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Correction: Rep. Gary Glenn was first elected to the Michigan House in 2014. An earlier version of this story misstated his years in office.
Michigan state Rep. Gary Glenn has spent four
six years in the Legislature railing against regulated energy markets, and particularly against “monopoly utility bosses” at DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.
On August 7, the Republican lawmaker’s bid to continue that crusade in the state Senate was cut short when he lost a primary race to former state Rep. Kevin Daley, 59 percent to 41 percent.
Glenn blames his loss on the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by nonprofit 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups in support of his opponent. At least one such group, Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy, received major funding from one of the Michigan’s largest utilities, Consumers Energy.
The groups’ exact spending is difficult to track, but a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service claims up to five organizations — including Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy, Faithful Conservatives for Michigan and the Alliance for Michigan Power — spent at least $1 million in Glenn’s race. Each shares the same business address near Lansing. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network tracked TV advertising spending by Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy and Faithful Conservatives of Michigan totaling at least $425,000 — a rare amount for legislative primaries in Michigan.
Glenn is not alone in warning about the consequences such spending could have on Michigan energy policy. How that influence plays out remains to be seen, as does Glenn’s political future.
Meanwhile, Glenn plans to spend his remaining four months in office
(he is limited to three two-year terms in the House) as the House Energy Policy Committee chairman to educate lawmakers and the public on various energy issues, even if they’re unlikely to pass. After that, he’s considering whether to get involved with a possible a statewide ballot initiative to deregulate Michigan’s energy market similar to Illinois and Ohio.
Glenn spoke with Energy News Network about utilities’ influence in Michigan politics and how it could affect energy policy in the state. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Were investor-owned utilities and political front groups they contribute to responsible for your loss in the August 7 primary?
I don’t think there’s any question about it. I raised two-and-a-half times more money than Kevin Daley did. Absent the $1 million-plus in independent spending from DTE and Consumers, I’m confident I would have beat Daley by double digits. They spent three times more than Daley and I put together. I don’t think there’s any question they were responsible for what would have otherwise been an easy victory.
You are perhaps the most vocal lawmaker critical of the structure of Michigan’s regulated energy market. For those who share your views, what do you think the agenda will be once you leave office?
My expectation is there will be no meaningful reforms through the legislative process for the next decade. By hanging my hide on the wall, utilities will intimidate even more legislators. Many legislators walk around scared of their own shadow when it comes to utility lobbyists. I am more disappointed in that than I have been about having lost the race — the fact that they’ll be able to intimidate other lawmakers by pointing to what they did in my race.
I have no regrets whatsoever. I was flattered to be considered such a threat that they would consider spending $1 million. I stood up for principals I believe are correct.
If not through legislation, how else might Michigan accomplish energy market reforms?
I’m aware Nevada has a ballot measure this November that would enshrine customer choice in their constitution. It requires two ballot appearances in Nevada and got 72 percent of the vote in 2016. One of the big supporters is Switch, which obviously now has a facility in Michigan.
At some point I think that’s possible here, perhaps even probable, given the conversations I’ve had with business leaders. I don’t know how quickly, but I do think there’s a reasonable expectation we might see that type of thing on the ballot. I think that’s the only way you’ll see meaningful energy reform.
How might a ballot initiative like that work in Michigan, and how long might it take to develop into a formal proposal?
I don’t know how to gauge that. I know there is a lot of interest. I have talked to business leaders about how high electricity prices are one of the top two or three impediments for the state being attractive to new businesses. I think there is a feeling among some supporters to wait and see what happens in Nevada. If the proposal is approved in Nevada by a vote of the people, I think there is going to be a serious look at it.
I’m in a position to offer my services, whatever they might be, but I’m in no position to launch that effort. It takes millions of dollars to get the signatures to get on the ballot.
Two campaign finance complaints have been filed against utility-backed front groups. One was dismissed by the Michigan Secretary of State while the other is pending before the Internal Revenue Service. If both are dismissed, do you see any way to counter this large amount of political spending?
I don’t think anything the groups did was illegal. The question is: Is it good public policy to allow them to do what they do? That will be subject to debate. Highly placed members of the state House have told me they don’t have issues if a private corporation does this, but if it’s a state monopoly then they do have a problem. But I don’t know anything will happen.
The Legislature returns for a lame duck session after the November election. Do you see much happening on energy during that time?
I don’t see anything passing that Consumers and DTE doesn’t support. I’ll continue for the remaining three or four months to continue what I’ve done, which is bring issues up for the purpose of discussion in hopes that it will contribute to the likelihood of some reform in the years to come.