PSC Forum 092117

Lenar Whitney and Damon Baldone, both Republican candidates for the Louisiana Public Service Commission from Houma, squared off at forum on Sept. 21, 2017.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

Though the candidates generally agreed on most issues, they differed Thursday on the role the Public Service Commission should play in attracting jobs to Louisiana.

“I’m not sure the Public Service Commission has that role as an economic developer,” said candidate Lenar Whitney, a Republican Party national committeewoman from Louisiana. Companies come to this state because they decide it fills a need in their businesses, she added.

“The commission’s job is to make sure,” Whitney said, “that we make sure they have fair playing field.”

Interim PSC Commissioner Damon Baldone disagreed.

“The Public Service Commission absolutely has an impact on economic development,” he said. The cost of power plays a significant role in a company’s decision.

“They’re coming here because we have the lowest rates,” Baldone said. “Some of the big plants along the Mississippi River pay $1 million a month for electricity. So, if we have rates that can save them 20 percent, 30 percent, then that’s a significant driver.”

Both Whitney and Baldone once represented Houma in the Louisiana House.

The third candidate, Dr. Craig Greene, of Baton Rouge, is making his first run for public office. He did not attend Thursday’s forum because he was performing surgery, his staff said.

All three candidates are Republicans and they have yet to appear on the same stage at the same time.

Few voters are paying attention to the Oct. 14 election to replace Scott Angelle, a Breaux Bridge Republican who ran for two other offices while sitting on the commission and resigned earlier this year take a job with the Trump Administration. Only 11 people attended the Leaders With Vision luncheon forum for the candidates.

The five-elected PSC commissioners decide what customers pay on their monthly electricity bills and oversee trucking and telecommunications. They have more constituents than a congressman.

This fall’s race will decide who represents the PSC Second District that covers all or part of 13 parishes and includes south Baton Rouge, the Lafayette area, Houma and Morgan City.

Both candidates said Thursday they wanted to see utility companies look at using more renewable sources – like solar, wind and bagasse – to fuel the generators that make electricity. But they said it’s important to keep the costs affordable. Louisiana’s private utilities primarily use natural gas to run the plants and that fuel currently is inexpensive.

Right now the price of natural gas is so low that alternative energies have a tough time competing.

“We should only do renewables when it's cost efficient and it's getting there now,” Baldone said

“Solar, wind definitely has a place in our traditional fuel,” Whitney said. “Louisiana is oil and gas country and we should utilize as much as we can … If there is a renewable source that we can use and it doesn’t extend additional costs to the ratepayers, I would certainly be open to look at that.”

Whitney said Baldone has an unfair advantage as the interim PSC commissioner, because it has given him four months to gather information.

But Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director with Alliance for Affordable Energy, said after the forum that may be helpful for voters. The New Orleans-based group advocates before the PSC on behalf of residential and small commercial consumers.

“It’s actually a really good thing that one of the candidates is a sitting commissioner because it forces the other candidates to up their game,” Burke said. “My concern is that there isn’t enough depth of understanding about what it is that they do and how powerful the job is.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.