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Utilities Wage Stealth War To Kill Restructuring

Utilities Wage Stealth War To Kill Restructuring

Multiple electric utilities have waged a clandestine campaign over the past 3 years to funnel about $17 million through two Washington, D.C. front groups in an effort to stall electric restructuring legislation in the House Commerce Committee's Energy and Power subcommittee, the Washington Post reported last week.

Secret memos given to the Post by deregulation advocates, reveal a utility-funded, "grass roots" lobbying effort to attack key congressmen on their home turf through radio ads directing listeners to call "1-800-BAD-BILL" and through phone banks connecting angry residents to congressional offices.

The effort was started in 1995 by the law firm of Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon, which enlisted several existing utility clients and soon thereafter brought in nine others. The utilities paid between $300,000 and $700,000 a year to fund the effort, the Post reported. The main corporate sponsors included Carolina Power & Light, Florida Power & Light, Texas Utilities, Commonwealth Edison, Reliant Energy, First Energy, Consumers Energy, Teco and Union Electric.

Two front groups, the conservative Citizens for State Power and the union-affiliated Electric Utility Shareholders Alliance, were used for a lobbying effort dubbed "The Project," which was created to bottle up electric restructuring in the subcommittee. The Project was run by law firm partner Jeffery MacKinnon, a former top aide to Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House subcommittee, and Tim Ridley, a former Democratic staff member in Congress who now runs a firm specializing in "grass roots" lobbying campaigns. The Project included more than 50 "mobilizations" in congressional districts.

The utilities' stealth campaign is one reason electric restructuring has been stalled although one partial deregulation bill made it to the full committee level last fall, the Post noted. Commerce Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Virginia Republican, is a staunch industry critic who is determined to move a bill. The Post quoted memos describing meetings in Washington where utility lobbyists and consultants shaped strategies for stopping Bliley. "The number one goal of 'The Project' has always been to bottleneck legislation," said one memo. The participants also spoke of the need to "demonize" the federal agency that regulates utilities and to use debates about nuclear power as "a highly provocative wedge issue" to destabilize legislative adversaries, according to the Post.

Rocco Canonica

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