My job is to reduce rates,” Campbell said in an interview with The Advocate. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
Campbell, a Bossier Parish Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate, wants the buyers to work toward lowering Cleco’s rates by 21 percent and to get the monthly charge around what Entergy Louisiana and SWEPCO customers pay. Cleco sells electricity to about 286,000 customers in parts of Acadiana, the north shore and much of central Louisiana.
“If they’re not willing to talk about it, well that’s it,” Campbell said. In that case, he would vote against rehearing the commission’s rejection last month of a bid led by Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets to purchase the 80-year-old, Pineville-based utility.
Short of being overturned by a court, a refusal on Tuesday to reconsider the earlier decision would pretty much end the sale.
A promise to lower rates would be in addition to the free month of electricity, $15 million in grants for economic development and promises to keep employment levels the same for a decade that Cleco buyers offered earlier this week, Campbell said.
Macquarie’s sweetened offer was aimed at persuading one of the three commissioners who had opposed the transaction to change their mind. Campbell had voted for rejecting the deal in February and had said, prior to the new offer, that he wouldn’t change his mind.
On a panel of five, three is the magic number at the commission. Campbell said he would be that swing vote if the Cleco buyers agreed to commit to reducing rates.
Cleco and the buyer group appreciated “Campbell’s willingness to continue the discussion,” according Cleco spokesperson Robbyn Cooper, who released a statement Saturday. “Cleco and the buyer group look forward to engaging with the commissioners on the ultimate terms of this transaction.”
The statement referred to the sweetened offer made earlier in the week, pointing out that the $370 upfront payment to customers amounted to a 17 percent reduction in the utility’s annual base rates. The upfront payment would be made as credit against monthly bills 30 days after the deal’s closing.
The PSC is allowed to oversee a utility’s business decisions because the privately owned company operates as a monopoly in its service area. Rates, very generally, are set as the cost of making and delivering electricity plus a predetermined profit.
Cooper’s statement points out that Cleco Power’s rates reflect the utility serving large swaths of rural areas, where the costs of delivering power are more expensive than in more densely packed urban areas, along with the costs of recently building more efficient power generating plants.
March’s bill for Cleco’s residential customers using 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity — slightly more than typical — is $158.65.
Entergy Louisiana sold the same 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity for $138.21, while SWEPCO customers in the Shreveport area paid $115.48 for the same amount of power.
Campbell realizes that doing all the paperwork, running the numbers and vetting the concession would take some time. “I don’t think it can be done Tuesday. But we can start talking about it,” he said.
But commission Chairman Clyde Holloway, R-Forest Hill, said late Friday he would not be changing his mind — he still opposes the deal and he’ll vote against rehearing last month’s decision.
“You don’t have to sell the company to lower rates,” Holloway said. “We can lower rates without customers taking such great risks as posed by the Macquarie proposal.”
A Cleco customer himself, Holloway has voiced concerns through much of the vetting process of the transaction.
The $4.9 billion deal includes the purchase of Cleco shares at a 15 percent premium — about $55.37 per share. Cleco’s stock closed at $48.35 on Friday. The new company would be privately held, rather than owned by the holders of publicly traded stock.
Holloway said he worries about a tax scheme that would allow the new owners of Cleco to pocket taxes collected as part of the monthly rates, rather than turning the proceeds over to state and federal authorities. He also has concerns that the public could be exposed by a financing method that allows investors to use borrowed money to secure more loans.
The latest deals that sweetened the investors’ offer still don’t fully address his concerns, Holloway said. “And the company is still going to be sold (again) in eight to 10 years to foreign investors.”
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.