Once again, GOP legislators are using a bazooka to try to kill a pesky gnat or two.
The gnats in this case are citizen watchdog groups that argue for the public interest on issues like electric utility rate increases, power plant siting, renewable energy and the routes for power lines.
On a 12-4 party line vote last week, the Joint Finance Committee voted for a provision to end ratepayer funding for the Citizens Utility Board and to decrease support for a handful of other such groups like Renew Wisconsin, the Sierra Club, Clean Wisconsin and Save Our Unique Lands.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who co-chairs the powerful Joint Finance Committee that made that budget cut, said it would save money for electric ratepayers.
“If the $1.3 million isn’t in the budget, then it’s not going to be paid for by the ratepayers of the state of Wisconsin, and I think that’s a win for taxpayer,” Nygren said.
Nygren must have graduated from the penny-wise, pound-foolish school of economics.
What the cut would do is gut the budget of a small but effective citizen watchdog group that says it has been able to save state utility customers nearly $3 billion by advocating against a coal plant and by intervening in the rate cases that utilities file. CUB says that in 2014 it helped reduce bills to utility customers by $161 million.
It is perhaps not surprising that the citizen watchdog cuts came at the behest of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a business lobbying group. Nor is it surprising that the chief executive of We Energies, the state’s largest utility, is vice chairman of the MMAC board.
We Energies maintains it has taken no position on the CUB cuts. Some would see that as two saddles, but the same horse.
Remarkably, Steve Bass, MMAC vice president of government affairs, said his group lobbied the Joint Finance Committee on the issue, because its members were concerned about rate increases. “It’s hard to justify to them why a single Madison-based special interest group was getting a $300,000 (annual) subsidy out of their rates for their (CUB’s) office, operations and salaries.”
Special interest group? Yes, that interest would be the public interest; the everyday ratepayers who can no more muster the expertise or hire the high-priced experts to advocate for them when rate cases and other utility issues come before the state Public Service Commission.
The MMAC-backed attempt to defund CUB and other watchdog groups would not level the playing field — it would bulldoze it and clear the path for business groups and state utilities to march ahead, unimpeded by pesky concerns of residential ratepayers.
As Republican lawmakers get ready to put together the final state budget, they should ask themselves this question: Do they think everyday ratepayers should have a place at the table to give their views on rate cases and other utility issues?
We would argue the answer to that should be yes, and the Legislature should restore this funding.