Making a difference: Advocating for public power

There’s a reason that many public power associations employ full-time lobbyists and government relations professionals — it’s because building relationships with legislators and serving as an expert resource on utility matters take time and energy. These professionals do not work alone; they require the support of many people affiliated with the utility to relay accurate insights. A few of these pros offered their tips for being effective advocates and shared strategies for how they engage other utility workers in the process.

Continual contact

Most executives would be happy to have a lawmaker give them a call about a bill moving through the legislative process. Harold Schiebout, who recently retired as chair of Missouri River Energy Services, has had that happen on multiple occasions, said Deborah Birgen, vice president of legislative and governmental relations at MRES. “That’s the value of advocacy,” she added. “You become the trusted source for information because that’s what lawmakers need.”

At bottom, an advocate is an educator of policymakers.

Advocates exist to ensure the interests of an organization are heard by legislators and other constituents. “Supporting a cause and taking action on it — that’s advocacy in its truest sense,” said Staci Wilson, director of government affairs for Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, a joint action agency that serves 32 municipal electric systems; the Illinois Municipal Utilities Association, a state association; and the Illinois Public Energy Agency, a natural gas supply organization.

Wilson maintained that advocacy can be done by many people associated with municipalities — by those who hold government relations jobs at the public utility or related agencies as well as local officials and utility staffers. “All levels can approach and advocate on behalf of municipal utilities,” she said. “It’s critical you have relations already in place so that when you have a specific issue, you can reach out to decision-makers effectively.” In other words, Wilson concurs with Birgen: It’s all about building relationships.

“In the aftermath of Citizens United, advocacy at the municipal electric utility level is even more important,” said Birgen, whose JAA supports public power utilities in four states. “Cities and city utilities are prohibited from making campaign contributions, so while other entities can get access through such means, municipal utilities are more limited.”

She added that legislators watch social media, too. “Many people read one article, one headline, one social media post, or one meme, and believe that sums up the issue. But the electric utility industry is extremely complex. It is capital intensive, based on very long-term planning, based on physics, and is an industry in which supply must equal demand 24/7. Constant contact, education, and advocacy are necessary so that lawmakers can begin to wrap their arms around our industry’s complexities.”

That constant contact comes in many forms. Joseph Owen is director of government affairs for WPPI Energy, a JAA serving 51 locally owned electric utilities in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. Like others interviewed for this story, Owen and his team attend the American Public Power Association’s Legislative Rally in Washington, D.C., each year. The rally allows those within the public power community to learn about the legislative process and pending policy, plus it gives lawmakers and their staffs a chance to meet with utility stakeholders and learn how policy can affect utility operations.

“We encourage as many people as possible from across the WPPI membership to come,” he said. “We bring mayors, city council members, utility commissioners, utility general managers, lineworkers, accounting folks — anyone who wants to come. There’s really nothing better than getting a policymaker in front of the people who have such expertise and pride in the services they provide to their communities. The relationships forged in those meetings serve as a solid foundation for our ongoing interactions with legislators throughout the year.”

Not all meetings take place in an office. Wilson encourages the utility members of her organizations to invite policymakers on tours of utility facilities and generation sites. “Many of our members have solar, a few of our communities have wind, and we also have communities that have hydroelectric power plants,” she said. “We want to let policymakers physically see these sites and meet the line crews. It puts faces behind the issues and helps you cultivate true relationships so that you become a sounding board as legislators consider options for energy policies.”

Such meetings are common for WPPI and MRES member utilities, too. Advocates for these organizations routinely appear at every pertinent legislative hearing and other sessions. Birgen also “walks the halls,” which means waiting in a state Capitol rotunda trying to catch lawmakers on their way to a committee hearing and saying, “Representative So-and-so, may I have a minute of your time?” She said this is a must because lawmakers in some states she serves don’t have offices, and visitors often are not allowed on the House or Senate floor, although at times advocates can send in a note asking for a lawmaker’s time.

Birgen also offered advice on what missteps to avoid when working on building a relationship with a legislator. Her advice included avoiding hyperbole or otherwise exaggerating facts, taking too long to provide follow-up information, or relaying your message in a complex, convoluted manner. She also advised that while utility professionals are there to provide expert insight, they should be mindful of how their messages come across. Birgen cautioned that if the education of lawmakers or agency staff is done in a condescending manner or conveys the message, “I know better,” then the recipient will no longer be interested.

Clarifying complexities

Advocacy is not just about tugging on a lawmaker’s sleeve and asking for favors. “Newly elected leaders — whether they’re local, state or federal — are really drinking from the fire hose,” Owen said. “They’re asked to make decisions that require some expertise on a whole gamut of different issues. An advocate’s job is providing the sort of information that can help inform decisions.”

Sometimes that means creating handouts, a go-to tool that Wilson uses to provide general information about the potential impact of a policy. Organizations can tailor APPA’s nationally focused issue briefs and fact sheets to be more state or locally focused.

