Bad Signs For Evers

Opponents of the massive power line between Iowa and Middleton, known as the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Line, have just passed the 50,000 signature mark on a petition against the project’s path through a sensitive wildlife refuge. All those signers are a bad sign for Gov. Tony Evers, who appears to support the line.

Driftless Defenders is organizing the petition. They are one of several organizations fighting the American Transmission Company project, which has been approved by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, but is the subject of complicated challenges both before the PSC and in the courts. 

The Driftless Defenders’ petition focuses on potential damage to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a 240,000-acre site established in 1924. The 14 ATC towers through the refuge — an important stop on bird migration routes, especially for ducks —  would be 20 stories tall. The group had over 46,000 signatures on April 30 when it submitted the petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Rural Utilities Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Gov. Tony Evers, state Sen. Sondy Pope and the EPA regional office were copied.  

“We started the petition on March 25, 2021,” Betsy D’Angelo, one of the petition organizers, writes in an email. “Because the developers had requested a change to the right of way through the refuge, we knew these three agencies would need to make a decision and we also knew that an EIS would be opened for comments. We wanted to be prepared to show the agencies that people were still opposed. 

“Much to our amazement the petition took off like wildfire. A fun thing was to visit the site and see the signature tally dial spin! One month after starting the petition we had collected 46,264 signatures.”

That’s when they submitted their petition to the federal agencies and to Evers and Pope. “Then we got the idea to seek publicity when we hit 50,000,” D’Angelo wrote. 

They hit that last week and, in fact, I was 50,007 when I signed on last Sunday. (And, yes, I very much like the 007 part.)

The signers come from all over the U.S. and some come from other countries. There’s even one from Antarctica. But my cursory review of the petition suggests that somewhat more than half are from Wisconsin. 

The line is the subject of four lawsuits, all being litigated by the Environmental Law & Policy Center. In an unprecedented move, ATC has formally asked the PSC to void the approval of its own line. That was a legal maneuver by ATC to moot at least one of the suits. Then ATC wants the PSC to approve the line again. So far, the PSC has refused ATC’s request and has instead left its initial approval in place for now. 

The issue that brought ATC to make that unusual move was the alleged conflicts of interest of former PSC Chair Mike Huebsch. Huebsch had numerous potential conflicts. He was the PSC representative to a regional utility coordinating group that actively lobbied for the line, he later applied for the top job at Dairyland Power which would be one of the owners of the line, and he had extensive contacts with lobbyists and senior officials from ATC and from WE Energies, which owns 60 percent of ATC, among other utility officials. Many of those contacts were through a widely used encrypted messaging service called Signal. 

ATC seems to believe that if the original approval was rescinded and then the line was approved again without Huebsch on the commission, everything would be just fine. But the ELPC attorneys argue, and a Dane County judge has agreed, that if Huebsch’s conflicts were serious enough to taint the initial decision, it won’t be sufficient for ATC to go back and get its ticket stamped again without Huebsch in the process. Instead, Judge Jacob Frost has indicated that the case would have to be decided by a special master, perhaps a retired judge. 

All that said, ATC has never once lost a case before the PSC, in no small part because of the cozy, revolving door nature of its relationship with commissioners, both past and present. Even Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has appointed a commissioner who had spent her career as a WE Energies regulation lawyer and another who had worked for RENEW, a renewable energy group that strongly advocated for Cardinal-Hickory Creek. 

PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq stubbornly insists that her career as a utility lawyer in no way compromises her vote on the power line while Tyler Huebner, formerly the executive director of RENEW, has a conflict so clear that he has recused himself from this decision. So, if this isn’t taken out of the PSC’s hands by a court, the decision will be left up to Valcq and Scott Walker holdover appointee Ellen Nowak. There’s no question that those two, who have expressed indignation that the commission’s integrity would be called into question, will do whatever they need to do to give ATC and the utilities exactly what they want. 

All of this is a problem for Evers and for Democrats’ chances of holding on to the southwest Wisconsin congressional seat, long held by moderate Democrat Ron Kind, who is retiring. As noted above, Driftless Defenders sent Evers a copy of the petition. In response they got a form letter so boilerplate that it didn’t even acknowledge receipt of it, much less comment at all about the issue at hand. 

One can only conclude that Evers is either in favor of the line or doesn’t care enough about it to appoint PSC commissioners who would, at the very least, evaluate it free of obvious conflicts. No matter how you look at it, Evers’ PSC appointments are unforced errors that do him no good and can only cost him votes. The only question is how many.

For a bunch of reasons, I think Evers still has a good chance of being reelected and, given the awful alternatives, I sincerely hope he pulls that off. But he only won last time by 30,000 votes and there’s no reason to think it won’t be a close race again next year. So, a petition with roughly 30,000 Wisconsin signers about the hottest issue going in a crucial part of the state deserves more than a brush off. 

A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.

Welcome to the 214th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

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