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On December 14 the Louisiana Public Service Commission will meet for the first time in its 100-year history in the town of Winnfield. This is an important event for the PSC, which sets utility rates for Louisiana consumers. It’s also important for Winnfield, the parish seat of Winn Parish and home to nearly 6,000 people. For the PSC it is part of an ongoing effort to improve public access to the regulatory process and commission understanding of local issues. For Winnfield it is homecoming for an agency that launched the political career of native son Huey Long, who graduated from PSC member to Governor and United States Senator in the 1930s.
In 2003, my first year on the commission, monthly PSC meetings were held in a Baton Rouge high-rise. At my first meeting I asked all those who did not represent a utility to stand. Only three people rose in the crowd of about 75: a citizen activist, a news reporter and my daughter, Kate. If you subscribe to the belief that “the world is run by those who show up,” you could only conclude that the PSC was dominated by utility interests. During my 2002 campaign I had promised to hold PSC meetings out of Baton Rouge. My opponent, the incumbent commissioner, said it could not be done. I won the election and in my first year passed a rule that up to four meetings per year must be held on the road. Now, three years into my second six-year term on the commission, the PSC has held nine meetings in my North Louisiana district. The historic Winnfield meeting will be No. 10.
Why worry about where a meeting is held? I want to get the commission out of its Baton Rouge “comfort zone.” When I took office a legislative audit revealed that PSC members and staff were taking hundreds of free meals and gifts each year from utility lobbyists. There was an air of coziness between the regulatory “watchdogs” and those they were supposedly watching.
Now, in addition to meeting outside Baton Rouge, the commission has adopted a stronger ethics code. At my urging we no longer permit commissioners or staff to accept free meals or gifts from utilities or let our family members work for utilities. Louisiana consumers deserve to know that the “pocketbook” decisions of the PSC are based on sound, unbiased information. The last thing you want to hear is that your “watchdogs” have been taking free meals and gifts from utilities.
Huey Long knew instinctively that a utility regulator must be independent of special interests to fairly decide rates and other issues. The Winnfield native served on the Louisiana Railroad Commission (renamed the Public Service Commission in 1921) from 1918 to 1928, when he was elected Governor. Long was only 25 when first elected to the Railroad Commission. According to the Long Legacy Project, an organization dedicated to Huey Long history:
“Without the backing of the political establishment or business interests, (Long) took his case straight to the people, blanketing his district with printed circulars attacking the corporate monopolies and delivering speeches in every town and crossroads in his district.
“He used his position on the commission to build a name for himself as a champion of the common man, fighting against utility rate increases and oil pipeline monopolies.”
Long’s corporate enemies tried to remove him from the commission, but he survived and was named chairman in 1922. He won statewide acclaim when he sued the Cumberland Telephone Company for unjustly raising rates by 20 percent. Long argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won, forcing Cumberland to send refund checks to 80,000 overcharged customers and earning the admiration of Chief Justice William Howard Taft. During his PSC service Long lived in Shreveport and practiced law here.
Local attorney Arthur Carmody Jr. has written about Long’s law practice and his relations with the Shreveport bar. Carmody said opinions about Long among local lawyers and judges varied widely. He noted that Leonard Hargrove called Long “a formidable adversary” and well-prepared. Carmody also noted that George T. Hardy, a one-time Shreveport mayor and Second Circuit Court of Appeal judge, described Long with words like “poltroon,” “blackguard,” “ruffian” and “despot.”
It is well-known that Huey Long inspired strong opinion pro and con. Winnfield celebrates him along with two other native sons who became governor: Huey’s brother, Earl, and O.K. Allen. All three are members of the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in downtown Winnfield. I will host a reception there from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. on the morning of the PSC meeting. The PSC will meet at 10 a.m. at the Winnfield Civic Center, 200 South Jones Street. The public is invited. I want to thank The Forum for allowing me to appear regularly in print. As a politician I know my views aren’t liked by all. But debate is one of the things that makes America great. I wish you and your family a happy holiday season.