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Power Players 

The dramatic rise in utility bills has made every Louisiana Public Service Commission election more critical than ever. The PSC regulates the state's utilities — including electric, water, natural gas and telecommunications — and is supposed to look out for customers as well as service providers. The two largest issues in the District 1 race are skyrocketing rates and utility companies' influence on PSC members via political contributions.

Outgoing Commission Chair Jay Blossman saw no conflict of interest in accepting campaign donations and perks from the companies he regulated while serving on the PSC. His predecessor and current candidate, John F. Schwegmann, former CEO of the Schwegmann grocery store chain who served on the PSC from 1981-1996, calls Blossman's relationship with utilities unacceptable. Schwegmann refuses campaign funds from those entities, as do former state Rep. Ken Odinet and Bruce Kincade, a local tax attorney running as an independent.

Eric Skrmetta, a Metairie lawyer who is supported by Blossman, says he doesn't have a problem accepting campaign funds from any source because contributors won't get preferential treatment. Skrmetta says one of the major forces driving up utility bills is the fuel surcharge, which is based on the volatile natural gas market. He favors a comprehensive plan that moves away from reliance on fossil fuels and toward alternative sources such as nuclear, clean coal and solar.

Kinkade says the PSC approach to regulation has been reactive instead of proactive. He pledges to work with his fellow commissioners to bring Entergy's rates down and push for more investment in renewable energy. Odinet, a former Democrat who is now a Republican, agrees that the state needs to look at other energy sources. He says nuclear energy could be the best option, but the cost of building a nuclear plant is high and could require a combination of state and federal funding.

Like the other candidates, Schwegmann favors expanding alternative energy sources, but he thinks the PSC hasn't done enough to regulate the cost of natural gas, especially when the gas is produced in-state.

"Wouldn't it be great if gas coming out of state-owned lands could benefit the citizens of Louisiana?" Schwegmann asks, adding that he will push for such a requirement.

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