[StBernard] 4 vie in heated battle for open PSC seat

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Sep 23 08:21:33 EDT 2008

4 vie in heated battle for open PSC seat
by Robert Travis Scott, The Times-Picayune
Monday September 22, 2008, 9:39 PM
BATON ROUGE -- A surprise open seat on the Oct. 4 primary ballot for Public
Service Commission has put four candidates in a heated battle to represent a
New Orleans area district on some of the major energy regulation issues
facing Louisiana.

The commission, which once was a stepping stone in the political career of
Gov. Huey Long, has evolved into a critical agency coping with soaring
utility bills, the quest for alternative energy sources and post-hurricane
power outages.

Since 1997, north shore lawyer Jay Blossman has held the 1st District seat,
which represents a 12-parish area including St. Tammany, St. Bernard and
most of Jefferson and the River parishes, as well as a piece of the New
Orleans lakeshore. After qualifying in July to run for a third term,
Blossman unexpectedly dropped out of the race when the sign-up period was

While that move may have shut out some potential candidates who didn't want
to run against Blossman's well-financed re-election machine, the ballot will
have two former elected officials and two other previous political
candidates seeking their first election victories.

John Schwegmann, the former grocery chain owner who held the commission seat
for 15 years, is a non-party candidate back for another try. Ken Odinet, a
former 20-year member of the state House of Representatives, switched in
July from Democrat to Republican, generally a more favorable party for the

Eric Skrmetta, a Republican lawyer, has fallen short in previous attempts to
win a state House seat. Bruce Kincade, a Metairie lawyer, is a non-party
candidate who has run unsuccessfully in contests for parish president and

Each candidate has characterized Blossman as too cozy with the powerful
utility companies he regulates. A legislative auditor's report in 2003
documented a freewheeling standard for commissioners and agency staff, many
of whom routinely accepted dinners, golf games and other perks from

Blossman frequented utility companies' Superdome suites and a power company
picked up Blossman's tab at a Santa Fe spa. Earlier this year, Blossman
wrote a letter on commission stationery to regulated motor carriers asking
them to meet with a young friend who was a salesman for a satellite tracking
system. A state inspector general investigation concluded that the letter
was a possible violation of state ethics laws.

In reaction to these events, all the 1st District candidates have championed
themselves as customer advocates who will shun the influence of utilities
while giving the companies a fair hearing. But there are key differences.

Skrmetta sees ethical lapses in an otherwise effective commissioner, whereas
Schwegmann and Odinet say Blossman is unfit for office. Skrmetta has
welcomed an endorsement from Blossman, who is helping with introductions and
campaign fundraising. Also, Skrmetta is taking campaign contributions from
power and phone companies while the others have pledged not to accept money
from regulated utilities.

All the candidates want to address that portion of the power bill that
charges a substantial fee, or fuel adjustment, for increased costs of
natural gas, a fuel used in abundance by Entergy for generating electricity.

Here is a look at each candidate:

Bruce Kincade

Kincade, 56, is a lawyer with a specialty in taxes who has run
unsuccessfully for Jefferson Parish president and assessor.

He had given his campaign $10,000 as of his most recent disclosure report.

Kincade said he was motivated to run partly because of the increasing
electricity bill for his home, especially the fuel adjustment charge, which
he calls "obnoxious."

Kincade said consumers are being taken advantage of by utilities and there
is not enough equilibrium in the financial risks taken by shareholders
versus ratepayers.

Utilities should get at least 20 percent of their energy from renewable
resources, he said. More than any other candidate, Kincade emphasizes
increased solar power as the answer to higher energy bills.

Kincade said that as a commissioner he would be checking to see "if there is
any reality" to the utility calculations for consumer bills, and that "moral
suasion" could also be used to convince the companies to ease rates.

Ken Odinet Sr.

