‘It’s going to be interesting’: State Senate prepping for Hickenlooper PUC appointment confirmations

Author: John Tomasic - January 17, 2017 - Updated: January 17, 2017

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, as newly-elected Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, look on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, as newly-elected Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, look on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, in Denver. Grantham says the confirmation hearings — which he will definitely hold — for Hickenlooper’s two new appointees to the Public Utilities Commission will be “interesting.” (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, say the process is already in motion to launch Senate confirmation hearings for the governor’s two recent appointees to the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Grantham seems to be looking forward to it. “I think we’ll do it sooner rather than later,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “It’s going to be interesting.”

DORA, Public Utilities Commission, PUC

The PUC has become a politics headline maker in recent years, routinely drawing the eyes of lobbyists, activists and op-ed writers as it weighs how best to serve the public interest when regulating the state’s energy, water, transportation and telecommunications industries.

Hickenlooper two weeks ago announced the appointments to the three-member commission. Jeff Ackermann and Wendy Moser will take up positions vacated by Josh Epel and Glenn Vaad.

Jeff Ackerman
Jeff Ackerman

Ackermann most recently served as the Colorado Energy Office’s executive director. Before that, he was chief researcher for the PUC.

Moser was senior manager at Charter Communications, what the Wall Street Journal called  a telecommunications”behemoth” after it bought Time Warner Cable in May for roughly $60 billion. Moser has also worked for Black Hills, the Colorado power company that has made headlines for the steep rates it charges Pueblo-area residents. Moser specialized in regulatory law and government relations.

The Colorado Springs Gazette last week described the selections as a “disappointment.” The paper characterized Ackermann as a bureaucrat and renewable energy champion, and Moser as an executive whose perspective has been shaped by defending corporate interests. The editorial writer argued the two would likely fail to effectively champion consumer rights.

At the Capitol this week, where the legislative session got underway, there also has been grumbling about Moser.

Wendy Moser
Wendy Moser

“I have had some consumer advocates express concern,” said Sen. Irene Aquilar, D-Denver. “The feeling is that we should take a close look and see if there’s a conflict of interest there.”

Aguilar served on an interim legislative task force this past fall that explored how to improve the state’s 9-1-1 emergency service, which has struggled to keep pace with the digital era. Mobile and internet-based emergency services have suffered increasing blackouts and long outage periods in vast rural and mountainous areas of the state. Past legislation aimed at addressing the issues centered on allowing the PUC to regulate 9-1-1 service. Telecommunications companies marshaled their army of lobbyists to limit PUC interference. Lawmakers across party lines were torn on the issue.

Hallway grumbling about Moser brings to mind what Grantham called the “strange circumstance” tied to the appointment to the PUC three years ago of Vaad. By “strange,” Grantham seemed to mean rare and a little surprising. He chuckled slightly at the memory.

Hickenlooper’s recent appointments took effect January 9, Monday of the week the legislative session opened. As is typical, Ackermann and Moser have been serving on the PUC while they await confirmation. That’s how Vaad was serving, too, except he served three years unconfirmed. In fact, his resignation, effective January 8, saved Hickenlooper from continuing a dance he had been doing with the state Senate since 2014.

The Vaad appointment drew an intense opposition campaign spearheaded by clean-energy advocates who saw Vaad, a former Republican lawmaker, as a champion of fossil fuel industry interests who might actively work against the interests of the state’s growing renewable energy sector. Members of the Senate received thousands of protest emails and phone calls opposing his confirmation.

As it happened, then-Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, never put the Vaad confirmation hearing on the chamber calendar. The appointment was read into the Senate record as the second-to-last order of business on May 7th, the last day of the 2014 legislative session. Hickenlooper then, for legal reasons, simply reappointed Vaad the day after the session adjourned.

And so it went. There was no messy Senate hearing. No Senate floor vote was ever taken under Democratic or Republican Senate leadership on the Vaad appointment. And now he’s gone.

“That was a lesson,” said Aguilar. “These commissioners can actually serve without being confirmed.”

That’s not going to happen this year, said Grantham.

“The appointments haven’t been read across the desk yet, but they will be,” he said. “We’re just now getting into the nitty-gritty this session. The two of them will get a grilling.”

He added that he believed the appointees were “clearly qualified.”

“The governor wants to make sure his appointments get confirmed,” he said. “He wouldn’t pick people that would have us all up in arms. That would be bad for us and bad for him and bad for the appointees.”

Hickenlooper’s office played down concerns.

“Both nominations have been made and sent to the Senate for confirmation,” the office wrote in response to questions. “The governor evaluated many candidates for the PUC. His nomination of Moser and Ackerman is indicative of their strong professional experience, subject matter expertise, and extensive knowledge of telecommunications and utilities, as well as their knowledge of the PUC’s responsibility to ratepayers.”

Bread Bar owner Steve Fenberg, the newly elected Democratic senator representing Boulder's Senate District 18 seat, says he plans to work at least one day a week at the bar in Silver Plume during the legislative session. I think it’ll keep me sane,” he added with a smile. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
Newly-elected state Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, at a bar he co-owns in Silverplume. Fenberg says he thinks both Gov. Hickenlooper’s PUC appointments represent a “healthy mix of interests.” (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, has watched the PUC closely in recent years as it plays referee between Xcel Energy and Boulder, which is working to create its own clean-energy powered municipal utility.

“I think they’re both really good choices, very thoughtful. They understand the PUC and they understand the issues they’ll be considering,” Fenberg said. “I think there’s a healthy mix of interests and expertise among the members.”

Fenberg said it’s “not an inherently bad thing” that commissioners come from industry and have experience advocating for certain interests.

“The PUC is a complicated body. Most members of the public aren’t familiar with it and don’t know how it works,” he said. “It’s important to know how it works. For me, the most important thing is that they are smart people who know what they’re doing, and that they’re fair and follow the rules and processes.”

Aguilar said that, at this point, she thinks the confirmation process will be “fairly pro forma.”

“I think he’d only bring nominees he’s fairly sure will be confirmed.”

Which is not to say the confirmation requirement doesn’t work to watchdog appointments, she explained.

“There have been times when the governor has been told ‘Hey, this would be a difficult confirmation hearing,’ and then he appoints someone else. So, like so many things at the Capitol, the requirement for the confirmation does have an impact, even if perhaps not as publicly as it could have. In the case of clear conflict, the governor might withdraw the appointee’s name.”

The confirmation will likely begin with a vote in the Senate’s Business, Labor, and Technology Committee. Democratic committee members include Sens. Angela Williams and Andy Kerr, both of whom have made telecommunications issues a specialty and generally have non-adversarial relationships with industry.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.