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Campbell finds way to mitigate past controversies

Louisiana District 5 Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell reversed what they might believe around the National Football League: the best defense is a good offense.

Yesterday, Campbell led the charge of his fellow commissioners against alleged extravagance practiced by board members and employees of electric cooperatives. The PSC regulates these ten customer-owned nonprofits that provide power mainly in rural areas across the states.

The PSC reviewed rates and granted some increases, but only after receiving information about their finances. Some coops paid out a large portion of their retained earnings to board members, whose roles are supposed to be part-time, and in high salaries to their executives.

While two of the organizations didn’t accede to the information request, Claiborne Electric Cooperative resisted this the most and did so only under subpoena. It turns out its general manager receives nearly $200,000 in salary for overseeing 26,000 accounts, and board members make $250 a meeting.

That adds a new layer to a running feud between Campbell and the Co-op. Earlier this year, it petitioned the PSC to approve a management structure that would enable it to launch a broadband subsidiary and produced a report claiming the move wouldn’t add to existing customers’ costs. But Campbell rallied his colleagues to defeat the attempt unanimously with data they said made that assertion unlikely.

This disappointed a number of people who stood to receive the projected service. It also provided irony: Campbell long has championed using taxpayer dollars to subsidize rural broadband provision, yet by this decision made it far less likely for these individuals. Without knowledge of both sides’ information it’s difficult to know who was right, but certainly Campbell’s choice upset a swath of constituents.

That only piled on to another controversial decision made by the PSC and Campbell, which would have allowed the Windcatcher project to move forward. This would have had Louisiana’s SWEPCO plus other power providers in three other states bill customers for replacing fossil fuel sources with wind energy.

Despite projections obviously too rosy and underestimating costs, the PSC approved the arrangement with the exception of District 2 Commissioner Craig Greene. Fortunately, wiser heads at their Texas counterpart rejected expediting the project, and the companies involved pulled the entire deal.

Having made one decision that may have attenuated consumer choice and another that certainly would have cost consumers needlessly, Campbell needed to help neutralize fallout from these decisions as his possibility at reelection looms in 2020. He found his chance with this opportunity to do what he does best: identify himself with the “little guy,” take shots at presumed fat cats, and present the controversy through a Manichean lens.

Certainly, regulators must ensure that coop earnings don’t facilitate outsized compensation, and at the least calling attention to this issue raises awareness that encourages these entities to keep a lid on such a thing. For Campbell, happily good policy merged with good politics for him in this circumstance that may help his constituents forget his previous recent provocative decisions.

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