skrmetta and borne

Eric Skrmetta won his third and final six-year term on the utility-regulating Public Service Commission on Saturday night.

Skrmetta’s reelection was challenged by Allen Borne Jr., a Democratic lawyer from New Orleans.

Skrmetta, a Metairie Republican, beat Borne by securing 55,987 votes or about 62% of the 90,626 votes cast. Borne received 34,639 or 38% of the votes cast, according to the complete but unofficial tally by the Secretary of State's Office. 

But the results were no surprise in a head-to-head race between a Republican and a Democrat in a district that skews Republican. U.S. House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, shares many of the same district lines as Skrmetta and he won on Nov. 3 with 72% of the vote. Scalise then campaigned for Skrmetta.

Though a Public Service Commission member represents more people than a congressman, the five elected commissioners remain largely unknown. The commissioners decide how much customers pay monopoly utilities for their electricity along with regulating landline phones, in-state trucking and cabs.

Commissioners make decisions worth billions of dollars, most of which everyday Louisiana residents and businesses are called upon to pay. But the commission operates at the intersection of complex engineering and high finance, boring to many consumers and the media, leaving the commissioners to make their decisions in relative anonymity.

Public Service Commission District 1, with 675,162 registered voters in 676 precincts, covers primarily suburban New Orleans — parts of Jefferson, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany parishes account for almost two-thirds of the voters — and suburban Baton Rouge — with parts of Ascension and Livingston — chalking up nearly another third. The rest of the voters live in six other parishes.

Skrmetta received 31% of the 431,014 votes cast on Nov. 3. Borne made the runoff by polling 25% of the vote. The rest went to the three other Republicans, one Green Party candidate and one with no party affiliation.

Nearly 73% of the district’s voters participated on Nov. 3, but as expected, turnout Saturday was much lower — only 12% showed up for Saturday's runoff, according to the Secretary of State's Office’s complete but unofficial returns.

Skrmetta had a campaign war chest of almost five times greater than that of his Democratic challenger. And having been on the commission for 12 years, about 70% of his money came from employees and lobbyists of the firms that have business before the panel.

Borne made an issue of the support of regulated industries funding commissioner campaigns. He wanted the commission, or the Legislature, to restrict campaign donations from regulated industries, as is done in other states, including Mississippi.

But Skrmetta argues that the money contributed to his campaign doesn’t influence his actions on the commission. He pointed to a number of lawsuits and decisions that went against what the privately owned utility companies wanted.

For instance, customers once were required to pay executive salaries and other expenses. He helped remove those costs from the rate base. He worked to tighten the commission's ethics regulations and replaced the practice of utility officials paying for meals with reimbursements from the agency itself.

Skrmetta says his goal is to balance the financial needs of the utility companies, to ensure they continue to provide uninterrupted service, and of the ratepayers who have no choice but to buy power from a company that operates as a monopoly in their area. 

Skrmetta, 62, is a lawyer who comes from a wealthy family. He has two children. He served as co-campaign chairman for Louisiana in Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid in 2016.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.