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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Important Announcements from April 15th Joint Finance Committee Hearing on Public Service Commission Budget

Yesterday, April 15, the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee met to decide the budget for the Public Service Commission.


Three items of importance to the renewable energy community.

1. Studying the health effects of wind:  The Governor had proposed $250,000 to study health related impacts of wind energy.  The funding was cut for that study, but the Commission was directed to conduct a review of studies relating to health effects of wind turbines.  These studies do not have to be “peer reviewed,” and a motion to include that phrase was shot down.  If the review shows substantial negative health effects, the PSC may submit revisions to the existing rules pertaining to siting wind farms.

2. Higher utility bills likely coming your way:  Out of seemingly nowhere, and as the last order of business of the day, an amendment surfaced to cut public funding for citizen participation in cases at the Public Service Commission.  The motion was passed 12-4, with all Republicans voting for it.

In an article published in the April 19th Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tom Content reports that the amendment was the brainchild of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). Coincidentally enough, We Energies CEO Gale Klappa is vice-chairman of the MMAC board.

As discussed in a blistering Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial from the same day, the measure will lead to higher utility bills because it would slash funding for the Citizens Utility Board, or CUB, a nonprofit organization which advocates for lower utility expenses and bill savings to customers.  In 2014 alone, CUB saved utility customers $161 million.

The editorial asks MMAC to explain to ratepayers across Wisconsin why it thinks eliminating CUB funding is such a good idea. The editorial calls on the budget committee to reconsider its "inexplicable decision to sock it to utility customers....And if it fails to do that, Gov. Scott Walker should find a way to restore CUB's funding. Utility customers need a watchdog with teeth."

The measure also cuts funding by 50% for groups like RENEW Wisconsin when we bring expert witnesses to utility cases on renewable energy issues.

3. Focus on Energy.  No action or amendments surfaced that would affect the Focus on Energy program.  This is a good thing.  However, it is highly likely that proposals to amend the program in some fashion may surface
later this year, or perhaps even later on during this budget process.

We will continue to stay abreast of these discussions as they develop.

Upcoming calendar:  Yesterday was the first meeting of the Joint Finance Committee, which is aiming to finish its work on the entire budget by Memorial Day.  The budget must be passed by both the Senate and Assembly before the end of June, therefore none of these items are finalized at this point.

More details on the above items are found below:

Results from the Joint Finance Committee meeting, April 15, 2015, relating to the Public Service Commission's budget

 Motion #48 - Wind Energy Health Study

Joint Finance Committee approved a substitute motion to delete the Governor’s recommendation, including the appropriation of $250,000 from the 2015-2017 state budget, and “instead require the PSC instead to conduct a review of studies conducted to ascertain the health effects of industrial wind turbines on people residing near turbine installations. If the review shows that there are substantially negative health effects on people living beyond the current 1,250-foot setback radius, the PSC may submit necessary revisions to the existing administrative rules to the Legislative Council Rules Clearinghouse, not later than six months after completion of the study.”

The amendment was moved by Rep. Nygren and approved on a party line vote (12-4).

Joint Finance Committee rejected a motion (#55) to insert the words “peer-reviewed” before "studies" on line 2 of Motion #48 in the above motion on a party-line vote (12-4).

Motion #29 - Intervenor Compensation

Joint Finance Committee approved a motion to cut the intervenor financing budget and “repeal the authorization for grants to nonprofit corporations that have a history of advocating on behalf of ratepayers and by reducing the compensation rate for consumer groups and consumer representatives from 100% of the cost of participating in a PSC hearing to 50% of the cost.” Approval of this motion will “decrease expenditures from the appropriation by $671,300 PR annually. These provisions would become effective on July 1, 2015, or the day after publication of the budget act, whichever is later.” The amendment was approved on a party line vote (12-4).

Background information on this program:

                 The intervenor compensation program was created in 1983 and since that time, has provided financial assistance to organizations and individuals who choose to become an intervenor for a Commission proceeding. When organizations or individuals have been granted intervenor status, they may submit testimony and exhibits, which became part of the record considered by the Commission in making decisions. Typically, intervenors use the compensation to pay for expert witnesses. The motion would require the intervenor to pay for half of the costs it incurs.

                 The intervenor compensation program was modified by 2009 Wisconsin Act 383, which authorizes an annual grant of $300,00 to a nonstock, nonprofit corporation that has a history of advocating on behalf of residential ratepayers for affordable rates. The recipient is required to use the grant “for the purpose of offsetting the general expenses of the corporation, including salary, benefit, rent, and utility expenses.” In 2011, the grant program was modified to allow the PSC to distribute the $300,000 among more than a single group and impose additional conditions and to revoke a grant. Since its creation, the Citizens Utility Board has been the only grant recipient. The motion would repeal the grant.

                 The intervenor compensation appropriation is a biennial appropriation authorized to expend up to $1,042,500 annually ($300,00 for grants and $742,500 for compensation). The actual amount expended on intervenor compensation depends on the number of docketed cases, as well as other factors. Funds for the payments are generated through the PSC’s direct and remainder assessments on public utilities.

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