VernonReporter

Committee vote sets stage for Senate Republicans to toss utility commissioner Huebner

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
January 14, 2024

The state Senate will vote Tuesday on whether to reject a Public Service Commission (PSC) member nearly four years after he was first nominated to the body.

On Friday, the Senate Utilities & Technology Committee voted 3-2 along party lines against confirming Tyler Huebner to the PSC, the agency that regulates what customers pay for monopoly utilities that provide electricity, natural gas and water, among other services. The vote was conducted by paper ballot.

Huebner, the former executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, which promotes renewable energy and policies to support it, was the second PSC commissioner Gov. Tony Evers appointed when he first took office.

Evers named Huebner in March 2020 to fill the unexpired term of Mike Huebsch, who had been appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker. Huebner’s initial term expired in March 2021 without a confirmation hearing or vote, and Evers reappointed him to a new term expiring March 2027.

Since Huebner was never confirmed in the 2021-22 legislative session, his nomination was carried over to the current 2023-24 session.

In voting to reject Huebner, the Senate committee’s chair alluded to a PSC-approved pilot program providing subsidies to low-income homeowners and renters as well as the attention that PSC officials have paid to concerns about climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions in generating power.

The Senate didn’t hold a public hearing on Huebner’s nomination until Sept. 28, 2023. At that hearing, he was questioned about a 2022 Madison Water Utility rate decision at the PSC that included a pilot program of subsidies for low-income homeowners and renters to offset their water-utility payments.

Along with Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin), who chairs the committee, argued that the program was illegal. Bradley quoted a Wisconsin law that states “no public utility and no agent … or officer of a public utility directly or indirectly may charge, demand, collect, or receive from any person more or less compensation for any service” provided by the utility.

Huebner testified that the law in question “is really directed at the public utilities not being able to play favorites with their customers.” The approved subsidies, he said, were tied to actions by the water utility customers who took part to conserve water.

Bradley also questioned a scenario in the PSC’s Strategic Energy Assessment Plan, proposing an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power generation by 2039. “Do you think there’s a realistic path permitting that much wind and solar over that short time horizon without significant subsidies or regulatory changes?” he asked Huebner.

Huebner replied that the energy plan document was intended to show “what the modeling says that it would take to achieve a set outcome. It doesn’t purport to say that will happen or could happen.”

The committee’s three Republicans voted to reject the confirmation. “[It] is clear to me that he should not serve in this role,” Bradley said in a statement after the vote. “He has acted contrary to the law on issues such as income based rates and has rejected an all of the above approach to energy for Wisconsin.”

Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) called the vote’s outcome “as spiteful as it was stupid.” Smith and Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) voted against rejecting Huebner.

“Commissioner Huebner’s renewable energy experience is incredibly valuable for keeping rates lower for consumers across Wisconsin,” Smith stated. “Republicans need to stop playing politics and allow qualified people to serve our state.”

The pending Senate vote on Huebner’s lingering appointment is set to become part of a series  that the Senate has taken to reject Evers appointees for a variety of reasons, starting with Pfaff, who was fired as the state’s agriculture secretary in the autumn of 2019.

The Senate also is scheduled to vote Tuesday to confirm a third Evers PSC appointee, Summer Strand, who was appointed April 3, 2023. Strand’s hearing was also held Sept. 28, and the committee voted unanimously to recommend her Oct. 6.

On Thursday, Evers appointed Strand to chair the PSC after the current chair, Rebecca Valcq, announced she will step down Feb. 2.

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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