by mark ballard
Capitol news bureau
November 02, 2012
Candidates for the utility regulator post for Baton Rouge and Lafayette disagreed Monday on whether the state Public Service Commission should keep the fees and fines the agency gathers.
It was one of the few issues on which the candidates for the PSC 2nd District held generally different views at a Press Club of Baton Rouge forum. The PSC is in court trying to overturn a legislative edict to use the money for general expenditures.
Greg Gaubert, no party-Thibodaux, told about 50 people in attendance that money collected by the PSC and not used for regulatory activity needs to be returned to rate payers, as is done in other states.
“For the last three years, these funds have been swept into the general fund,” said Gaubert, a 48-year-old innkeeper. “It’s not right to treat the people of Louisiana in this fashion.”
“If we have an accountability and transparency system at the PSC, then that’s fine,” said Sarah Holliday, R-Baton Rouge, a 49-year-old community activist.
“But if it’s not, then I prefer to have more accountability over the funds, to double-check behind the Public Service Commission” by putting the money in the state treasury.
Three Republicans, one Democrat and one person running without party affiliation are vying in the Nov. 6 election to replace PSC Commissioner Jimmy Field, of Baton Rouge. Field is retiring at the end of the year.
On other issues, Gaubert, Holliday and Forest Wright, D-New Orleans, none of whom have filed campaign finance disclosure reports, said they would not take donations from utility companies regulated by the PSC.
Republican candidates Erich Ponti, of Baton Rouge, and Scott A. Angelle, of Breaux Bridge, both said there is nothing wrong with accepting contributions from utility companies and both have.
All five candidates said Louisiana needs to expand access of high speed Internet into rural areas and criticized the utility companies’ handling of restoring electricity after Hurricane Isaac.
The candidates carved out different positions on whether the PSC should keep the fees and fines the agency generates or turn them over to the state treasury.
The PSC is budgeted to spend $8.75 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. But in many years, the agency has collected more than its appropriated amount.
The PSC went to court arguing that the money it collects is legally required to be used for regulating utility companies and common carriers. The state Legislature countered that the latest expression of the lawmaking body permits excess monies to be used for general purposes.
Oral arguments were scheduled before the 1st Circuit of Appeal last week but were postponed.
Money from fees approved by state legislators should go to the PSC and fines should go to the general fund, said Angelle, 50, the former secretary of state Department of Natural Resources and former interim lieutenant governor.
Ponti, a state representative who chairs the House Commerce Committee, said the PSC is allowed legally to charge fees.
“If these fees are not used for their intended purpose, then they should be returned to the ratepayers,” the 47-year-old contractor said.
Wright said when state legislators pulled those funds into the state general fund, they fundamentally turned a fee for specific services into a tax. Wright is a 35-year-old utility regulatory consultant.
The newly redrawn 2nd PSC district stretches from northern parts of Livingston Parish, includes south Baton Rouge and Central, the Felicianas, Pointe Coupee, much of West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes south to the Gulf Coast to include the “Bayou Communities” in Lafourche, Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes; and west into the parts of the Acadiana parishes of Lafayette, Iberia and St. Martin.