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Special interests pay special attention to energy policy in Michigan

Michigan lawmakers and the Snyder administration are writing up new energy policy. It’s a big deal that almost no one is paying attention to. And that means the issue will be driven by special interests.

New energy needs

Now, it’s not that people don’t care about energy. It’s just that voters don’t seem to like getting bogged down in the details. Mostly, folks want energy to be reliable and affordable, while the details are left to the experts. The experts, however, are the ones that are making money off of it.

The push for new energy policy is being driven by the reality that federal policies will force the shutdown of a bunch of big coal-fired power plants in Michigan. The question in Lansing is: what will replace them and what will be done to meet Michigan’s growing energy demands?

Who's at the table

There are three main plays driving the discussion. First, there are the state’s big, incumbent utilities. Then, there are the alternative suppliers that want to compete with the big utilities for customers. Finally, there are the environmental groups.

The big utilities say they can’t make large investments – billions of dollars – to build giant new plants if alternate suppliers can swoop in and take their customers. Then, there are the competitors who are appealing to the free-marketers in the Legislature. They say competition is good and that it’ll lead businesses to get creative and solve the issue of getting Michiganders their electricity.

Then, there are the environmental groups. They want the solution to result in more wind and solar, and they want incentives to support that. They also want to boost mandates that require more of the state’s electricity to come from clean, renewable resources.

Monetary influence

Predictably, these interests are backing their stakes with campaign donations. Utilities and energy companies are always prolific political donors because they’ve always got a lot at stake, something that’s particularly true right now.

It certainly looks like the energy companies are the ones who are playing the hardest right now. Certainly, other interest groups, environmental groups, industry groups, will all be heard in the process, but I think if you follow the money, you’d follow the energy companies in this, and I think, in the end, they’re probably going to hold sway,” Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told It’s Just Politics.

So, Republicans and Democrats are getting donations, as well as caucus leaders and committee chairs in Lansing. Money is also going to these lawmakers’ “leadership PACs” - the political action committees that many legislators keep so they can accept special interest donations.

They, then, turn around and make donations of their own to other lawmakers and candidates, which, then, boost their influence to make decisions that those special interests are so interested in.  

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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