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Smoke billows from the stacks of a UW-Madison power plant. State Journal archives

Though it was removed from the budget repair bill, Gov. Scott Walker's plan to privatize Wisconsin's state-owned power plants remains alive.

"We're still looking at a range of options regarding the power plants moving forward," said Cullen Werwie, Walker's press secretary.

The controversial plan was the focus of another dustup this week when the State Building Commission approved spending $9 million for upkeep and improvements at the plants prior to their sale — a move slammed by Democrats. 

Jeff Plale, administrator of the Division of State Facilities, said Friday that the proposal to sell the plants will probably be either introduced as separate legislation or added to Walker's budget.

Plale said the administration remains committed to the idea of selling the plants because it would be cheaper for the state to buy power from a private operator.

The proposal as it appeared in the budget repair bill called for selling all 37 power plants, including the Charter Street Heating and Cooling Plant on the UW-Madison campus, to private operators. Most controversial, however, were provisions to sell the plants with no bids and with no review by the Public Service Commission. The plan also gave the state the authority to decide what constitutes a fair selling price.

The proposed no-bid sale of the power plants became one of the favorite targets of protesters at the Capitol, who charged that energy billionaires David and Charles Koch, contributors to Walker's campaign, were in line to buy the plants in a sweetheart deal. A spokesman for Koch Industries denied the company has any interest in purchasing the plants.

The plan remains controversial. This week, State Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, ripped the administration for the State Building Commission's approval to spend $9 million for upkeep and improvements at the state's power plants, including $7 million for a new natural gas boiler at the plant that serves the state prison at Waupun.

Pocan said the money "seems like a back-door giveaway to a still unnamed corporation that could buy those facilities."

But Werwie said all of the heating plant projects funded through the building commission action were requested by former Gov. Jim Doyle. He said the new boiler at Waupun is needed to bring emissions from that plant into compliance with a consent decree agreed to between the state and the Sierra Club after the environmental organization sued the state for being in violation of clean air laws.

Plale said that, even though the plants may be sold in the future, the state still needs to maintain them.

State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, said he hopes Walker decides to introduce the power plant proposal as legislation so that it can be discussed in committees. Democrats in the Assembly tried to remove the proposal from the budget repair bill and also proposed several amendments, including restoring the bid process, but all those efforts were voted down by Republicans.