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Wisconsin Republicans fire utility regulator in latest strike at Evers

evers
Posted at 9:56 AM, Jan 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-17 10:56:12-05

MADISON (AP) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin state Senate voted Tuesday to fire a state utility regulator because he supports setting energy rates according to customers’ ability to pay and opening up the solar energy sector.

The Senate voted 21-11 to reject Public Service Commissioner Tyler Huebner’s confirmation. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers appointed him to the commission in March 2020 and again in March 2021. Huebner previously served as executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that advocates for renewable energy.

The commissioner is the latest in a line of gubernatorial appointees the Senate has fired over the last five years as Republican lawmakers chafe under the Evers administration. Democratic Sen. Brad Pfaff — who served as Evers’ agriculture secretary until the Senate fired him in 2019 — argued that Huebner is one of the brightest minds in renewable energy and accused Republicans of trying to cripple state government.

Rejecting Huebner’s confirmation "is not something you should be doing so you can be bragging about it to your base,” Pfaff said. “It sends a signal it doesn’t matter what your background is. It doesn’t matter your qualifications, your hard work ... what matters is the political party and who appointed you.”

Republican Sen. Julian Bradley, a member of the Senate’s utilities committee, said the vote wasn’t political, pointing out that the Senate has confirmed scores of Evers appointees since the governor took office. The Senate voted 27-5 on Tuesday to confirm Commissioner Summer Strand, whom Evers appointed in March 2023, after firing Huebner.

Bradley said on the Senate floor that Huebner supports setting energy rates based on a customer’s ability to pay rather than usage, a concept known as income-based rates. State law doesn’t allow the PSC to take that approach, Bradley said, but Huebner insists it does. The senator dubbed that activism.

Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, another member of the Senate utilities committee, said in a statement after the vote that Republicans also were upset that Huebner voted in December to allow property owners to lease panels from a solar power company at lower rates than what an electric utility might charge. Utilities have generally opposed such deals and Wanggard said the Legislature hasn't approved them.

He added that the PSC in 2021 ordered utilities to provide workplace diversity data in annual reports without any authority to do so and he found Huebner to be evasive during meetings.

Huebner said in a statement that he was proud of the decisions he made to “balance safety, reliability, and affordability."

Evers issued a statement saying the vote “defies justification and logic.”

“These are qualified, hard-working Wisconsinites we're talking about,” Evers said. “They should be celebrated for service and experience, not bullied, vilified, and fired simply for doing their jobs.”

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Evers appointed Kristy Nieto, administrator of the commission's Division of Energy Regulation and Analysis, to replace Chairperson Rebecca Valcq, who announced earlier this month that she plans to leave the agency in early February. Evers first appointed Valcq in 2019.

All the changes leave the three-member commission with one vacancy heading into the spring.

Senate Republicans have voted to reject multiple appointees’ confirmation since 2019, beginning with their refusal to confirm Pfaff.

Last September they voted to reject Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, but Attorney General Josh Kaul won a court ruling nullifying the rejection.

In October, Republicans rejected eight more Evers appointees, including Joseph Czarnezki, a Democratic member of the elections commission who abstained from voting on whether the commission should reappoint Wolfe. The move resulted in a deadlock that prevented Wolfe’s reappointment from legally reaching the Senate, angering Republican who have vowed to oust Wolfe.

Also among the eight appointees who lost their jobs were four members of the state Department of Natural Resources Board. They angered Republicans by hedging on whether a new wolf management plan should include a hard population cap.