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Campbell makes puzzling decisions

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Jeff Sadow

It appears that Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell just can’t make anybody happy recently.

Democrat Campbell, who represents essentially north Louisiana, upset some people earlier this summer when he joined all but Republican Commissioner Craig Greene in approving the Windcatcher project. This would have supplanted solar for fossil fuel-generated power for Southwestern Electric Power Company, whose customers would have picked up the tab.

Scrutinizing more closely and wisely the data that forecast likely unnecessary higher costs for consumers, Texas regulators denied putting the project on the fast track. That caused the company to pull the plug on it.

This saved northwest Louisiana ratepayers from probably higher, needless costs in the coming years. Then, Campbell helped to torpedo another initiative with potentially reasonable consumer costs that might have brought high-speed Internet service to Webster and other parishes.

Claiborne Electric Cooperative last year sought to provide this service to its customers. The member-owned corporation has around 23,000 clients in rural areas. It created a subsidiary that it would back, in cooperation with a national provider, to do this.

The project would roll out over five years, eventually with an estimated third of its current customers taking up the service, it claimed. Those numbers would more than put the $81 million operation in the black.

Informed about the contemplated move, the LPSC hired a consultant to look into that, paid for by Claiborne Coop. A specific part of the study would address whether the leaseback arrangement would put the utility itself on the hook for losses by the broadband subsidiary. The LPSC would have to approve of any arrangement where electricity ratepayers would have to cover subsidiary costs.

That report hasn’t become public, but last month Claiborne Coop withdrew its application. Whether that report disputed the positive cash flow predictions of its consultants, or ratepayers would have to cover negative cash flows, or both, or even if it ever was completed, isn’t public knowledge.

Regardless, commissioners seemed hostile to the idea. A company official off-the-cuff summarized events during a recent meeting of the Webster Parish Police Jury resulting in the yanked request. The subsidiary could pursue a loan to finance it, but as a shell with basically no assets by itself financiers would hesitate to provide that, so the project appears dead.

Police Jury Pres. Jim Bonsall spoke bitterly about how things turned out, asserting he had heard hundreds of voices favoring the project and just one against: Campbell’s. That Campbell in the past made a campaign pledge to bring broadband to rural areas, and even called former GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal (who decisively defeated Campbell for that office) a “nut” for opposing a poorly designed and implemented plan to do that, turned away just such a venture makes for rich irony.

The he-said, she-said nature of the issue makes it hard to determine the best call on behalf of consumers. But one thing seems clear: Campbell didn’t make a lot of fans in Webster and Claiborne Parishes with his decision.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer or this newspaper.

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