BY MARK BALLARD
Capitol news bureau
September 28, 2012
Four of the six candidates vying to be the utility regulator representing the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas told a business group Tuesday that the Public Service Commission is vital to ensuring a strong economy for Louisiana.
Described by forum moderator Woody Jenkins as the most important job in the state that nobody has heard of, the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish asked how the state regulators of private businesses that operate monopolies within their territories would deal with small businessmen. PSC Commissioner Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill, helped moderate the session attended by about 50 people.
Forest Wright, D-New Orleans, said, “The issues before the Public Service Commission right now are detailed and very real. They have the ability to impact every single person, every single business in this state, whether good or bad.”
Scott A. Angelle, R-Breaux Bridge, pointed out that electricity bills, which are approved by the PSC, are one of the largest monthly expenditures for most Louisiana families. In 2010, the roughly 2.2 million utility customers in Louisiana, combined, spent $6.6 billion on electricity, he said.
Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, said the PSC needs to be sensitive to how their regulatory decisions affect small businessmen, like himself.
“I create jobs. I make payroll. I deal with regulation,” Ponti said. “We need a small businessman’s perspective.”
“We need to provide to the business owners and operators the tools that they need to grow their businesses successfully,” said Ed Roy, R-Lafayette. “That’s where the jobs come from, that’s where the economic base comes from.”
Candidates Greg Gaubert, No Party-Thibodaux, and Sarah Holliday, R-Baton Rouge, said they were invited but could not attend the luncheon forum because of prior commitments.
The candidates seek to replace PSC Commissioner Jimmy Field, of Baton Rouge, who is retiring after serving 16 years on the board that oversees the private companies that sell electricity, natural gas, water, telephone and other services, along with regulating tow trucks, moving companies, and other companies.
The election is set for Nov. 6. A runoff between the top two vote getters, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, is scheduled Dec. 8.
The newly redrawn 2nd PSC district stretches from northern parts of Livingston Parish, includes south Baton Rouge and Central, the Felicianas, 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 to include parts of the Acadiana parishes of Lafayette, Iberia and St. Martin parishes.
Ponti owns a construction company in Baton Rouge. He also is a state representative in whose district the forum was held. Ponti chairs the House Commerce committee, which oversees the PSC.
The most important PSC-related issue for small businessmen is upgrading an antiquated transmission system. Rebuilding the way utility companies move electricity from generating plants to customers can lead to more reliable and less expensive power, he said.
“We’re going to see over the next couple days,” Ponti said, “the kind damage that can occur to an aging system.”
Roy is a former television weatherman who owns a investigative agency. He said for businesses to thrive electricity has to be plentiful and reasonably priced.
“For that reason we the private companies providing these services for us in Louisiana need to be healthy,” Roy said. The utility companies “need to make money. They don’t need to gorge themselves on money from customers, but they need to stay in a healthy state so that they can help us grow infrastructure.”
Angelle is the former secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. He also served a short time as interim lieutenant governor and handled legislative matters for Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Angelle said the PSC needs to focus on the fuel used to run the generators that make electricity. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana had some of the highest monthly electric bills in the South, largely because of the skyrocketing cost of natural gas, which fuel most of the state’s generators. Louisiana now has some of the lowest prices in the nation because the price of natural gas has plummeted.
“We need to absolutely focus on the portfolio of fuel costs that the utility companies have. We need to aggressively manage their fuel costs, have oversight over those fuel costs,” Angelle said.
Wright is a utility regulatory consultant who regularly attended PSC meetings. He said the issues are detailed.
“It is the PSC’s responsibility to look carefully and ensure that the public is being served first and receiving the best possible deal,” Wright said, adding that decisions need to be data driven and make sense economically.