Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Republicans Target Utility Fighter CUB

Proposal would kill funding for Citizen’s Utility Board, which advocates for consumers.

By - May 4th, 2015 11:40 am
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Alberta Darling

Alberta Darling

Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission will be making decisions that could cost utility customers billions of dollars over the next few years, which is why Democratic legislators insist it’s the wrong time to cripple the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) created to advocate for individuals and small businesses served by public utilities.

Republicans members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) recommended that the Legislature eliminate a $300,000 annual subsidy given CUB since 2009. JFC also wants to require CUB and citizens groups to pay half of costs of experts who testify in pending decisions; now, CUB and citizens groups are reimbursed at 100 percent of expert-witness costs approved by the PSC.

Those changes would save utility customers about $1.3 million over the next two years – a “win” for them, JFC Co-Chairman Rep. John Nygren said before the committee’s April 15 vote.

But Democrats are angry, citing these pending – or soon to be pending – major PSC decisions:

*The request by Wisconsin Energy Corporation, the parent company of Milwaukee-based We Energies, to acquire Integrys Energy Group, the parent company of Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, for $9.1 billion. If approved, We Energies says it would have 4.3 million customers in four states. The PSC endorsed the merger last week.

*Requests by the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation for a 9.4 percent electric rate increase that would cost customers $94.1 million, starting in January, and permission to build a $517-million power plant.

*Wisconsin Power and Light/Alliant Energy’s plan for a new generating plant near Beloit at an estimated cost of between $725 million and $775 million. The company wants to start construction next year, so the plant can be on line by 2019.

*The plan of American Transmission Company (ATC) for a new 125-mile transmission line between Dubuque, Iowa, and the Madison suburb of Middleton. ATC’s initial estimate of its cost is $450 million.

In a WisconsinEye interview, CUB Executive Director Kira Loehr said the group’s advocacy saved $161 million for electricity customers last year alone. She said that was the difference between the original rate increases requested by utilities and PSC’s final decisions.

The non-profit CUB has four staff members and an annual budget of about $771,000, which makes it a “bargain you can’t get anywhere else,” Loehr added.  Since 2008, she said, CUB has helped reduce consumers’ utility bills by almost $3 billion.

But the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is lobbying legislators to keep the changes recommended by the Finance Committee.

In the same WisconsinEye interview, MMAC Vice President Steve Baas said Democrats in 2009 “put their finger on the scale” and earmarked the $300,000 annual subsidy for CUB. Technically, the money could go to any group meeting the 2009 criteria, but only CUB has qualified for it.

CUB is “one voice in a number of groups” with a stake in the future costs of energy, Baas said. Either give all those groups – including chambers of commerce, clean-energy groups and MMAC – subsidies like CUB, or have state government stop “picking and choosing winners,” Baas said.

The changes recommended by the Finance Committee are the fairest options to all parties, Baas added. In December, the PSC itself recommended that CUB continue to get $300,000 per year. In that official finding, the three PSC commissioners – two Republicans and a Democrat – praised CUB, saying:

“CUB is one of the Commission’s most active intervenors, providing professionalism to all the cases in which it participates. Equally, as a grant recipient, CUB has been forthcoming, prudent and worthy of this nominal award, and the benefits of this grant can be shown in the increased and beneficial participation of CUB in Commission cases since 2011.”

Whether CUB should get $300,000 in the future, and any limits on reimbursements for expert witnesses by groups participating in PSC cases, are “policy” decisions for the Legislature and governor – and not PSC – to make, said PSC spokesman Nathan Conrad.

JFC Co-Chair Sen. Alberta Darling and Baas both said requiring intervening groups to pay half of the costs of expert witnesses in pending PSC cases means they must have “skin in the game” and not just spend unlimited amounts of someone else’s money.

But one Finance Committee Democrat, Rep. Chris Taylor, called punishing CUB for its past advocacy the latest example of Republicans “shooting the messenger.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

8 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Republicans Target Utility Fighter CUB”

  1. Dave says:

    Must you always use that stock photo of Alberta Darling? I’m trying to eat my lunch here…

  2. Allison says:

    @Dave- you show your sexism and ignorance with your comments

  3. Bill Kurtz says:

    They’re doing Alberta and everyone else a favor by not using an updated photo.

  4. Dave says:

    Yeah, that came off as misogynistic. My disgust and gag reflex brought on by this Senator has nothing to do with her sex.

  5. Dave says:

    Point being, doesnt the CUB have it’s own logo or perhaps we could get a glimpse of John Nygren?

  6. RJ says:

    Typical Republican approach right out of the ALEC playbook- be it the Voting Rights Act, or in this case, defunding the CUB. Silence the voice of the people so their campaign contributors are free to do as they please.

  7. jake says:

    I think she should be called the Witch of Whitefish Bay.

  8. Bill Kurtz says:

    Don’t blame Whitefish Bay for Alberta- she’s from River Hills and her last two opponents (before her seat was gerrymandered to make it safe) were from Whitefish Bay.

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