Nonpartisan advocacy: Fostering support for public power from both sides of the aisle

Public power utilities might be reticent to wade into advocacy on issues that are typically discussed through a heavily partisan lens, such as climate change. However, it is critical for public power professionals to lend their expertise and have a seat at the table in policy discussions that could directly affect utility operations and expenses. Shared lessons learned from decades of advocating for public power offer practical advice for getting public power’s message in front of legislators on both ends of the political spectrum. 

Bipartisan appeal

“Providing power is not a partisan issue,” said Colin Hansen, executive director for Kansas Municipal Utilities, which represents public power utilities across the state of Kansas. “There may be issues that may move some policymakers to the right or left of center, but most everyone can agree that we want to provide the most reliable, affordable and clean power possible to our customers.”

“Wires are agnostic to the type of power flowing through them — and we are agnostic to political affiliation,” said Hansen.

Public power advocates and entities are nonpartisan by design (including the American Public Power Association), which sets a foundation for being able to provide objective information to legislators.

“There’s bipartisan interest in the lights staying on,” Joy Ditto, president and CEO of APPA, remarked on an episode of the “American Resolution” podcast in December. Ditto further outlined on the podcast how many of the issues of interest to public power are those with bipartisan support, such as funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. 

The right mindset

In discussing the bipartisan nature of APPA’s policymaking process, Ditto stressed how the approach could extend to federal legislation. “If we really roll up our sleeves and have respect for one another and processes that are transparent, we can get to agreement,” she said.

“The word ‘politician’ has become a dirty word in our culture. There can be some who approach them with a negative attitude,” said Steve Wright, general manager at Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington state. “I think of politicians as the elected representatives of the people. They are what we need to make democracy work.

Wright has also helmed the Bonneville Power Administration. He estimated that over his career he has had more than 1,000 one-on-one or small-group meetings with legislators. “The vast majority of the folks I’ve met in my time are people who are trying to serve the public interest, trying to do the right thing,” Wright shared in a presentation during the Public Power Leadership Summit in August 2020. He noted that approaching advocacy situations with that philosophy is critical to success.

Wright advised utility advocates to come to meetings prepared to build a sense of “team” with the legislator. This includes recognizing that you share a constituency and that you both have insights to bring to the table. Legislators can bring some perspective about your customers from their extensive interactions with the public, and utility professionals can offer industry and technical expertise.

“We treat every policymaker, regardless of affiliation, as an equal,” said Hansen. “We work to build consensus and strive to bring lawmakers of all political persuasions together for a purpose.”

While Hansen stressed the need to be inviting and open to all legislators, he acknowledged that limited resources mean the team spends more time and effort with legislators who sit on key committees or put forth relevant bills in a given session.

KMU also takes small steps to gain name recognition among legislators in Topeka. As the 2021 season began, it gave out folding rulers (that extended to six feet to signify social distancing guidelines) with KMU branding. Hansen said these tokens are “something fun” for legislators to know who you are. He acknowledged that legislators can receive small items in Kansas but that other states might not allow gifts of any kind.

KMU joined with the cooperative and investor-owned utilities in Kansas to host a weekly social event for legislators — a tradition that has continued for nearly two decades. All legislators are invited to the weekly reception. Hansen said it is a way to get to know legislators and has come to be a popular event that allows for policymakers spanning the political spectrum to get together in a social setting.

Situational awareness

Hansen pointed out that there are 118 public power utilities across Kansas and that each of the state’s congressional districts has a public power utility.

Hansen acknowledged that the policymaking process at all levels has become more polarized over the 20 years he has been with KMU. “Partisan politics are not new, but it seems we are in an era where it is increasingly common. Issues that were normally nonpartisan have become partisan, requiring us to operate effectively on both sides of the aisle and focus on advancing and protecting public power’s role in providing safe, reliable, affordable, and clean power to our communities.”

“First and foremost, you’ve got to be in the room,” said Hansen, who explained that early on, KMU had to focus its advocacy efforts on getting a seat at the table. “Then, you’ve got to be a respected group enough to help hone and craft policy.”

For the latter part, that means being a trustworthy source of information that does not have a history of a partisan bent.

“It is all about trust. No matter their political affiliation, or where on the political spectrum policymakers reside, it is imperative that they trust you and your organization, that you are constantly telling the truth and giving them actionable information to work from,” said Hansen.

Wright stressed that the role of utility advocates is to present facts and to explain the consequences of policies.

“The No. 1 starting point for us has been a focus on trying to get good, objective facts on the table that will allow good decisions,” said Wright. “Don’t worry about what is the outcome. Try to do good-quality, objective work that creates good situational awareness and then allows better decisions to get made.”

A few years ago, Chelan PUD supported a study with the Public Generating Pool that analyzed the least-cost approaches to reducing carbon emissions in the Pacific Northwest. Wright said having this study was helpful because it explained the consequences of different policies in a way that showed impact to a broad set of stakeholders, not just to the utility.

Wright suspects that such an approach would be helpful in the debate around setting a federal clean energy standard.

Laying the groundwork with objective data is the first step; Wright referred to the next step as introducing “transition strategies” — in essence, finding a way to address legitimate concerns that arise out of the information presented.

“Whenever you change policy, what you are really asking is for some people to sacrifice for the greater good,” shared Wright. “If it is for the greater good, then we should find a way to minimize the sacrifice … to make it so it is not a win-lose situation, but to create a win-win, or at least win-neutral, solution.”

For utility advocates, this conversation often comes down to reducing reliance on a specific generating resource. “There is a reason why that resource is operating. If it was uneconomic or not contributing to reliability, then it would have already been shut down,” said Wright.

Hansen sees his advocacy role is as a subject matter expert to testify on topics related to the utility industry.

“We always start from a position of education. Our job is to help lawmakers understand the complexities of providing reliable, affordable power to customers 24/7,” he said. “Lawmakers cannot begin to have the time to follow the nuances of transmission policy or federal regulations or rapid advances in technology impacting our industry. That is where we come in.”

Moving with swings

Hansen noted that Kansas as a state has become more conservative in the past two decades, but in his time with KMU, the state has elected governors from both major political parties. With these swings in leadership can come drastic changes in the issues of focus for utilities, said Hansen.

Even amid the political changes, said Hansen, “The message is largely still the same. We are community-focused power providers, we are not-for-profit, our employees live and work in their communities. That mindset guides how we approach power supply, system management, economic development initiatives and, notably amid the pandemic, our customer billing policies. So, whether we are discussing renewable energy integration, electric vehicle adoption, advanced energy solutions, the cost of power, or local control, our message isn’t dictated by the ebb and flow of politics.”

Changing how you deliver the message isn’t strictly about the lawmaker’s party, but in knowing that lawmaker and being able to wrap the issue around what he or she values and prioritizes.

The Washington state Senate flipped from Republican control to Democratic control in the middle of the Public Generating Pool carbon emission study. 

“We thought that climate as an issue would have its day,” recalled Wright. “Then the Senate flipped, and we felt fortunate that we were ready.”

Wright remarked how it is important to know the characteristics of the districts of the legislative leaders when offering solutions, so that the impact can be more readily translated to their constituency.

“There’s nothing an elected official likes more than to be brought a set of options or solutions rather than being told you have to choose between your constituents’ interests,” shared Wright.

“Regardless of where lawmakers stand, we try to constantly reinforce our key underpinnings — namely, that we are not-for-profit and community-owned … we are an integral part of an overall healthy community,” said Hansen.