Regulating Louisiana utilities: Q&A with new PSC member Davante Lewis
Davante Lewis defeated Lambert Bossier III in a Dec. 10, 2022, runoff for the District 3 seat on the Louisiana Public Service Commission. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
On Dec. 10, political newcomer Davante Lewis was elected to represent District 3 on the Louisiana Public Service Commission, the body that regulates public utilities for most of the state. Lewis defeated longtime incumbent and fellow Democrat Lambert Boissiere III — a member of a prominent New Orleans political family who had heavy institutional support — and became the first openly LGBTQ person elected to a state-level seat in Louisiana.
Lewis ran on a progressive platform, promising to push for expanding renewable energy, codifying a “bill of rights” for utility ratepayers and prohibiting commissioners from accepting political contributions from companies they regulate, such as utility giant Entergy Corp.
Lewis sat down last week for an extended interview with Verite, discussing the election and his plans as a commissioner, representing a district that stretches from Baton Rouge, where he lives, to New Orleans.
He also talked about what the seat means to residents of New Orleans, where the City Council — not the Public Service Commission — is the primary utility regulator.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the interview here:
Verite: Just to get started, I want to set the stage of this race that you entered. We had an incumbent who was on the commission for nearly two decades and had a lot of institutional support. And you entered this race as someone who was seen as a longshot initially. Could you explain what prompted your decision to run for this office?
Lewis: This is a real different time in Louisiana. People this summer saw their electricity bills the highest that they’ve seen in years. And we are now very prone to natural disasters that happen any given moment, like the tornadoes we saw just two days ago.
But my response was after Hurricane Ida. Even though I lived on the western side of this district that didn’t see as much damage as other parts of the region from Hurricane Ida, I was without power for five days. That prompted — plus the high bills — that there needed to be someone to be a stronger advocate to hold these companies accountable. And when I looked around, I didn’t see anybody standing up cause it was going to be a long-shot campaign. I said, “Look, I just can’t keep talking about this in Twitter threads and text messages. Let’s step up and and put it in the ecosystem and see what happens.” And that was the catalyst of this race.
Verite: Going back to November during the primary: Your main opponent, Lambert Boissiere, was about 7 points shy of winning outright. You had 18%. Then we get to the December runoff, and 18% is pretty close to what your margin of victory was. What changed between that November election and the December runoff?
Lewis: One of the things that we saw in that November primary was there was significant discontent with the incumbent. About 57% of all the people in the district voted against him. …
It was also about galvanization, so we made sure that we had a robust ground game and that we were not leaving anything unturned. So we knew they were gonna spend a lot of money on TV, and we weren’t gonna have the money to compete on TV. But we had enough money to run a robust texting campaign and GOTV and phone calls and direct canvassers…. We even won the incumbent’s own precinct [in the runoff]. That’s how much we spent time on targeting and voter engagement.
Verite: A lot of your campaign focused on support from the regulated utilities that Boissiere received. But there was also the Louisiana Democratic Party.
Over the summer, they went against their usual practice and instead of endorsing a single candidate, they endorsed all the Democratic candidates in the election. But later on, we saw spending from the Louisiana Democratic Party going only to the Boissiere campaign.
Did you request support from the party? What is your impression of what happened with the Democratic Party this election?
Lewis: It has been a complete, utter failure. As you mentioned, the process was changed. Typically what we had is that the body itself would vote on endorsing or endorsing multiple people. In the spring, they changed that rule. Now, the executive committee would make a recommendation to the full body and the full body would vote that up or down.
I won the sole candidate from the executive committee. So the new rules that the party put in place, we won by and won by a healthy margin. And so when it came down to ratifying the executive committee’s recommendation of me being the solely endorsed candidate, the party changed the rules again via resolution and endorsed us all.
At that point in time, there’s supposed to be communication. There was no communication. Actually, the only reason I knew I was endorsed was because of the press release and the people in the room who were telling me the live things. And so the only way I found out about even some of this financial help for the incumbent was they accidentally sent one of the mailers to me. …
Then by the time we got to a process of them engaging me, we were about two weeks out from the December election. And at that point, I don’t think there was much trust, there was much time. And so we didn’t engage any further about the services. They may say I didn’t take it up, but it’s very hard to take up an offer that is given to you with the clock at two seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Verite: When you’re talking about sort of outside forces being involved, that was also a criticism from Mr. Boissiere of your campaign. He attacked you frequently, especially as we got toward the end over “dark money support” — nonprofit donations routed through a political action committee. The major one was Keep the Lights On PAC.
