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There is no legitimate excuse for members of Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission to skip public hearings on the Badger-Coulee electrical transmission line.

The Tribune reported Tuesday that none of the three members planned to attend any of the five public hearings. Then on Wednesday — presumably after they received some criticism after we published a story about their conspicuous absences — the chairman said he plans to attend some of the hearings, but his commissioners’ plans remain “fluid,” a spokesman said.

Perhaps their calendars were already booked when the hearings were announced Oct. 30. Maybe they have holiday shopping plans. Perhaps their jobs that pay an average of $124,000-a-year keep them so engaged with other duties that they simply can’t afford to allocate the time.

After all, it’s only the state’s most expensive transmission line ever, costing up to $580 million and could encroach on up to 556 residences as well as farms, forest and public lands on its estimated 150- to 170-mile route. And only some 2,000 citizens and 90 municipalities have asked the PSC to consider alternatives or perform a cost-benefit analysis.

But there is precedent for being absent. Records indicate commissioners have only attended public hearings in two of the previous 10 transmission cases where hearings were held. They did attend hearings for the Capx2020 line, which will be an integral connection to the Badger-Coulee.

Maybe the commissioners have decided that the best way to receive public input is through careful analysis of the transcripts. Perhaps having an administrative law judge preside over the hearing and having staff and engineers on hand is better than being there in person. Commissioners are prohibited from commenting at the hearings.

It might be best to be shielded from the emotion that often accompanies testimony. The influence of a cracking voice, tears or anger is not so apparent in verbatim transcripts.

Perhaps the real reason is that commissioners won’t listen anyway, because the PSC has never turned down a request to build a power line. Not once.

Whatever the excuse or the reason, there’s not much we can do. Commissioners are not regulated by the Legislature, although Sens. Jennifer Shilling and Dale Schultz and Rep. Steve Doyle have sent letters to the commissioners urging them to attend the hearings.

The purpose of the commission is to represent the public. It is supposed to be an independent regulatory agency that serves the public interest through the regulation of Wisconsin’s public utilities. According to its own organizational chart, the PSC works to ensure that, “in the absence of competition, adequate and reasonably priced service is provided to utility customers.”

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Commissioners are political appointees of the governor. Two commissioners — Ellen Nowak and Phil Montgomery (chairman) — were appointed by Gov. Scott Walker. Commissioner Eric Callisto was appointed by former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Commissioners cannot have a financial interest in a utility and cannot run for public office or be an active political party member. They cannot accept financial contributions for a political purpose.

But nothing prevents commissioners who have received financial contributions in previous jobs from serving. As a legislator, Montgomery received nearly $25,000 in political contributions from the energy sector — according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign — including $4,475 from American Transmission Co. and $2,200 from Xcel Energy — the two companies proposing the transmission line.

Montgomery replaced former PSC commissioner Mark Meyer, who during his term as a state senator from La Crosse received $3,325 in energy sector contributions.

There’s also nothing prohibiting commissioners from serving in other capacities in the energy sector as long as they are not paid. Callisto is president of the Organization of MISO States, an organization that promotes regional transmission lines.

The commission recently received criticism regarding its decision to allow a request from a utility to collect more fees and shifts costs to ratepayers, thus reducing the incentives for consumers to invest in solar panels and other energy alternatives. Callisto was the dissenting vote, but he will likely be replaced in March by a more pro-business appointee from Walker.

That decision simply paves the way for more transmission lines because some of the financial incentives for renewable energy produced locally — which doesn’t need high-voltage lines — are gone.

A spokesman for Montgomery said Wednesday he might attend hearings in Holmen, Cashton and Warrens. Nowak was still undecided, and Callisto said he will not attend because he expects Walker to replace him and he won’t be around for the decision.

For transparency sake you would think commissioners would want to attend the public hearings in person. But if their minds are already made up and the only question is not if the line will be built but simply where, why bother?

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(10) comments

olderthandirt

Check into all the "GREEN" subsidies from the government. Without them the green power industries would go under. Think of the roads, and infrastructure of our country not being upgrades since the 60's. Power consumption has grown much since then, and needs to have upgrades as well. Coal, also is cleaner than ever today, check out the facts. Maybe we should go back to kerosene lanterns, then you tree huggers would be happy!

ThomasPaineJefferson

Oil and natural gas are also subsidized......exponentially more than "Green" alternatives. Our entire military presence in the Middle East is nothing but an OIL Subsidy......the Iraqi Wars were/are nothing but OIL Subsidies.....

Ridding ourselves of oil is a matter of National Security as well as environmental safety.

ThomasPaineJefferson

On the East Coast and in some of the proggresive Western States the power companies themselves subsidize Solar power installments......far cheaper for them than building newer power plants.....every solar power system on a roof in their 'jurisdiction' simply makes those power companies stronger and more independent.

superman

Throw these bums out, and make their positions electable!

wakeup

There's not one word requiring wind energy to be carried on these lines. In fact, they start right in the heart of dirty coal country. There's also not one bit of proof that these lines are needed. Utilities' demand estimates are so overblown as to be laughable. Cost estimates do not take into account the exponentially DROPPING costs of local and regional solar which could easily meet and exceed any renewable requirements without costly, dangerious, unsightly, hazardous and vulnerable high voltage power lines. We will be paying for this boondoggle long into the future.

ThomasPaineJefferson

Imagine the long-term benefits if Wisconsin used the $580 million to install solar power across the State? Jobs, energy security and independence......a cleaner Nation and State.....

Slider

Wakeup, your argument would have merit if the people who installed solar then disconnected from the grid. But, alas, that does not happen and when the sun doesn't shine, the need for electricity on those installations still remain, so the power plants have to still exist and the power lines still need to bring electricity.

olderthandirt

I think the Tribune needs to get more information before stating an opinion on the new power line. There has been public input to the PSC for over four years on the new power line. Before construction. The same people that voted for green power, are now objecting to the construction of lines to get the power from wind, solar, ect. to the cities who can use it. If the people are mad at anyone, it should be the federal government who is requiring a specific percentage of green power from the power companies. It is also the feds that will not let the lines, and towers be built next to existing structures in the refuge. In their view the ducks are more important not to be disturbed than people. You also need to remember that the existing lines were put up 50 years ago when the power demand was much less than it is today. With the new impossible EPA regulations on coal plants, our energy costs will be going up immensely.

ThomasPaineJefferson

Meanwhile.....gas prices continue to drop.....sinking your weak theory of ever increasing energy prices.

wakeup

Thank you for this. Now let the Tribune do some research and publish an in depth study of how the PSC has failed to serve its statutory role over the past decade. In which decisions has the P prevailed? Where did commissioners get jobs after their terms ended? Wisconsin's utility bills have risen 2.5 times inflation according to one industry expert. Is that because utilities' guaranteed rates of return are based upon the amounts they spend, needed or not, wise or not? This is a good start, but please inform on this issue in much greater depth.

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