A bill on file with the Wyoming Senate would require the governor to appoint people with relevant experience to the Public Service Commission.
The bill creates a requirement that at least one member of the PSC — which regulates utility companies and negotiates electrical transmission agreements with other states — have five years of experience in a related field. The Joint Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee voted to sponsor the bill in November. It’s likely to face a tough road to becoming law, with key senators opposed and Gov. Matt Mead defending his current appointments.
Today, all three members of the PSC are lawyers, and all have a career history that includes time at the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. All three were appointed by Gov. Matt Mead, a lawyer himself. At the end of the Legislature’s 2017 general session, two senators told WyoFile that they worried the PSC was full of attorneys even though it frequently deals with complicated economic issues. Two of the current commissioners were at first rejected by the Senate in 2013 because of such concerns, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune. Such rejections by the Senate, which votes to confirm the governor’s appointments, are rare. The Senate later reversed its vote.
The bill could rectify the attorney imbalance for the future, said its chief proponent, Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance). It also would bring the commission into line with trade licensing bodies in the state, he said, where members tend to have relevant experience.
“I think folks get it,” Lindholm said. “If you’re gonna sit on the board of barbering you have to be a barber, and so if you’re going to sit on the public service commission you should at least have some experience with the industry.”
The bill would not affect the makeup of the current commission.
Though the joint committee voted to sponsor the bill, three of the five ‘no’ votes came from senators. That’s not a good sign for the legislation’s success. Since it does not deal with the state’s budget, the bill will first need to receive a two-thirds vote from the Senate for introduction. From there, it would most likely be sent to the Senate Corporations Committee for review — where three out of five members opposed it in November.
Two of those members, Sen. Charles Scott and Sen. Cale Case, voiced discontent with the all-lawyer PSC to WyoFile last session. However, both said last week they voted against the bill because they didn’t want to permanently change statute to reflect their current concerns.
“I don’t really want to tie the governor’s hands,” Case said. “I don’t like that the governor put three lawyers on the service commission that’s for sure, but I’m not willing to say ‘he has to do this, this and this.’” The current commission has learned well and is doing a good job, he said.
Scott echoed that sentiment, and said barring a resignation from one of the current members, Mead has made his last appointments to the PSC.
“We got a lawyer as the governor right now, he tends to appoint lawyers,” Scott said. But Mead is barred from running for reelection in November 2018, and there are no open seats on the PSC today.
Were the bill able to pass the Legislature, Mead could exercise his veto power. It would then take a two-thirds vote in both houses to overrule him. In a statement provided through his spokesperson, the governor defended the current commission.
“The Wyoming PSC is top tier,” Mead said. “Its members have a reputation for excellence and have achieved national prominence. Their work is well respected by industry and the public. I appreciate the importance of their work and the need to have highly qualified members. This is a bill I will watch with interest.”
When not in the Legislature, Lindholm is a lead substation electrician for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, according to his LinkedIn profile. As a power generation company that sells electricity to utilities, Basin Electric is not directly regulated by the PSC, he said.
Lindholm didn’t pick up on complaints about the PSC’s makeup through his work, he said, but did through testimony to the corporations committee. “I don’t believe the knowledge level is there,” with the current PSC members, he said.
The bill also includes language that dictates PSC appointees cannot have a “direct financial interest” in utilities regulated by the commission. It also only requires one member to have relevant experience. The PSC exists to represent electricity consumers, Lindholm noted, and thus a distance from the utility industry for some commissioners is important.
“I don’t want industry to control the public service commission,” Lindholm said. Commissioners who meet the bill’s requirements “don’t even have to come from industry,” he said, “all I’m asking is that they have experience.”
Lindholm wasn’t optimistic about the bill’s chances, but he said he was ready for the political fight. “It might not seem like a lot to the public but the bill is controversial,” he said.
The chairman of the House Corporations Committee, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, said the committee took testimony on the PSC because issues with state utilities — including PSC concerns — were their highest priority for the period between legislative sessions. Those priorities are determined by legislative leaders. “There’s a lot of interest in this area,” Zwonitzer said.
He voted against the bill in November, for the same reasons as Scott and Case. However, he said, the bill grew from repeated frustrations by lawmakers that were ignored in Mead’s appointments. “It would have behooved the governor to seek some input,” before his last appointment, he said.
“At the end of the day the bill would send a strong message from the Senate that we need to find some people with some strong qualifications that aren’t attorneys,” he said.