Feel free to address his support from the regulated utilities — but on the flip side, is there an extent to which he has a point? We’re talking about money that originates with nonprofit groups in many cases that aren’t required to disclose their donors. …
Lewis: Campaign finance is a major question. It’s a problem.
We have way too much money in politics, and it doesn’t really benefit the people. I’m a big proponent of public financing of campaigns. I wish we would go to that system, but certainly that’s not the system that we live in. And so it’s this give and take between the theoretical world and the practical world. Right now the theoretical world doesn’t work.
The attacks were really hollow. When we talk about these dark money out-of-state interests, let’s remember, Keep the Lights On was a PAC that I didn’t coordinate with because I can’t by law, that was developed with the Louisiana chapter. Louisiana has its own chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund that asks people to help them out.
When we talk about some of these other nonprofits — VOTE or the New Orleans Greater Housing Alliance or the Sierra Club — these are people in Louisiana saying, “We need help here in Louisiana.”
It is a very different marker in my brain when we hear this line of attack because it’s not like just some random billionaire from New York picked a candidate and then funded them. I was someone who had been working with these groups for years, been working in these communities for years. They have been on the ground for years. And we all believed in each other.
It’s very hypocritical to talk about that when you look at the campaign finance reports. I got three PAC checks to my campaign: the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Victory Fund PAC. That’s it.[Note: Lewis’ campaign finance reports show he received two additional PAC contributions. One, for $5,000 came from the Clean & Prosperous America PAC. The other, for $500, came from the Communication Workers of America PAC. Boissiere’s campaign received 28 PAC contributions for the 2022 election — including contributions from committees representing Entergy, Cleco Energy and AT&T — totaling $94,000.]
The incumbent had the utility companies’ PACs, had two PACs created for him because the utility companies hit their statutory limit of what they could fund his campaign with.
And then subsequently, when they hit their limit there, wrote a check for $10,000 to the Louisiana Democratic Party to then send information from the party on his behalf.
What we are showcasing is when you give money to an upstart or just enough money — let’s be very clear, he still out raised me by a mile — what we are seeing is that when you give money to other candidates and other candidates find a money stream to be viable, they win. A PAC is not gonna give me a 20-point advantage over the incumbent. That tells you that we did the work and all we needed was a little bit of investment to make that work happen. For me, this attack is all about power. It is that the Louisiana political establishment no longer has the ultimate grip on politics in the state because now they don’t control the money stream.
Verite: Let’s move past the election and discuss what you plan to do as a commissioner. You ran on a really ambitious platform. Given the makeup of the Public Service Commission — you’ll be one of two Democrats on there — what do you think you’re realistically able to accomplish as a commissioner, and what will it look like working with the other commissioners?
Lewis: What people did not realize is that the incumbent who I unseated was more of the swing vote than one of the Republicans who represents an adjacent district. And so this is a very interesting opportunity. We saw this. [The PSC] had a meeting yesterday where one of the Republicans was the leading voice in pushing Entergy Louisiana on renewables. When you add another strong voice, with [Democrat] Foster Campbell, we now can create a three-member majority on the [five-member] council.
This is gonna be an opportunity where you really need someone to be vocal. Cause oftentimes, the pressure or the internal communications changes when somebody is timid versus outspoken because now that pressure on the swing vote is — I may not have to be the voice, but I can give the vote. But you can’t be the voice and the vote sometimes. My addition will relieve that because I will be very vocal.
I’ve been having meetings and briefings and getting ready to continue looking at this docket that was created on the customer’s bill of rights. Entergy and Cleco are just submitting their drafts of their [Integrated Resource Plans] where they are at least mentioning renewables. I have not read them fully. But as I’ve been advised, they at least hint that they should be going that direction, and now it’s time to start holding them accountable. So there’s gonna be a lot of opportunities to really hit the ground running in these first few months on all the initiatives that we talked about. And then we have a legislative session coming up. I already have a bill drafted and I’m talking to authors to follow up on corruption.
Verite: Speaking of a customer’s bill of rights, what does that entail? What would you include in there?
Lewis: I do not morally believe we should be disconnecting people’s utilities. It is too life important. People’s medicine depends on that. That is something that I want to be very particular, that we have the strongest rules possible on disconnections. But secondly, it’s going to be examining these fees. We’ve heard this debate a lot in Louisiana, that our utility rates are relatively low per kilowatt, which is a true fact that I’m not denying.
