Never let it be said that the Republicans in this Legislature miss a chance to reward corporations at the expense of the public.
They did it again Wednesday as the 12 Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted to include in the state budget a provision to end ratepayer funding for the Citizens Utility Board, along with eviscerating other organizations whose sole job is to represent the public in utility rate and power line siting cases.
What makes this action even more outlandish is that Wisconsin's big utilities didn't even ask for such anti-public interest legislation. A spokesman for Madison Gas and Electric said that the utility has found the system has worked well for all stakeholders in the past. Other Wisconsin utilities told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that they haven't weighed in on the issue at all. In other words, it's the brainchild of a group of Republicans who can't stomach giving the people even a smidgen of power to challenge business interests.
Thanks to previous Legislatures, the Citizens Utility Board was given a small percentage of each utility bill to hire lawyers and experts to scrutinize rate requests on behalf of the consumer. The idea was to give consumers a level playing field against the utilities' lawyers and experts, which, of course, also ultimately wind up being paid for by the utility customers. Individual ratepayers obviously are in no position to hire lawyers or rate experts on their own.
CUB estimates that since 1998 alone, it has helped Wisconsin utility consumers save nearly $3 billion through its advocacy against a new coal plant for the state and in questioning the size of rate increase requests. It has often been able to get the Public Service Commission to reduce the size of the requested rate increases.
The provision approved by the Joint Finance Republicans, who hold a 12-4 edge on the committee, also includes a reduction in funding for groups like Renew Wisconsin, which advocates for renewable energy, Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club and Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL), which represents citizens on the location of new and expanded power lines.
Those champions of the special interests, led by Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican and co-chair of Joint Finance, argued that chopping what amounts to $1.3 million in help for these consumer advocates would be good for ratepayers, completely discounting what ratepayers have saved over the years.
But logic is a scarce commodity among these legislators. They continue to prove that every day they are in session at the state Capitol.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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