The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday overturned its predecessor‘s December decision calling for massive spending increases on energy efficiency for homes and businesses.
Committee members still agreed to contribute $100 million a year to energy efficiency programs during the next biennial budget. But in December, while still under Democratic control, the committee approved increasing spending on those programs to $120 million in fiscal 2011, $160 million in 2012, $204 million in 2013 and $256 million in 2014. The money would have come from increases in utility bills.
The primary recipient of the money is Focus on Energy, a nonprofit consortium of utilities and the state Public Service Commission that offers money to residents and businesses to install efficient energy systems.
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said the benefits for the few people who received money did not justify raising energy rates for everyone.
“There are a small number of people who will get that grant,” Vos said. “If you’re lucky enough to be one of them, perhaps, good for you. But am I willing to increase energy costs by hundreds of millions of dollars so a small number of people can be beneficiaries? I’m not.”
But state Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, called Vos and the Republican Joint Finance Committee members short-sighted, arguing investments in energy efficiency ultimately save money for everyone.
“There isn’t a business you go to that doesn’t talk about making efforts to reduce energy costs as a way to try to improve their bottom line,” Jauch said. “In essence, as the result of Rep. Vos’ motion, we’re going to deprive citizens of this state the ability to save more money.
“We’ll rely more on natural gas than we want to, and less money is going to be kept in consumers’ pockets.”
Keith Reopelle, the senior policy director for Clean Wisconsin, a Madison-based environmental advocacy group, said the new policy will cost Wisconsin residents more money.
“His motion is basically taking more than a billion dollars out of rate-payers’ pockets, because those increases the PSC approved would have led to those kinds of savings,” Reopelle said.
The state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported utility rate increases under the original spending plan would be minimal but would affect all customers. An audit is under way to determine how much extra money people would have spent on the increases on average.
The bureau also reported, though, that while utility rates would spike in the short term, the results of the investment on energy efficiency eventually would reduce costs for all Wisconsin customers.
“Why would we not use the cost-benefit analysis on this particular program and its effectiveness for the long term?” said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.
Vos, though, said it was wrong to say the state was reducing money for Focus on Energy because the $100 million-a-year commitment was new.
“We have not had this in place before,” Vos said. “It’s not like we’re cutting funding. We’re just not giving them the massive increases the previous majority supported.”
Jauch, though, said the old plan was a responsible one advocated by the Public Service Commission.
“They didn’t pull this out of the air,” he said. “This is a thoughtful proposal, it is one other states are using.
“I just think we shouldn’t put our heads in the sand and forsake the future. That’s not a very smart way to govern.”