But our cost in Louisiana, what people spend on utilities, is sky-high, about 42% more than the average American. Let’s just look at one spot where I’m going to focus on, which is late fees. Louisianans are paying about $16 per customer in late fees. The national average is around $5. That is unacceptable. And so the ratepayer’s bill of rights will be talking about that, making sure we’re not keeping this lineage of excessive late fees that is basically pricing our people out in the state of Louisiana.
Verite: Can you talk about what else can be done from a regulatory perspective as it relates to the high cost of bills for ratepayers?
Lewis: This is about investments in renewable. We know our power grid right now is only around 2% renewable energy. So when we’re looking at those IRP plans, we need to demonstrate and we need to see, what is that transition? What are you doing? Because we know the cost of natural gas is skyrocketing. …
Secondly, it is in hardening the grid as well. When we talk about these fees, if the grid is unsustainable and unreliable and we have to constantly repair and maintain and harden it after every storm, that burden of the cost is being shifted to the ratepayers. You’re having higher-than-normal natural gas rates, no strong investments in renewable energy, when solar is proving to be cheaper at the natural gas at this point. You’re having excessive late fees. And then you couple it with the storms. Now you’re having to harden the grid every year or two. You are now creating a catastrophe of utility costs going up every single year.
That’s part of where the regulatory process comes in. You can’t look at these things as one-offs. You can’t just vote for a hardening fee and not look at whether or not we are investing in renewable energy or we’re maintaining the grid. You can’t talk about the investments here and not talk about, “Should we be rolling off some of these late fees and protecting ratepayers in this way?” All of that is in the regulatory control. How often do we review it in a comprehensive way versus an individual “I need a rate increase for X because of something, and I’m only dealing with that issue, not looking at the other five issues that will determine whether or not that rate increase is making or breaking something?”
Verite: What do you hope to propose as far as expanding renewable energy? What might deregulation look like in that space?
Lewis: I strongly believe Louisiana needs to really be on the forefront. That’s why I’m pushing that we go ahead and create and join the 37 other states with the renewable energy portfolio standard, so we can start to look at all these questions. Cause everybody has questions about what is the duration, what are the penalties, what is the compliance process looks like? That’s what a portfolio standard is for, is to set up that exact debate in those conversations. That is a place where I’m gonna be very strong as we talk about that.
With the investments that we’re seeing from the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the IRA, there is a lot of federal money that can be matched in some of these investments. … We need to be ensuring that we are providing that information to our Louisiana families. But we’re also moving in a way and returning back to net metering so it’s beneficial to Louisianians to utilize them, right? It’s this kind of this holistic policy approach for me, about how net metering is going to be important to draw down federal funds, then it’s gonna build sustainable housing. That’s the process.
Verite: The Public Service Commission is currently involved in a lawsuit over the Grand Gulf Power Station. How would you like to see that resolved, and do you support more investment in nuclear in the region?
Lewis: I’m very pleased that the commission has not accepted the settlement. We need to negotiate a better deal for Louisianians. I know there’s been a lot of privileged conversation and executive items, so I can only speak from what I’ve been able to see in the news thus far. … I’m very pleased to see that where my fellow commissioners have been publicly is also where I’m at at the moment. That’s an issue that hopefully once sworn in, I can actually read some of the briefings and some of the confidential documents that have not been a part of the public record at this point.
In terms of nuclear, I am not a big proponent of nuclear. We should be moving away from it. I know there’s conversations about nuclear in terms of hydrogen, but that’s a very different debate in my eyes. But we don’t have too many nuclear power plants left in Louisiana. I know one, I believe is in the process of actually closing down. I would say in terms of my personal views, the status check right now, nuclear is not something I’m gonna be a strong proponent of.
Verite: There were some groups during the election, such as Voters Organized to Educate, that had a focus on prison phone call charges, which are regulated by the Public Service Commission. Can you speak to what incarcerated folks are currently being charged and what the PSC can do about prison call rates?
Lewis: Right now, the average 15-minute phone call in our state is somewhere between $3 to $5. A person’s yearly income prior to being incarcerated in the state is around $20,000. If you think about that 15-minute phone call, you do it every single day of the year, we are talking about a Louisianian spending over half of their income to talk to a loved one who happens to be incarcerated. That’s how predatory this practice is.
