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Columns Tom Baxter

Louisiana election, Georgia court case signal stormier time for public service commissions

By Tom Baxter

You better watch out. That’s the holiday greeting a Louisiana utility lobbyist might be sending his colleagues in other states this year.

“Few politicos, if any, saw Davante Lewis coming,” Baton Rouge journalist Jeremy Alford wrote last week in his newsletter, the Tracker.

That’s understandable. Lewis, a lobbyist for the leftward-leaning Louisiana Budget Project, took on veteran Public Service Commissioner Lambert Boissiere, barely slipping into a runoff with 18 percent of the vote versus 48 percent for Boissiere. He won the Dec. 10 runoff by an astonishing 59-41 percent. The 30-year-old first-time candidate will be the only openly LGBTQ Black elected official in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama.

Lewis ran on a platform of modernizing the state’s hurricane-wracked electrical grid and taking giant steps toward a greater reliance on renewable energy. He also accused Boissiere of being too cozy with the utilities he regulated. That drew support from national groups and hefty opposition from the state’s utilities, resulting in a big-money, nationally-watched race in a Black-majority district. That’s rare.

The formula for this surprising election may exist only in Louisiana, but variations are possible in the other 10 states with elected PSCs. The dramatic surge toward Lewis in the runoff election is evidence of volatile issues which could ignite elsewhere.

Like Georgia.

The Georgia Public Service Commission votes this week on a rate increase of 11.5 percent for Georgia Power, to be imposed over three years. It’s a $1.8 billion increase, down from the $2.9 billion Georgia Power asked for. Billions are still billions, and the deal Georgia Power took in this agreement with the PSC staff looks a lot like the one in the last big rate increase. Business as usual, except with bigger numbers.

When a neighbor complained on social media that the electricity for her one-bedroom apartment had doubled, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Nedra Rhone wrote recently, she drew more than a hundred replies from others concerned about their bills. Now these ratepayers will begin to shoulder the soaring costs of Plant Vogtle, which are like to end up around $30 billion. Chances are that if these disgruntled apartment dwellers ever find a political means to voice their displeasure, no one will see them coming, either.

The PSC’s vote on the Georgia Power rate increase comes as gas prices are declining and the election status of the PSC itself is in flux. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, elections for two PSC seats were postponed and removed from the ballot last November, with a new election date to be determined later.

Last week, the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta heard oral arguments in the case, which involves the way the PSC is elected. A group of Black voters in Fulton County is challenging the system in which candidates must live in one of five public service districts but are elected statewide, claiming it dilutes African-Americans’ chances of being elected.

If this case, now two years old, goes in favor of the plaintiffs, it would create a significant new opportunity for Democrats, at a time when they are searching for a path forward after their wipeout in the elections for state offices last November.

Uncertainty over elections and unhappiness over electricity bills can be a dangerous combination. In Louisiana and Texas, we’re also seeing growing concerns about the electrical grid’s ability to hold up in a time of increasingly violent weather. Climate change is bound to make utility regulation even more of a hot potato.

The 11 states that have elected public service commissions are all in the South and West, and South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where the legislature appoints commissioners. Governors appoint the commissioners in all the other states.

One effect of the election in Louisiana and the court case in Georgia could be that Republican legislators in those 11 states will take a closer look and decide that public service commissioners don’t have to be elected, after all. The question is whether governors would really want the headache of appointing them, tempting as that might seem.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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1 Comment

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