In 2017, Wisconsin utility companies were a driving force behind an effort to stop proposed legislation designed to save customers money according to new documents obtained by UtilitySecrets.org.
Four Wisconsin lawmakers (Sen. Duey Stroebel, Sen. Robert Cowles, Rep. Jim Ott and Rep. Adam Neylon) proposed legislation titled the “Ratepayers First” proposal that would have required the Public Service Commission (PSC) to review utility contracts, called Power the Future contracts, at least every ten years. Power the Future contracts are exempt from review by regulators during utility rate cases.
Specifically, the legislation targeted power plants built by Wisconsin Energy Corporation’s We Energies in the late 1990s when the state experienced electricity shortages. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the utility built coal and natural gas power plants in Oak Creek and Port Washington and has earned 12.7% on the $3 billion it invested – the proposed bill would have given power to the PSC to lower the rates. The legislation would have also affected the co-owners of the Oak Creek Plant, Madison Gas & Electric and WPPI Energy of Sun Prairie.
“The legislation passed in 2001 has clearly outlived its usefulness, and now is producing unintended consequences, unacceptably high electric rates for residents and businesses in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Ott. “When we observe a piece of legislation that has outlived its usefulness it’s time to repeal it.”
In an op-ed, Sen. Stroebel writes, “The assertion by some that the ratepayers first proposal is an unconstitutional impairment of contracts is untrue and a tactic to short-circuit consideration. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously, in Energy Reserves Group vs. Kansas P. & L. Co., that Kansas did not violate the contracts clause when it imposed rate caps that nullified portions of prior contracts. Wisconsin has the power to protect ratepayers.”
However, the legislation never advanced. It was reported that House Speaker Robin Vos was left out of the process and he later expressed his frustration at the lawmakers in a closed-door caucus meeting, which could explain why the policy proposal never got a hearing in the Wisconsin House.
But another reason could be the result of the utility industry’s influence in Wisconsin.
In fact, a day after the proposed legislation was circulated and announced at a March 2 press conference, Wisconsin Energy Corporation began its efforts to immediately kill the legislation with emails to legislators.
On Monday, March 6, the utility emailed legislators again urging them not to support or co-sponsor the bill.
On Tuesday, March 7, the utility once again emailed legislators asking them not to support or co-sponsor the bill.
Two hours later on Tuesday, the Wisconsin Utilities Association followed-up with an email to all legislators urging them also not to co-sponsor the legislation.
The emails were obtained through a Wisconsin Open Records Law request.
Since 2008, utilities in Wisconsin have contributed over $725,000 to state candidates and PACs, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
WEC Energy Group: $286,200
Xcel Energy: $107,973
Wisconsin Public Service Corporation: $106,217
Wisconsin Utilities Association: $9,364