We’ve been trying to work on this. In 2005, there were some great reforms done with Securus, because they were charging late fees that were not approved by the PSC. But sadly, two months after that rule was passed, the incumbent who I unseated issued a stay on that rule. A judge in 2015 ordered that because the PSC has not removed that stay, the millions of dollars that Securus owes to Louisiana families cannot go out because the PSC has stayed the ruling.[Note: Lewis appears to be referencing a 2012 order by the PSC to remove fees and surcharges, which was stayed in early 2013. A 2015 PSC order, following the recommendations of an Administrative Law judge, maintained the stay was still in effect.]
One of the first things we’re working on right now is: Can we remove that stay very fast to get that money back into the hands of Louisianians? That’s short-term, but more long-term, it is about reform. I want to follow some of the other states that have made incarcerated phone calls free. If we can’t make them entirely free, maybe the first 30 minutes a week?
So many people in Louisiana have someone who is incarcerated. For too long, Louisiana has incarcerated more individuals than any other place in the world. This is why this is an issue that is very important to our people … It helps with recidivism, it is a tool of human interaction … We’re gonna do a lot of work on this. Me and Commissioner Campbell have already had some conversations, and we’re gonna move very fast on bringing some immediate relief and then continue the work on a long-term fix.
Verite: You want to propose a rule that bans the acceptance of contributions from regulated industries. To what extent do you see that proposed rule going? Are you going to ban employees of regulated utilities from making those donations, or LLCs they control? What about consultants and contractors? What does that look like and how would you envision enforcement for this?
Lewis: Those are places where we’re going to have to talk. I am leaving it on the table. The most important thing is the utility company’s PACs. That’s primary. …
This process is going to be twofold because the PSC does not regulate campaign finance. That is going to have to be a legislative fix that I’m engaging legislators with right now. But I do believe that PSC does have the authority to set rules for members of the body the same way that other executive branches can do, where you can set your own internal rules. I’m going to be pursuing both a legislative fix that would help prospective and currently sitting [commissioners]. But even if we can’t, then we should do the rule that if you are sitting on the PSC, you can’t accept those at all.
Verite: Do you think you’ll get support for these efforts from other commissioners?
Lewis: It’s open. This election showcased that there is a different blood in our state when it comes to this issue. Our campaign was the district base, but the issues we have elevated have sparked this conversation around the state. And these are places where members may have not known this. We’ve elevated the PSC to a different level. When you talk to people about knowing that the same utility company that has been raising your bill for the last few years and has been unworkable is regulated by five elected people, and then they get to donate, basically, they’re getting rich off of your bill going higher, and then they can take some of that profit and put it into the person that’s supposed to be checking you — it’s going to showcase a different level of engagement.
So I’m eager — I haven’t had a chance to really talk with my colleagues fully yet on this issue. But I think you’ll see some work, especially on those who may be coming up for reelection, cause it’s an issue they don’t want on their backs.
Verite: How do you envision your relationship with your constituents? What does the work look like as far as translating these really important but wonky issues to everyday people?
Lewis: This is the beauty of being a policy advocate by trade. This is what I’ve done for a living, is take complex budgetary tax and public policy and then engage people. And so I’m going to take that organizer model that I’ve been working in and bring it to the PSC. That’s community meetings, that’s town halls, that’s engagement, that’s newsletters that letting them know what’s happening in the meeting before. Oftentimes we have this kind of like convoluted one-way communication where it’s like, I tell you all what I did at the meeting. Did I actually tell you when the meeting was and what is up at the meeting?
And so it’s going be a lot of upfront stuff, like, “In two weeks, we’re gonna be discussing a rate increase. What are your thoughts?” You have to center yourself in community. That’s the race that we ran and that’s how we’re going to govern. The ability I’ve possessed over the years to take complex policy issues, I’m going to bring that same skillset onto the PSC in a more fruitful way, especially because we know so many people are now interested and they just need to know about it.
Verite: Let’s talk about the PSC’s relationship to the city of New Orleans. One of your biggest bases of support in this election was in Orleans Parish. Now as we know in Orleans Parish, the PSC doesn’t regulate electric and gas. That falls to the New Orleans City Council. You’ve said in debates leading up to the election that you support the New Orleans City Council retaining that regulatory authority. Can you explain for people in New Orleans who may not be terribly familiar with this commission, how it works and how regulation works? Why should this election, why should this seat matter to people in Orleans Parish?
