Sponsored and written by Darrell Hanson Former Commissioner of the Iowa Utilities Board
After leaving the Iowa Utilities Board on April 30, I’ve had some time to reflect on the differences between the position of utility commissioner and most other public offices. Before joining the IUB I’d held a variety of policymaking and regulatory positions-state legislator, city council member, chair of two state commissions, and member of several boards and committees-but in many ways serving on the IUB was totally different from those other positions.
Elected officials such as legislators and city council members usually deal with a broad range of widely differing issues but rarely have time to master more than a handful of them. In contrast, utility commissioners focus on a relatively narrow range of subjects but have the opportunity to dive deeply into both details and overarching principles, eventually gaining a much richer understanding of the complexities and nuances of their field. In most states utility commissioners have full-time jobs with more time and resources for research and contemplation than any legislator could hope to have, and they experience much less public pressure and attention.
My biggest adjustment after joining the IUB was the restrictive decision making process that was radically different from anything I had previously experienced. In everything else I had ever done, private off-the-record conversations were not only permitted, they were essential to reaching agreements and being effective. Working things out behind the scenes was practically part of my DNA after 20 years as an elected official and serving on numerous boards, councils, and committees. Iowa law requires most public bodies to make final decisions in public and on the record, but private conversations are allowed as long as a quorum is not present and decisions aren’t finalized through a “rolling quorum.” This makes it much easier to explore ideas, work out compromises, and clear up misunderstandings before people are backed into a corner by publicly declaring their positions. As a IUB member, however, I had to adjust to a system for contested cases where we hold public hearings and study a docket for months before we finally walk into the decision meeting and surprise each other with our opinions. Unlike some states, Iowa commissioners are allowed to hold decision meetings in private as long as they make their final decisions in public, but up until that final meeting they have to avoid such discussions. I believe that utility commissions, at least in Iowa, would probably make even better decisions if they had more freedom to discuss issues and explore solutions among themselves in the weeks leading up to the final decision. Ironically, however, while a less open process might improve the quality of decisions in some dockets, the parties on the losing end would probably be less likely to be satisfied with the process or accept the outcome.
If any subject could be said to dominate the energy sector during my time on the IUB, it would be federal environmental regulations. Coincidentally, I had been the Chair of Iowa’s Environmental Protection Commission before being appointed to the IUB in 2007, and was already familiar with several utility-related regulatory issues and lawsuits that had been working their way through administrative and legal processes for several years (and in some cases several decades). It was fascinating to see how perspectives on such regulations differed so greatly between the separate worlds of utility commissioners and environmental protection officials. The opportunities for misunderstandings were huge, given some utility commissioners’ unfamiliarity with the history behind new environmental regulations and some environmental regulators’ unfamiliarity with the weird physics of electricity and the demands of maintaining reliability.
In recent years there has been much more sharing of information on environmental issues between state utility commissioners, federal and state environmental regulators, affected utility companies, environmental groups, and consumer advocates. And that illustrates another unusual aspect of serving as a state utility commissioner: The opportunities for educational enrichment are unsurpassed.
More than almost any other public officials, utility commissioners have opportunities to participate in valuable conferences and seminars across the country. This is probably due to the unusual way most utility commissions are funded, which tends to reduce the political stigma for out-of-state travel. I can’t begin to imagine how much harder it would be for new utility commissioners to become effective if they didn’t have so many opportunities to hear from experts in related fields and meet experienced peers from other states.
That is why the work of the Financial Research Institute is so valuable. The annual FRI Symposium provides a great opportunity for the various “tribes” in the utility regulatory arena to come together to share information and learn from each other. As a FRI Advisory Board member, I’ve found the periodic Hot Topic Hotlines very useful. A lot of groups put on conferences, but the FRI programs have been notable for two things: they are almost flawlessly organized by the FRI team, and they consistently deliver high-quality content thanks to collaborative planning by utility leaders, consumer advocates, and utility commissioners. It is hard for an old KU student like me to praise anything associated with the University of Missouri, but participating in the FRI is one of the things I’ll miss most about being a utility commissioner.