Though some Public Service Commission members are open to limits on their campaign contributions, the chief regulator of the state’s utility companies called a report alleging improper influence on the commission inaccurate and dubbed its consumer-group authors “left-wing militants.”
The New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy issued a report Tuesday supporting its call for a ban on campaign contributions to the five elected members of the commission by the utilities they regulate.
“Over the past decade, Louisiana monopoly utility companies have spent a troubling amount of money and resources on candidates and decision makers as a way to gain influence and control over policymaking and regulatory oversight,” the Alliance said.
Officials with six utility companies spent $195,100 to support the campaigns of incumbent commissioners; $89,900 in election donations were posted to help retire campaign debt; and thousands were spent by utility companies on a phalanx of lobbyists, according to the Alliance.
“When a sitting regulator’s continued employment is dependent on the financial support of the entity it is regulating, that regulator’s ability to engage in unbiased decision-making is certainly limited,” the report said.
“This report is inaccurate, invalid, misleading and unbalanced; created by a left-wing/militant environmental organization disguised as a consumer advocacy group,” said PSC Chairman Clyde Holloway, R-Forest Hill.
But some of his colleagues, while denying their objectivity has been compromised, said they were open to discussing the possibility of banning campaign contributions from the monopoly utility companies they regulate.
Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are among the states that prohibit such contributions.
“I will have no objection if the Legislature seeks to change this public policy,” Commissioner Scott Angelle said in a text. The Breaux Bridge Republican is one of the four main announced candidates for governor.
“The vast majority of my campaign support has come from non (utility) companies. I have always played by the rules and will continue to do so,” he said.
“I’ll take a serious look at it,” Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish, said of supporting a contribution ban.
A Democrat and the longest serving of the five-member panel, Campbell said he has over the years accepted campaign contributions from utilities, telecommunications and trucking interests whose businesses fall under the oversight of the PSC. But he said he doesn’t feel he has been influenced by the money and,in some cases, has refused the support of firms whose practices he has challenged on the commission.
Still, Campbell said, corporate contributions “just got to influence” the policymakers who receive them. “Industry and business in Louisiana have the power, and the people don’t,” he said.
For support, however, Campbell points at the oil and gas industry’s influence over the legislative and executive branches of government, noting, in particular, last year’s successful effort to set aside a lawsuit by a New Orleans-area levee board seeking damages from energy companies for coastal erosion. (He based his 2007 gubernatorial bid on an idea — initially raised by Republican Gov. Dave Treen but ferociously opposed by energy companies — that would replace severance taxes on oil and gas with a new hydrocarbon processing tax on foreign oil.)
Last fall, Forest Wright, one of the Alliance’s former staffers, challenged fellow Republican Eric Skrmetta, the PSC commissioner from Metairie, in what turned into a nasty campaign that featured dueling accusations of undue industry influence.
Prior to that campaign, the Alliance sued the PSC when Skrmetta, then its chairman, shut down public testimony. The public hearing was later reconvened.
Two of the state’s largest privately owned utility companies said they don’t see a problem.
Cleco Power LLC, the Pineville-based utility company that serves much of central Louisiana, parts of Acadiana and the north shore, issued a statement supporting “good governance rules that are equally applied and incorporate a balanced perspective that includes all entities that have matters pending before state bodies. In addition, Cleco complies with all state and federal campaign finance laws.”
Entergy Corp., the largest corporation headquartered in Louisiana, sells electricity to roughly half of the state’s customers. A statement released in response to questions about the Alliance’s survey pointed out that Entergy companies don’t give campaign contributions.
“However, our employees do exercise their constitutional right to support the political candidates of their choice, which they can choose to do as individuals or as members of our employee-run political action committee, which strictly adheres to state and federal campaign finance laws,” the statement read.
The PSC meets at least once a month, and those proceedings are open to the public.
Though the audience is overwhelmingly filled with high-priced lawyers and lobbyists, the public can and do attend, and their comments are sought.
“Utilities have a right to express their points of view on matters that affect their customers and their business, just as the Alliance expresses its position on any number of issues brought before the commission or the Legislature,” Entergy stated.
Michael Burns, who handles communications for Entergy Louisiana’s regulatory efforts, added that while the Alliance’s report does not state it, monthly rates paid by Entergy’s 1 million customers is about 25 percent below the national average.
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