I've seen a whole bunch lately about the politics of transmission line proposals, more precisely how politics affects the state public utility commission process.
This morning, I read something that pushed the issue into blog post status.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has warned his state legislature not to interfere in the business of the Iowa Utilities Board.
Branstad, who appoints the members of the utilities board, warned against "political interference" into the administrative review process by which a pipeline carrying Bakken crude oil and a transmission line transporting wind-generated electricity could be approved.
"It would be mistake to get politics into this," Branstad said. "We should abide by the processes that have been put in place."
Branstad, as Governor, appoints the members of the IUB. This is a political process. A member of the executive branch will appoint those he believes will carry out his mission. Once appointed, IUB members are supposed to serve independently as they interpret utility laws, however, a crafty governor can control this process by allowing appointments to expire while the incumbents continue to serve at the daily whim of the governor, who can remove the incumbent and replace him at any time. I have no idea if this is the situation in Iowa, but I have seen just this situation perpetuate in several states. When it happens, the judicial branch comes under the thumb of the executive branch and can be easily influenced to make certain decisions on a political basis in order to remain in place.
The legislature makes the laws that direct the actions of an independent, quasi-judicial utility board. The judicial branch cannot create laws, but receives its marching orders from the legislative branch. If the legislature is displeased by the actions of the Board, it can make new laws to shape the decisions of the Board. In this way, the legislature can influence the judicial branch. However, there's more protection on this side of the coin, because the legislative branch is operating at the will of the people, and must obtain consensus from many to create new laws.
I don't know why Branstad believes it's not already "political." The state utility board process is about as political as it gets. While he warns the legislature not to get involved in a situation he controls, what the legislature eventually does will be political. It's all political!
So, if you want to influence your state utility board process, you must engage in politics. You can talk to your legislators to gain their support to make new laws that guide the decisions the utility board makes. You should probably talk to your governor about refraining from getting involved in the utility board processes. Branstad has it completely backwards!
Politics is described as:
the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, esp. the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power:
Public opinion drives political decisions. A legislator is carrying out the will of the people. If enough people become involved in a utility board process, they can shape the process through their legislators, who may be more interested in their duty to the people than the free lunches and campaign contributions transmission corporations provide. The bigger the public push back, the better your chances.
Transmission developers also court other groups and individuals to take a position supporting their proposal. Sometimes a quid pro quo situation develops. This happens because a utility board is unlikely to approve even the best project if it is under political fire not to do so, therefore the transmission developer needs allies to create, at least, an appearance of support.
So, can a large, loud uprising of the people affect the decision of a utility board? You bet'cha! But don't get confused by the difference between public opinion and public comment.
Public opinion is an aggregate of public comment. The public comments citizens make to a utility board, in isolation, rarely drive the decision of the Board because they are typically not based on legal arguments about the laws the Board must follow in its findings.
Utility law guru Scott Hempling recently pondered the effectiveness of public comments in his monthly essay. This month, he featured several questions that he will use as projects for his utility law students. Here's one:
Engaging the public: Candor requires an admission: The lay citizenry's views do not count as "substantial evidence," required by courts to sustain agency orders. Does that fact make public hearings (i.e., the non-technical hearings) shams? If not, then what is the value of public participation? What are ways to create that value, at reasonable cost? Traditionally, agencies announced public hearings in the newspaper's "legal notices." How useful is that approach today? What are an agency's responsibilities to educate the public and seek its views?
So while your own individual comment may not carry much legal weight, when combined with the comments of thousands of others, it is a very powerful, political tool!
If Branstad truly wants to keep "politics" out of utility board decisions in Iowa, he should start a little closer to home. The legislature, as the body tasked with making laws, can make any laws it chooses, whether Branstad likes them or not. Sure, he could veto a new law, but doing so to a new law widely supported by the people would come at his own political peril.
indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
- Margaret Mead