The Wisconsin Legislature on March 22 wrapped up regular business for a two-year session, in which the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association had significant accomplishments.
An early issue was Governor Walker’s budget item eliminating stray voltage programs at the Public Service Commission and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Hard work netted a 16–0 Joint Finance Committee vote to preserve the programs, so the objective expertise associated with the relevant staff positions is retained. Changes to program funding wouldn’t be unwarranted, but our work on the budget bill helped prevent deterioration.
We also succeeded with a bill relating to mitigation requirements for permitting infrastructure work in wetlands. Prior to enactment of Assembly Bill 497, the Department of Natural Resources required restoration, enhancement, creation, or preservation of other wetlands as a condition of being permitted to work in a wetland area. The bill stipulated that mitigation is required only if the permitted activity will result in permanent filling of more than 10,000 square feet of wetland. Both houses approved it on voice votes and Governor Walker signed it into law.
For several years we’ve been involved in developing revisions to Chapter 185 of the statutes, governing how cooperatives conduct business in Wisconsin. Chapter 185 was last revisited more than 30 years ago and it was time to modernize the law to reflect today’s business realities.
The updated Chapter 185 simplifies electric co-ops’ pre-existing authority to make consumer loans to their members to finance work on wiring safety, energy efficiency and conservation, and backup generation. It modernizes communication with members about unclaimed patronage credits: In addition to mailing a letter to the member’s last known address, it also requires newspaper publication of a notice listing the owner’s name and address or providing a website where the information is posted along with a brief description of the reason for the notice. This adds flexibility in contacting past members and allows better control of costs. The revised chapter also modernizes access to the co-op’s financial books and records.
One surprise was an ill-fated campaign to resurrect a 1990s utility restructuring experiment sometimes called “retail wheeling.” What looked like a full-on campaign for a second try at retail wheeling morphed into a narrow requirement for Public Service Commission (PSC) review of leased generation contracts under which regulated utilities buy power from facilities built by their unregulated, non-utility affiliates.
For good or ill, the 2001–03 state budget bill—to ensure sufficient Wisconsin-based generation capacity—exempted those contracts from PSC review. But by opening the door to potential state revision of long-term private-sector leases, last year’s proposal risked creating a dangerous precedent allowing impairment of lawful contracts. The lobbying position taken by electric co-ops helped keep the bill from being enacted.
Last spring, legislation was proposed to create new pole-attachment obligations for electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, under the guise of deploying wireless service in rural areas. Fortunately, a public hearing elicited an admission by the bill’s supporters that they would prioritize densely populated areas and let rural areas wait a long time before being served. The legislation would have created a new obligation and potential costs for co-ops, and potential danger with installers who might not be properly trained to work near power lines. We lobbied successfully for an electric cooperative exemption, the bill stalled in the legislative process, and it failed to become law.
The session’s final co-op issue was a sales tax exemption for the costs of mutual aid between electric or telecommunications cooperatives repairing systems after a natural disaster. Existing law applied sales tax to everything supplied by assisting co-ops, even double-taxing hotel and food reimbursements. Remedial legislation introduced by Representative Romaine Quinn (R-Barron) and Senator Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) passed on the last session day.
Whatever changes the November election may bring, we’re prepared to work with both parties to tell the electric co-op story. We won’t tell you who to vote for, but we will encourage your participation so policymakers continue to realize the voting strength of co-op members.