Mike Francis

Public Service Commissioner Mike Francis, R-Crowley 

Until about nine years ago, a venal or incompetent politician in Louisiana had an obvious comeback. “At least,” he might say, “I am not a Public Service Commissioner.”

But the slimy gang of freeloaders that dominated the commission, and played poodle to the utilities it supposedly regulated, moved on. Let us not get carried away, and compare the new regime to driven snow. But today it is possible to say “PSC” and “ethics” in the same sentence without collapsing in helpless laughter.

The old days will never be recaptured, but the PSC's newest member, Mike Francis, does propose a significant retrograde step. He thinks that utility lobbyists should be free once again to pick up the tab when they take a commissioner out to lunch or dinner.

No doubt the conversations over steak and a few pops will be wide-ranging, but they are bound on occasion to focus on your light bill. Since commissioners make the rules by which utilities operate, and decide how much they can extract from their customers, the hospitality of lobbyists will always bespeak more than goodness of heart.

Francis was elected to the commission in 2016 on a promise to run it like a business. That used to be a standard line for candidates, but it is such a goofy idea that it has largely gone out of favor. Businesses are run for profit, governments for the public weal, at least in theory. Government regulation requires a studious and even-handed approach that may be foreign to the oilfields where Francis made his money.

Once Francis had decided that government should be run like a business, it followed, for him, that public service commissioners and lobbyists should negotiate in restaurants. The working lunch, he explained, is “pretty standard procedure in the real work world,” as he can vouch from the experience of 40 years.

That is true, of course, although it is also true that business can just as well be discussed in offices, although it is not so much fun without food and drink to loosen the tongue. In any case, even if a working lunch is a good idea, it by no means follows that a company under PSC jurisdiction should pay for it. Commissioners should be reimbursed from the public purse for legitimate expenses, and pay their own way otherwise. Nobody respects a moocher.

Until 2008 getting elected to public office provided unlimited mooching opportunities. Lobbyists plied legislators, for instance, and public service commissioners with as much food and drink as they could stuff into their maws, until Bobby Jindal was elected governor and introduced what he called his “gold standard” of ethics. That was largely a sham, but it did at least put a cap on how much could be spent to feed the appetites of a public official. The limit was set in 2008 at $50 a sitting, so nobody was getting fobbed off with a Big Mac and a Coke, and a dedicated trencherman could still wangle breakfast, lunch and dinner on the same day. The cap was set to rise in line with the Consumer Price Index and is currently at $60.

But such was the contempt in which the PSC was universally held that two of its five members, Foster Campbell and Lambert Boissiere III, proposed a ban on any entertainment at lobbyists' expense. That motion failed twice initially, but it was adopted after the PSC's most shameless sponger, its chairman Jay Blossman, quit at the end of 2008.

Francis now says he doesn't understand why commissioners are held to a higher standard than other elected officials and thinks they should be also be allowed to enjoy the largess of lobbyists to the tune of $60 as they wrestle with the burdens of office. He says working lunches allow him to see both sides of an issue, although, if lobbyists believed that, they would not regard their money as well spent.

It is customary for politicians to defend their freebies by asking whether people believe they can be influenced for such small considerations. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. In 2008, when commissioners, their staffs and even their wives were dining out on the utility companies' dollar, the legislative auditor found they had no “systematic plan to review rates.”

Public service commissioners will never enjoy full public trust since most of their campaign contributions come from the companies they regulate. They are paid well enough — about $137,000 a year — to pay their own way.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.