Odinet, 77, is a lifelong advocate of his home St. Bernard Parish. His
engineering career has provided experiences with offshore drilling, marine
construction and pipeline work, and he continues to run his own consulting

During his terms in the state Legislature from 1988 to 2008, he served on
the Ways & Means, Natural Resources and Labor committees. He narrowly lost a
bid for a state Senate seat last year.

He has money left from his Senate campaign that he can use in the PSC race.
His latest disclosure report showed a little more than $22,000.

Odinet said he would address the fuel adjustment problem by pressing for
different types of fuel, particularly nuclear, for power generation. He said
he would consider a way for the state to finance nuclear power expansion,
selling the power to the energy companies.

He favors deregulation of the power industry, shifting toward private power
plants to supply more electricity.

"Let supply and demand take care of things, " Odinet said. "We're surely not
keeping prices down with the regulation we have now."

Odinet wants the power companies to get insurance to help compensate for
future storm damage or build up a fund in advance, with the commission
providing oversight of customer charges to help pay for those hedge costs.

John Schwegmann

Schwegmann, 62, comes from a well-known family in the New Orleans area. His
father, a famous supermarket innovator, held a seat on the Public Service
Commission. His wife, Melinda, was lieutenant governor from 1992-1996 and a
state representative.

When his father stepped down from the PSC, Schwegmann won the seat and
served from 1981 to 1996. He was ousted by Blossman in a tight election.

He has raised about $25,000.

Schwegmann, who previously ran a banking company, said that once in office
he would concentrate on the electric utilities and closely review their
financial reports to better judge their rate charges.

"I think I can ask a lot of the needed, probing questions, " Schwegmann

He would explore the possibility of a partnership between the public and
private sectors to produce natural gas from the state's rich reserves in a
way that could bring lower prices on utility bills.

Also, while utilities are entitled to collect storm damage repair costs and
some other types of expenses from power customers, the companies and their
shareholders should not be immune from poor business decisions that unfairly
burden the ratepayer, he said.

Schwegmann said while in office he fought for extra generating capacity by
private companies that could be sold into the main power grids, thereby
creating more competition for power supply. He would support an expansion of
nuclear power generation, but limit the burden on consumers for cost
overruns, which in the past cost ratepayers billions of dollars.

Eric Skrmetta

Skrmetta, 49, is a lawyer who owns a seafood-processing equipment company
and has been involved in numerous civic groups. He has served as a traffic
judge in Jefferson Parish and a mediator for insurance claims settlements
after Hurricane Katrina. In a business deal in the 1990s, he turned a $1,000
investment into a $5.6 million buyout of his interest in the Harvey Boomtown
riverboat casino.

He was a member of the Causeway Commission and ran twice in crowded fields
for a state House seat.

Skrmetta said he will put more than $100,000 of his own money into his
campaign while also soliciting money from contributors, including regulated
companies. His competitors' refusal to accept utility money is a sign that
they are unfairly prejudiced toward them, he said.

"They have animosity toward one side in the equation, " Skrmetta said.

To deal with spikes in fuel adjustments, Skrmetta would try to ensure that
the special gas charges on bills come down as fast as they go up to
accurately match commodity market swings. For the long term, the answer lies
in greater diversification of the types of power plants, with an emphasis on
more nuclear power, petroleum-coke and biomass in the future, he said. More
solar power would be a partial solution.

Diversified energy sources could be made a requirement for utilities, he
said. When new power plants are delayed or running over planned costs, the
extra financial burden should be shared by the companies, he said.

"We don't want a never-ending story of why it's not completed, " Skrmetta
said, noting his campaign slogan: "Power should rest with our consumers, not
utility companies."

The commission has five elected representatives serving staggered six-year
terms. The agency regulates utilities, some phone services and a variety of
intrastate transport companies, including movers, tour buses and limousine

In addition to St. Tammany, St. Bernard and much of the east bank of
Jefferson Parish, the 1st District covers Plaquemines, Tangipahoa,
Washington and St. Helena parishes and parts of Ascension, Livingston,
Orleans, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes.

. . . . . . .

Robert Travis Scott can be reached at rscott at timespicayune.com or

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