Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta pulled down more votes Tuesday night than he did to win reelection in 2014. But the two-time Republican incumbent finds himself facing a rookie Democratic candidate in the Dec. 5 runoff.
That doesn’t come as much of a shock to consumer advocate Logan Atkinson Burke, of New Orleans, who says very few people outside the world of Jefferson Parish Republicans and utility company executives know who Skrmetta is despite his role over the past dozen years in setting the amount people pay on their monthly electric bills.
Skrmetta, seeking this third and final six-year term as one of the five elected utility regulators, faces New Orleans lawyer Allen H. Borne Jr., a Democrat.
PSC commissioners represent more people than a congressman. District 1, with 671,376 registered voters, covers primarily suburban New Orleans – Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes account for almost two-thirds of the voters – and suburban Baton Rouge – with Ascension and Livingston – chalking up nearly another third with a smattering of voters in seven other parishes.
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In north Louisiana, PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell, D-Bossier Parish, breezed Tuesday night into a final term allowed by term limits. If Campbell serves until the end of his term in 2026, he will have been in one public office or another for 50 years.
“These five individuals make decisions worth billions and billions of dollars and they do so with very little oversight,” said Burke, head of the Alliance for Affordable Energy. Entergy, for instance, has plans to replace several older electricity generating plants with newer, more efficient ones, at a cost of about $1 billion each.
And under the rules of regulating a monopoly, it’s the utilities’ customers, rather than owners, who are called upon to pay for the construction of the plants that provide the power that homeowners and businesses then have to buy. The costs have many large manufacturers questioning if a cheaper way is possible.
“The media landscape in Louisiana hasn’t paid attention to the PSC and I think that has benefited utilities in a big way,” Burke said. “Decisions are made with input from large corporations and with little input by the public.”
Skrmetta received 134,900 votes or 31% of the 431,014 cast in the 676 precincts represented by PSC District 1. That’s more than the 120,032 votes he polled in 2014 to win reelection to his current term.
Borne received 107,174 votes or 25% of the total. Three other Republican candidates, one without party affiliation and one from the Green Party, split the remaining vote.
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The general rule of thumb in Louisiana politics is that incumbents will attract the most votes in the primary and if that tally isn’t 50% plus one, then they’re in deep trouble. It doesn't happen every time – Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards won in a 2019 runoff – but more often than not incumbents that don’t win in the primary, fail in the runoff.
One enduring exception is the PSC and that’s largely because the commissioners act in such anonymity.
“We were expecting a runoff all along,” Skrmetta said. “Our polling showed we actually did a little better (Tuesday night) than we thought we would.”
Borne said his main message at forums and video conferences was that Skrmetta receives the bulk of his campaign revenues from the huge corporations that run utilities – Entergy is the largest business headquartered in Louisiana – and the financial interests that help the power companies do their business.
“Frankly, I ran into a whole lot of people who didn’t know of Mr. Skrmetta or the PSC for that matter,” Borne said. It’s an observation Skrmetta doesn’t dispute.
Borne didn’t accept contributions from the utility companies, arguing that commissioners shouldn’t be beholden to the utilities they regulate. He wants to limit campaign contributions from regulated utilities as Georgia and Mississippi have done.
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“I’m a businessman and a capitalist,” Borne said. “It’s a monopoly set up and we need to ensure they (utilities) are regulated to receive a reasonable return. But we also have to take care of the people.”
Skrmetta said that despite taking campaign funds from utility companies, he and fellow commissioners have always worked to keep rates low. For instance, when he joined the regulatory board in 2009, utilities were allowed to include payrolls in the formula that sets rates. That practice has ended.
At the same time, the utility companies need enough funds to provide low cost power for businesses that want to expand or locate in Louisiana, thereby helping the economy, he said.
“Our rate mechanism is paving the way for $119 billion of new industry for Louisiana,” Skrmetta said. “What we do is incredibly complex. But it’s like watching paint dry for most people.”