Lewis: It should matter because of the relationship between Entergy New Orleans and the relationship with Entergy Louisiana. They’re a subsidiary of Entergy Louisiana. If we are being very strong on Entergy Louisiana and its renewable energy or in processes around fixed billing for seniors and ratepayers, that’s going to fall to Entergy New Orleans because that’s how the relationship works. But there’s also a lot of other issues. When we talk about Hurricane Ida and the transmission structure that fell down into the river that knocked off most of the power in the city of New Orleans, that is a PSC regulatory entity because it is crossing jurisdictional lines.
And so there are a lot of times where, yes, your direct power, your direct bills are not regulated by the PSC [but] there’s a lot of indirect policy that’s going to affect how high or low your bills are and whether or not you have services or not. So if we are pushing Entergy Louisiana to do more investments, let’s say in burying the transition lines underground, that’s going to fall back down to Entergy New Orleans. It’s a little bit of a tap-dance relationship. They coexist with each other and there are places of overlap.
Verite: We’ve seen instances where the New Orleans City Council was working in an official, regulatory capacity on matters that the PSC was dealing with. Grand Gulf was an instance where we saw that recently. Are there ways that the New Orleans City Council, as regulator of Entergy New Orleans, could be working more closely on some of these matters with the PSC? What would those be toward? What ends?
Lewis: The City Council has been intervening in some of the dockets at PSC right now, and I’m getting caught up to speed on exactly what their interventions were. But this is a place, when it comes to investments in renewable energy, this is going to be a conversation of energy efficiency. There’s a pilot program that was created under the PSC that was supposed to be a two-year pilot. It’s been eight years now. We have seen that dockets typically and rate cases move very slow. And so that relationship can build upon each other, if the city council has moved on a very similar docket complementary to the PSC to doing something or vice versa.
I plan to attend many of the utility committee hearings for the New Orleans City Council even though I’m not a resident, because I know their work is going to indirectly or directly impact my work. And so building that kind of communal presence also helps the public because there is an relationship there.
I was very clear with the folks in New Orleans. I’m not your direct regulator, but the things that we do really impact you and can benefit you, and so let’s do it together.
Verite: Getting back to something you said before — you mentioned Ida, where we saw portions of the power grid that are regulated by the PSC having a direct effect on the city of New Orleans. A big part of your platform is strengthening that grid to avoid another situation like Ida, where the entire city is out of power for two weeks. Could you get into specifics? What should be done and how does it get accomplished without what we’ve seen before, which is raising rates for ratepayers?
Lewis: We’ll use the prime example of the securitization that’s before the PSC right now. There was a discovery where it looks like the state law for bond securitization does not require a utility company to pass 100% of the cost to the ratepayers. They started those discussions yesterday at the PSC meeting. They did not finish, which means I will come on at the tail end of those.
That is a place where we’re going to have some significant conversations about — maybe Entergy Louisiana needs to be eating up some of this hardening cost. For too long we operated on the notion that the state law and statute and constitution didn’t allow us to pass those costs onto Entergy Louisiana or a utility company. Now there is a report. I have not been able to see the report; the report was only to the commission and it was talked about in the meeting. I’m speaking based off of only what was shown in the public hearing. Hopefully when I’m sworn in, I can read that full report — that’s a place. When we talk about hardening the grid, especially not on ratepayers, because everything that we’ve talked about, burying transition lines underground, the investments in the grid, has always talked about, “Oh, it’s gonna cost us money, it’s gonna cost us money, but all that money has gone to the ratepayers.”
But it’s this convoluted system. If the grid goes down — hey, you’re not investing in hardening the grid proactively because you say, “If I do that, it’s going to the ratepayers.” Then a storm comes, the grid goes down. Now you need to repair it. And the way you repair it is by passing it to the ratepayers. So this like kind of argumentation that it’s going to raise costs really falls flat on me because either way, these companies, if they are proactively trying to do it or if they’re retroactively doing it because of damages, have always tried to pass it to the ratepayers.
It looks like we now have an avenue where that doesn’t have to be the case. Like I said, I don’t have all the details just yet. But this is something that I’m gonna take very seriously on because this is important for energy efficiency. This is important to our transition over time. This is important to protecting our ratepayers. If we get this right, this could be the start of something different in the state of Louisiana.
This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.
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