With a longtime U.S. senator and an embattled Juvenile Court judge among the candidates fighting to keep their seats in the Nov. 4 election, it’s nearly impossible for the Public Service Commission’s 1st District race to attract much public attention, but with the candidates for that seat lobbing increasingly pointed attacks at one another, the race has become one of the more contentious contests on the ballot.
Incumbent Eric Skrmetta is accused by his challengers, Forest Bradley Wright and Allen “Al” Leone, of being a shill for the public utility companies he regulates as a PSC commissioner. Skrmetta has shot back that Wright, a consumer advocate specializing in energy policy, does the bidding of the solar industry and that Leone, a real estate agent, is a perennial candidate in search of a title and doesn’t understand the work of the PSC.
Skrmetta was elected to the PSC in 2008. Wright and Leone have never been elected to public office. All three are Republicans.
The Public Service Commission regulates rates for publicly owned utilities providing electric, water, wastewater, natural gas and telecommunication services in most of the state. The PSC also must grant approval to those companies before they can issue new stocks and bonds or begin major construction projects such as adding power plants or transmission lines. The independent body also regulates intrastate transportation services.
The commission does not regulate utility companies in Orleans Parish, where the City Council handles that task.
The 1st District, one of five commission jurisdictions in the state, spans 11 parishes in southeast Louisiana, including all of St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and parts of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes.
Commissioners serve overlapping six-year-long terms.
In his time on the commission, Skrmetta estimates that he has helped save customers more than $4 billion by denying requests from public utilities to raise rates.
“I’m going to continue what we’ve started,” he said, adding that he wants to continue to bring a “conservative approach” to the commission.
He has received the endorsements of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, the Republican Party of Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry. U.S. Sen. David Vitter and U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise and Cedric Richmond also have lined up in Skrmetta’s camp.
Skrmetta touts his ability to work with the state’s other elected officials to resolve consumer issues. He said he is the only one of the three candidates qualified to address “unfunded federal mandates” such as a new regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at cutting carbon pollution from power plants.
“I think I’ve shown that I’ve been an aggressive champion for consumers in protecting us from unfunded mandates,” Skrmetta said.
As of Oct. 6, the last date for which reports are available, Skrmetta had more than $600,000 in his campaign war chest, with contributors including PSC-regulated companies Atmos Energy, AT&T and Baton Rouge Water.
Before announcing his candidacy, Wright was the utility policy director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a New Orleans consumer watchdog organization, and was a familiar face at PSC meetings as he lobbied the commission to make consumer-friendly decisions on utility matters.
Wright, who also ran for the PSC’s District 2 seat in 2012, said he was compelled to seek office after witnessing the “undue level of influence” utilities have on the commissioners.
As a commissioner, Wright said, he would support investments in energy efficiency and would work to increase consumer choice for energy and high-speed Internet. He supports the solar industry and the ability of consumers to produce and use their own energy.
He said he also would seek to change the approval process for companies seeking to build power plants.
“We certainly have a great need for additional energy generation in the coming years, but it has to be part of a deliberative and transparent process where all options are laid on the table,” Wright said. “That includes traditional energy. It also includes nontraditional energy and energy efficiency so that we know that we are investing in the lowest-cost, most affordable energy resources.”
Wright has about $115,500 left in his campaign account. He has received financial backing from several solar companies as well as the Alliance for Solar Choice and KD Homes Builder.
Like Wright, Leone has pledged not to take contributions from public utilities. He also has signed an affidavit saying he would not accept money from solar companies. Leone said that makes him the only “people’s candidate” in the race.
“This is the Public Service Commission, not the private sector commission,” he said.
Leone, who is the CEO of Keller Williams Realty River Parishes, has never held public office. He has lost races for secretary of state in 2006, Jefferson Parish president in 2007, a state Senate seat in 2008 and Jefferson Parish assessor in 2011.
He is an at-large member of the Jefferson Parish Republican Executive Committee.
Leone said he continues running for public office because he wants “to make the community better.” He calls his campaign an investment in the community.
“I want to make the world a better place for other people,” he said. “You work hard to become successful, and when you become successful, you give back to your community.”
Leone said the PSC has not been acting in the best interest of the community because the average person’s utility bills are too high.
“I have no problem with a business making a profit,” he said. “But I don’t want them taking advantage of people.”
As of Oct. 6, Leone had $2,700 in his campaign fund.
Although the candidates all vow to work for consumers and to keep electricity and telephone bills low, the race has been heated, especially a battle between Skrmetta and Wright, who have often been on opposing sides of issues at PSC meetings.
During the campaign, Wright has accused Skrmetta of being aligned with utility companies, noting that the incumbent has accepted campaign contributions from some of the very firms he regulates.
“He has fueled his campaign with such an enormous amount of money from these utility companies that it compromises the independence that is required and expected by the public,” Wright said.
He accuses Skrmetta of casting votes that are in line with “protecting utility profits over the interests of the customers.”
In particular, he said, Skrmetta voted for and continues to stand by Entergy in its now-failed plan to convert a generator from natural gas to petroleum coke. Louisiana customers have had to pick up the bill for the canceled Little Gypsy project.
“This is a situation where perception is reality,” Wright said. “He is protecting utility profits over the interests of customers.”
Skrmetta calls Wright’s claims disingenuous and said he has voted against the utilities on “many occasions.”
“If we save $4 billion for ratepayers, it’s not because we’re beholden to the utility companies. It’s because we’re taking them to task,” Skrmetta said.
He said Wright’s objections to his campaign contributions are hypocritical because Wright receives funding from solar companies.
“When a person is 100 percent funded by utility interests from outside the state, it’s a red herring,” Skrmetta said.
Skrmetta also accuses Wright of being a Republican in name only. Wright, previously a Democrat, switched to the Republican Party earlier this year.