For those who still hold that Baton Rouge has missed the hyperpartisan political culture that defines Washington these days, a brief vignette from last week’s Louisiana Public Service Commission meeting might prove enlightening.
PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Bossier Parish populist who carried the Democratic banner in last year’s U.S. Senate race, asked the regulatory panel to go on record supporting net neutrality, just like 22 other states have done.
PSC Commissioner Mike Francis, who once chaired the Republican Party, asked the identity of the 22.
“Would it make any difference?” Campbell said, suggesting his GOP colleagues’ votes were predetermined.
“It’s liberal versus conservative and I’m conservative,” Francis replied. He, therefore, supports President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission’s December revocation of President Barack Obama’s 2015 order that forbid internet service providers from offering faster speeds and better access to companies that can afford to pay more.
Both these commissioners are in their 70s and admit to being digitally challenged. About the only other characteristic they share is first thinking of a cartoon canary when their aides talk about tweeting.
But their bickering crystallizes yet another national partisan fight that soon will come to Louisiana. Gov. John Bel Edwards is mulling whether to issue an order requiring that telecommunications companies doing business with the state adhere to the old “net neutrality” policy, just like Democratic governors of Montana and New York have done.
FCC Chairman Ajit Varadaraj Pai, the former Verizon Communications Inc. lawyer who pushed to dismantle the Obama doctrine, argued that the rollback would lead broadband providers like AT&T and Verizon to offer a wider variety of service options. “The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get,” Pai has frequently been quoted as saying.
Opponents of the FCC order argue that lifting net neutrality allows the big companies to band together and keep smaller entrepreneurs from getting a foothold. Maybe not as evil as Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the multinational corporation that provides internet service for most of the world in the best-selling, dystopian novel “Ready Player One,” but at least large enough to dictate prices consumers have to pay for Netflix and other content.
“If Netflix has to pay for a fast lane, they will pass that cost on to their customers,” Campbell said.
The 22 states Francis referred to are the blue states plus Mississippi, Iowa and Kentucky that filed a legal challenge to the FCC order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Two Washington-based public interest groups, Free Press and Public Knowledge, also have filed lawsuits.
Netflix’s trade association, by the way, supports the lawsuits.
Louisiana Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy last week found himself targeted by rallies outside his district offices in New Orleans and Lafayette. The protesters pressed Kennedy to become the deciding vote on a bill that would restore the net neutrality rules. Senate Democrats announced they are one vote from winning — if a second Republican signs on. It may be a futile gesture, however, because Trump would have to sign the bill.
State legislatures around the country are filing bills to reject the FCC order. California’s lawmakers did so last week. Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Nebraska and Massachusetts have similar measures on their dockets.
Legislation is not a likely option in Louisiana.
“I am a solutions-oriented guy,” PSC Chairman Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie, told Campbell before casting the vote that defeated the commissioner’s resolution.
Skrmetta has twice attempted to get Louisiana legislators to go along with allowing the PSC to regulate companies offering broadband as a public utility, just like electricity and water. With jurisdiction, the PSC could negotiate directly with the companies, said Skrmetta, who helped lead Trump’s presidential effort in Louisiana.
The first attempt, House Bill 534 in 2015, was smothered on a 14-3 vote by the House Commerce Committee. Its sponsor, state Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, said last week that despite the overwhelming number of complaints about the quality of service, opposition from cable television and broadband providers won the day with their arguments that oversight would stifle their businesses.
In 2017, state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, pulled her effort when it became clear to PSC staff that House Bill 537 similarly would be defeated in committee.
“I will buy the doughnuts if you want to go to the Legislature and work this out,” Skrmetta told Campbell.
Sure, Campbell said, but the problem is “I can get the Democrats for it but he can’t get the Republicans.”