IREA election spending: ‘Outrageous’ or ‘normal political fight’?

(Photo/your pal ryan, Flickr)
(Photo/your pal ryan, Flickr)
The first thing former school principal Mike Galvin said he’ll do if elected to the board of Intermountain Rural Electric Association, the state’s largest energy co-op, is enact sweeping reform of the election process itself.

Galvin, one of three candidates trying to unseat entrenched incumbents in a vote that will be tallied at IREA’s annual meeting in Woodland Park on Saturday, has been focusing on fiscal issues in his campaign, questioning everything from a $68,000 March mailer echoing incumbent views to the co-op’s annual $500,000 bill for lobbyists.

“They’ve been putting ads in the paper advertising low rates and coordinating with incumbents and did this mailing at a cost of $68,000 talking about how rates will stay low with the coal plant, which could have gone out with bills, but they spent the money,” Galvin said.

William Schroeder, IREA’s manager of public affairs, said the co-op is simply providing as much information as possible to its nearly 138,000 members, the majority of whom support the board’s decision to invest $366 million in the new Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant near Pueblo and don’t favor renewable-energy mandates that drive up rates.

Schroeder, a former Republican state senator from Morrison, points to a co-op-wide election in 2005 in which members decided by a 4-to-1 ratio to opt out of 2004’s Amendment 37, a statewide vote that mandated 10 percent of a utility’s energy must come from renewable sources by 2020. The state legislature later upped that to 20 percent with House Bill 1281 in 2007, which required rural co-ops participate in renewables at a 10-percent level.

Schroeder said it was wrong of state lawmakers to drag IREA back into something its members had so overwhelmingly rejected — although voters in the co-op’s coverage area did originally support Amendment 37 by a 53-47 margin — but critics charge the later opt-out vote was rigged by using co-op funds to mail out one-sided, anti-renewable literature.

“Some people would say that wasn’t a very fair vote, but we used what was in the [state’s election] Blue Book for the people that were opposing Intermountain’s position and the board’s position, so it was the same thing they got when they originally voted [on Amendment 37],” Schroeder said.

As for lobbyists, Schroeder said that’s just the cost of doing business when IREA is the only one of the state’s 22 rural co-ops that takes a hard line on holding down rates by investing in coal-fired power, disputing global warming as junk science and opposing renewable mandates.

“As a former state senator I can tell you that any business that doesn’t take the time to be represented in some form or fashion down there [at the state Capitol] gets run over,” Schroeder said, adding businesses, especially nonprofits, have to spend on lobbyists or belong to trade associations to fight unfavorable legislation.

However, IREA last year pulled out of the state’s REA trade group, Colorado Rural Electric Association.

“What CREA did, and others, they started getting involved in that stuff [renewable mandates] and started supporting certain things that are detrimental to rural electric customers, and so we’re the only ones that will stand up and say you’re driving up the costs,” Schroeder said.

But some members question such costs in the current economic climate.

“IREA spent $500,000 in 2007 to lobby against alternative energies; spent $100,000 in 2006 to purchase the skewed opinions of an industry-paid spokesperson skeptical of climate change warnings; and, spent less than $75,000 to defray energy costs for senior citizens and low income households,” said co-op member and activist David Harlan of Divide.

Harlan also accused the co-op of improperly spending funds to support the campaigns of incumbent board members who rubber-stamp the anti-renewable agenda.

“In February, an IREA- and self-promoting mailing from incumbent Gene Sperry was included with the electric bill,” Harlan said. “The IREA board sends to customers similar ‘personalized’ mailings on a rotating basis. I found it curious that Gene Sperry’s mailing predated by 30 days his campaign for re-election, and I found it outrageous that this mailing may have saved him about $20,000 in campaign fees.”

Again, Schroeder said IREA members are being educated on the issues. He said two group, IREA Voices and ICARE (IREA Consumers for Affordable and Reliable Energy, are handling the heavy lifting when it comes to campaigning in the board election.

“It’s a normal political fight that’s going on,” Schroeder said.


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