DENVER — When Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Republican former state Rep. Glenn Vaad to the state’s Public Utility Commission in December, clean-energy activists and more than a thousand citizens concerned with Vaad’s ties to a powerful pro-fossil fuel group lobbied state senators to oppose his confirmation. But over the course of the four-month legislative session, the confirmation vote in the Senate never came. Vaad began voting as an unconfirmed commissioner the first week of January and will continue to vote as an unconfirmed commissioner for the rest of the year.
Erin Vanderberg, a legislative council research analyst, said Senate President Morgan Carroll never called for a vote to confirm Vaad’s three-year appointment to serve on the commission, which is tasked with regulating energy, water and transportation industries. Vanderberg said that it sometimes happens that governor’s appointees fail to receive confirmation. But the fact that no vote was ever scheduled for Vaad’s confirmation sets his case apart.
Hickenlooper sent the Vaad letter of appointment to the Senate on December 10th last year. It was read into the Senate record on May 7th, the last day of this year’s legislative session. It was the second-to-last order of business recorded in the Senate Journal.
“That’s not common,” said Vanderberg.
Asked why the confirmation process had stalled, Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown said only that “Senate leadership did not schedule a vote.”
A staffer for Senate President Morgan Carroll said questions about Vaad were better put to the Senate President’s policy personnel. Policy staffers didn’t return messages left over several days.
News of the Vaad appointment in December spurred a rumbling activist campaign that reached high pitch before the session began on January 8th. More than a thousand Coloradans at that point had already signed petitions and sent emails demanding senators reject the nomination. Opponents of the nomination point to Vaad’s membership as a lawmaker in the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the influential “bill mill” backed by corporate interests that produces model rules and legislation for state officials to bring into effect.
Watchdogs say ALEC has been promoting policies like one that Xcel Energy proposed in Colorado that would discourage residents from installing rooftop solar arrays on their homes. They say Vaad wasn’t just a member of ALEC, but also an officer for the organization. And they point to documents and reports posted by consumer-advocacy groups like Common Cause and progressive-politics organizations like the Center for Media and Democracy that show Vaad was Chair of the ALEC Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development task force while he was serving in the Colorado General Assembly in 2011 and 2012 and that he had been accepting ALEC “scholarships” every year he was in office dating back to 2006.
The commission directed queries about Vaad to spokesman Terry Bote, who estimated in a phone interview last week that Vaad has already cast more than a hundred votes as a commissioner. Bote said that, for legal reasons, Hickenlooper had to reappoint Vaad the day after the legislative session adjourned. Bote said it is often the case that the governor has to make appointments in the eight months of the year the legislature is adjourned and that those appointees are then confirmed or not when the legislature re-opens for business. Vaad is now one of those off-session appointees, meeting weekly with the other two PUC members to weigh energy, water and transportation issues. He will serve unconfirmed at least until January.
Utilities in Colorado submit more than a thousand operation and rate change submissions for review to the commission every year, according to the PUC.
Senate staffers at the capitol told The Colorado Independent that lawmakers were still hearing from constituents troubled by Vaad’s nomination in the spring and that lawmakers were seriously weighing their positions on his appointment.
Last year, Xcel proposed to stop paying homeowners whose rooftop solar panels contribute energy to the power grid and begin charging them for grid maintenance. It’s a proposal utility companies are introducing in states around the country. Critics say it is part of a larger move to maintain contracts with fossil-fuel providers and to capture the growing renewable energy market by shifting solar panels off rooftops and into large utility owned “farms.”
At the end of January, under pressure from the public, the utility commission agreed to take the proposal off the table for immediate consideration and to instead conduct a series of hearings that would include members of the public as well as representatives of Xcel and the solar industry. That process is ongoing.
The Xcel proposal is what drew attention to Vaad. Most ALEC legislative proposals are written and almost always shaped by industry representatives. Not all industries are equally represented by ALEC, however. Fossil-fuel-sector contributors to the organization have pushed out clean-energy sector members. Nearly 40 percent of state lawmakers in the country belong to the organization and travel on ALEC “scholarships” to attend its national meetings and mix with corporate executives.
According to watchdog groups, Xcel has given $300,000 annually over the last few years to the utility industry trade association Edison Electric Institute or EEI, a dues-paying ALEC member organization.