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Stateside Podcast: DTE political spending under scrutiny

Main gallery of the Michigan House of Representatives
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

With spring, comes storms – and in Michigan that predictably means power outages.

Already in March of this year, over 700,000 customers of DTE and Consumers Energy lost power during an ice storm – some going a week without electricity.

Since these widespread outages people have denounced the for-profit model of investor-owned utilities. Some, including Hamtramck Representative Abraham Aiyash, are calling for legislative action. And for Rep. Aiyash that means curtailing the lobbying power of companies like DTE.

“I would challenge [DTE] to withhold all political giving for one year and invest all the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the millions of dollars…that they spend in dark money, and instead use that to invest in the grid instead of trying to keep our elected officials complacent on this issue.” Rep Aiyash said in an interview on Stateside.

Craig Mauger, a reporter at the Detroit News, said there is some precedent in Michigan to limit the amount of funds investor-backed utilities can dump into elections. He said that in addition to Rep. Aiyash and other Democratic members of the House who are pushing for limits on election spending, Attorney General Dana Nessel is requesting disclosures from the utilities about their political spending.

There’s also a push for more transparency coming internally from these utility companies.

“There's a really key and really fascinating to watch effort taking place among some of the DTE shareholders to force the company to disclose more information about their political activities,” said Mauger. “There will be a shareholder vote in early May on whether that will be successful or not.”

Mauger said that the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) – the agency that oversees utilities in the state – has the power to negotiate things like political spending with investor-backed utilities. But whether or not they do that is complicated.

“[The MPSC] are appointed by the governor. No one currently serving in Lansing has benefited from DTE’s political spending more than Governor Whitmer over the last ten years,” Mauger said. “We tracked more than $700,000 from DTE connected accounts and individuals to accounts connected to the governor … You're looking to people that have benefited from these utility spending to do something about this spending.”

Rep. Aiyash has made utility issues one of his priorities for this term.

“One of the things that we are looking at is how can we empower the MPSC,” he said. “We're also looking at ways that we can change our laws around this particular issue. [It] does not make sense that a company that is a monopoly has the ability to directly influence our politicians who are writing the laws and standards that regulate them. I mean, it is a direct conflict of interest.”

DTE is a corporate sponsor of Michigan Radio.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.