As this edition of Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News went to press, state legislators were in the early stages of the activity that occupies most of their attention in each odd-numbered year: development of a state budget bill.
This year’s budget process will be out of the ordinary in multiple ways. Tony Evers is the first Democrat to win the governor’s office in eight years, and both legislative houses reviewing his budget proposal are controlled by Republican majorities. Former leaders of both parties in the State Senate and Assembly recently speculated that 2019 might see three different budget bills: Governor Evers’ plan, another one crafted by legislative Republicans, and finally a compromise adopted well after the customary June 30 deadline. (Unlike the federal government, Wisconsin doesn’t shut down anything when a budget is late; the prior one simply stays in effect.)
Another unusual aspect of this year’s budget is that your statewide electric co-op organization has been working actively to include an item in the bill, something we rarely do.
Over a number of years, winter ice on Lake Michigan damaged the underwater cable supplying electricity to Washington Island Electric Cooperative and last spring the cable finally failed, requiring the co-op to shift to emergency generation for an extended period.
Of all the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association’s (WECA) member co-ops, Washington Island is the smallest. Slightly fewer than 900 members reside on its lines, and the co-op has just four employees to serve them—the board of directors outnumbers the staff! Nevertheless, when the cable failure cut power in the predawn hours last June 15, the co-op’s little team had the generators running and the lights back on within about half an hour.
Washington Island’s isolation kept the number of people affected from meeting the criteria for an emergency declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so this association pursued all other means of helping with replacement of the damaged cable. We turned to the governor’s office and area legislators to find out what help might be available.
Discussions spanning many weeks included the Washington Island co-op, WECA, staffers for both Governor Evers and his predecessor Scott Walker, and other state agencies. In February, State Senator Andre` Jacque (R-De Pere) and State Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) wrote to Governor Evers that they were “committed to helping lead a bipartisan, multi-organizational effort” on behalf of the small community.
Eight days later we learned the governor was joining the team, placing a $2 million appropriation in his budget bill to help finance the island’s recovery. This was a relief, as the total cost of cable replacement exceeds $4 million.
Significant challenges remain. No one knows whether the appropriation will survive legislative review. Its strong bipartisan pedigree should help, but the final answer might be unknown for months.
Another legislative undertaking is our effort to restore electric co-op eligibility for assistance through the Wisconsin Disaster Fund (WDF). From its creation in 2006 until 2017, co-ops were always deemed eligible. But a new interpretation of the rules put electric cooperative eligibility in dispute. The WDF was designed to mirror FEMA eligibility standards, and WECA is working to ensure this is reflected in the law.
In late March WECA teamed up with more than 150 electric cooperative members from all across Wisconsin to help lobby state lawmakers for help with WDF legislation and budget assistance for Washington Island. A third item we advocated in legislative office visits is the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a natural gas-fired power plant to be jointly owned by Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative. As Dairyland has ably explained, its commitment to adding renewable resources also requires the addition of flexible, gas-fired capacity to maintain reliability when intermittent solar and wind generation are unavailable.
All three initiatives are examples of bipartisan teamwork with state government to keep electric service reliable and rates affordable.