Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"Phony outrage from the PSC"

Here's an editorial in the Advocate that is revealing of how folks-in-the-know (in this case reporters) understand the workings of our Public Service Commission. The issue in the editorial concerns a recent fracas that erupted when the head of Entergy Louisiana, currently in bankruptcy as a consequence of Katrina and Rita, tried to reassure investors that he had "three very solid votes" on the PSC for relief--meaning rate increases.

The PSC commissioners did not care for they way that sounded, especially in the wake of historically high energy prices, and rushed to reassure the public that:
"We don't want anybody in this room or around this country or around this state to think that just because Entergy wants it, Entergy gets it," said Commissioner Jay Blossman of Mandeville, in a typical comment.
The editorial staff responsible for the essay have taken an unusual step here: they've chastised public officials for engaging in business as usual and then pretending to be outraged at what are common practices. It's great. But it is also unusual; frankly the press is weak in holding public officials to a high standard in relationship to the influence of good-ole-boy networks of all kinds. The press' congenital cynicism and its insider knowledge of how the sausage is made conspire to make "understanding" of or at least toleration of "necessary" relationships that "get things done" part of the culture of reporting. (Note that even this chiding editorial the press is not chastising the PSC for its cavalier "business as usual" practices, only for pretending that it isn't business as usual.)

Speaking out on this now is an index of how much the hurricanes have changed things--pretending that business as usual isn't usual is no longer tolerable to the press. My guess is that the people aren't willing to tolerate business as usual at all, never mind the pretence that it isn't normal.

We in Lafayette, with an independent public utility system, are not effected by the sorts of angst that publicly traded companies get into concerning rates of return and satisfying shareholders that has driven Entergy's regional branch into the protection of bankruptcy. But we are interested in the picture that is revealed of how things are done in the PSC -- a domain that is crucial to the success of our fiber-optic project.

Some very interesting bits:
Shocking, isn't it, how shocked politicians can be when they are caught behaving like politicians. We hope, though, that members of the Public Service Commission spare us the outrage when the curtain is pulled away from how the commission routinely does business: in casual, private meetings, one-on-one with the officials of the companies the commission regulates.

The same company officials, we might note, who approve the campaign contributions for PSC members when they run for office...

What's the reality of this situation? Routinely, PSC members meet individually for briefings -- at one time, fancy lunches -- from regulated companies and others interested in the decisions of the regulators. Nowadays, the lunches or other benefits are required to be accounted for and reported. But the briefings are from one side of an argument -- what the lawyers would call ex parte, without other parties to the dispute being present...

Given the influence wielded by utilities over the PSC, and a tradition of back-scratching among PSC members, its staff and regulated companies, few people ought to doubt that that Leonard's initial assessment was correct -- at least before he talked about it in public.

In this instance the glare of publicity let a little "sunshine" into this buddy-buddy relationship that will surely mean that the consumers of the state are better taken care of than they would have been without the attention. It's apparent that given a choice between pleasing the voters and pleasing the corporations the PSC will run to the side of voters. What is also apparent is that this is not necessarily the case when less attention is given to deals cut at chummy lunches with officials or staff. (incidentally, notice how similar this story of the Louisiana PSC is to the recent story of the BellSouth in Washington. BellSouth, incidentally, is surely the single largest lobbyist at the PSC...as it is in the state legislature.)

The take-away lesson for Lafayette: What is needed to ensure long-term support for LUS and our new public telecom utility will be a consistent dose of sunlight, real attention to the way that sausage is made. We'll need our own good-ole-boys, yes; but we'll never be able to match the force that BellSouth can afford to keep in Baton Rouge. Publicity, or the realistic threat thereof, is what would best serve our cause.

Read the article, think about the implications, and make a little new year's resolution to watch the PSC. (And while we're about it, the rest of those guys up in Baton Rouge, as well.)

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