Sometimes it means interpreting the legislation. Owen often does that with help from the experts in the field who work for WPPI’s member utilities. “It’s my job to take a piece of legislation that can be fairly arcane and provide a clear summary,” he said. To that end, he also gathers input from WPPI member utility leaders  and takes it back to legislative decision-makers.

Such communications must be clear, accurate, and detailed. “Having your research done and your facts correct is what makes the best impact on lawmakers,” Birgen said. “Keep it relatable. Telling a lawmaker that a bill may raise transmission costs does not carry the same weight as pointing to a firm number and saying, ‘That bill will raise transmission costs by 25%, which will also raise your constituents’ electric rates by at least 20%.’”

Covering the bases

There are many areas beyond energy policy that can impact a utility’s day-to-day operations. One such area that often gets diligent attention from public power advocates is taxes. “For years, Congress has used federal tax incentives to encourage certain forms of energy investments in the U.S.,” Wilson said. “But we are units of state and local government, and we’re exempt from federal taxation.”

In other words, public power entities have lost out. That’s why Wilson and her team have urged lawmakers to extend such incentives in a way that works for a municipal utility that is already exempt from federal tax liabilities. “Whether they be for solar, wind or any emerging technology, such as storage, we would encourage legislators to draft incentives that would accommodate a tax-exempt entity to directly take part, which would include public power utilities.”

Another tax-related issue that public power advocates for is municipal bonds. “For more than 100 years, tax-exempt municipal bonds have served as the primary financing mechanism for public infrastructure,” read an APPA brief that Wilson used to educate lawmakers. “Since the inception of the federal income tax in 1913, interest paid on these bonds has been exempt from federal tax.”

Public power advocates have been educating lawmakers about the issue since 2012, when the Obama administration began conversations about eliminating tax-exempt bonds. The issue was front-and-center leading up to passage of the 2017 tax bill. Early in the Trump administration, Owen noted that there was “an appetite for large-scale tax cuts, and one of the items on the chopping block was the tax exemption of municipal bonds.”

Like Wilson and Birgen, Owen and his team worked hard to keep that tax exemption alive. With persistence, Owen and Jim Coutts, who served on a local utility commission and APPA’s Policy Makers Council, were able to get on then-House Speaker Paul Ryan’s calendar for an in-person meeting. “I think it was a little bit of luck, but the appeal for legislators in hearing from local leaders and constituents can’t be ignored,,” Owen said. “When we met with Speaker Ryan, he said, ‘Gosh, I’m so happy to finally meet with some folks from Wisconsin.’”

Owen noted that Coutts, who passed away in November 2020, was exactly the kind of person who makes for an effective public power advocate. Coutts volunteered extensively and spent nearly three decades in public service in the community of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. In addition to the utility commission, he served on the school board, as a member and president of the common council, and as mayor. “When Jim sat down with a lawmaker, the impact on the discussion of his local expertise and dedication was unmistakable.”

Not all advocacy occurs in Washington, D.C. In South Dakota, public power utilities are allowed to grow their service territories as the city grows, but that policy nearly ended recently. Birgen rallied the forces, increasing her organization’s presence at the state Capitol by hiring additional lobbyists and getting volunteers involved. “Massive amounts of material were prepared, including handouts, charts, videos and a website. A media-marketing team was hired. Community, industry and business advocates were recruited on the issue to oppose the destructive bill,” she said.

Had the bill passed, many municipalities would have been unable to pursue planned growth, and some would have had stranded, oversized assets. City residents would have been affected, too, because newly built-out areas wouldn’t have had access to city services. “As I told one legislator, it’s like joining the church and being told you can’t come to the fish fry,” Birgen said. The bill was killed at the Capitol.

Owen had a recent win, too. “Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the nation started to lock down, the public service commission here in Wisconsin put in place a complete moratorium on utility shutoffs. We understand why they did it, but it created some liquidity concerns for WPPI member utilities,” Owen explained.

Like Birgen, he rallied members to write and call legislators, and he kept messages clear and coordinated with help from a communications and policy committee that supports his work. “It was an uphill battle, because every entity in the state with some sort of advocacy arm was looking for something in our legislators’ COVID-relief package,” he added. Still, the WPPI team was able to get a provision added to the legislation, which gave public power utilities temporary access to state funds that, prior to the bill’s passage, they couldn’t access.

Along with getting legislation changed, passed and nixed, advocacy also means simply helping legislators gain the information they need to do their jobs. At one key congressional hearing, Wilson recalls how a congressman effectively expounded on – and pressed for a positive change – concerning a complicated energy markets issue. It was clear that he and his staff had read and absorbed resource materials that her organization had prepared and presented to him at a prior meeting on the matter. 

“Advocacy helps policymakers,” said Kevin M. Gaden, president and CEO of IMEA, IMUA and IPEA, the three Illinois-based organizations Wilson supports. “When we bring the faces of local municipals to state or federal policymakers, it helps them contextualize the complicated electric power market and understand community impacts of their decisions. In the end, advocacy makes a difference.”

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