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?