Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta said the federal government’s efforts to add a “fee” to some utility meters is nothing more than another federal tax, and he agrees with the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association that so-called “smart meters” are not telecommunications devices and should not be subject to federal fees imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.

“They can call it a ‘fee,’ a ‘contribution’ or anything they want, but it’s really just a federal tax and I will stand with consumers and utility companies in opposing it,” Skrmetta said.

Historically, telecommunications providers and their subscribers have paid more than 15 percent of interstate and end-user revenues into the Universal Services Fund. Now, federal regulators want to impose a similar or identical fee on electric meters, adding to consumers’ costs. Earlier this month, the NRECA filed comments with the FCC stating opposition to the imposition of such a cost.

While “smart meters” are not deployed market-wide, some Louisiana utility providers are using them. Skrmetta has consistently said the devices – which range in scope from transmitting energy usage to utility providers for billing purposes, to monitoring and adjusting energy use within a structure – should only be installed if a consumer so chooses. The federal government has issued grants to utility companies to encourage deployment of the devices, ostensibly for the purpose of improving energy efficiency.

“Consumer choice is always the most important factor in my mind and in my work on the Commission,” Skrmetta said. “I oppose mandatory deployment of smart meters but I just as strongly oppose the imposition of federal fees on utility meters under the guise of them being ‘telecommunications devices.’ I will continue to monitor developments and keep consumers informed, and I will consistently oppose any mandate on utility customers-particularly those that come with a federal tax erroneously called a ‘fee.'”

The Universal Services Fund began in the 1990s to pay for the Lifeline program, which provides telephone service to qualified low-income consumers through the collection of mandatory “fees.” Initially to pay for land line service, the program was expanded a few years ago to include cell phones with 250 free minutes each month and has been dubbed the “Obama phone.” An estimated 12.5 million people are already enrolled and tens of millions more could qualify in the current economic climate. In the last three years, the cost has more than tripled, from $500 million to $1.7 billion.

“This proposed ‘fee’ – another federal tax – would add funding to the Lifeline program,” Skrmetta said. “To pay for this government entitlement, the FCC would now add an additional tax to smart meters simply to raise taxes in a non-obvious way . The mandates are coming and we have to resist them now or consumers are going to be stuck with more regulations and more federal taxes disguised as ‘service fees.'”

Media contact:
James Hartman