Power Play

"IT WAS A minor victory," Sen. John Marty says of Todd Rapp's decision last week not to attend a legislative junket to California to study electric-power deregulation. Rapp recently left his post as aide to House Speaker Phil Carruthers, and talk around the Capitol is that he may soon become a Northern States Power lobbyist, say Marty (DFL-Roseville) and Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul).

In a recent letter, Hausman and Marty challenged Rapp to either pledge not to accept a position as an employee or lobbyist for NSP for five years, or to cancel his plans to accompany lawmakers on the trip. They noted that Rapp had withdrawn his request to use public funding to travel. But Hausman says if she hadn't raised possible "revolving door" issues when Rapp asked the Legislature for travel funds, he would have made the trip at public expense. And even if Rapp had gone on his own dollar, Hausman says that if he goes to work at NSP after he leaves the statehouse, his attendance at the meeting would have meant "NSP was getting the privilege of attending a private meeting" with policymakers. Lawmakers' travel expenses are being financed by the state.

Rapp, a longtime fixture around the Capitol, says he is being used as an example based on where he might go to work. His critics are quick to agree. "Todd is one of the most qualified people I can think of," says Diane Jensen of Clean Water Action. He's exactly the kind of well-connected and talented veteran of the Legislature NSP tends to pursue as a potential lobbyist, she notes. And should NSP hire Rapp and send him back into the halls of the Capitol as a lobbyist, his move could prove pricey for Minnesota residents. Right now, stakes are high at the Legislature for NSP and other utilities involved in the debate over deregulation of Minnesota's electric-power industry, Hausman says.

Depending on the outcome of that debate, NSP may stand to reap windfall profits from Minnesotans while winning the right to sell power to markets as far away as Chicago. If NSP can move into areas where power currently costs more, it will be able to undercut its competition. Meanwhile, as the new customers increase demand, it's likely that Minnesotans will pay more even while suffering the pollution generated if NSP has to fall back on its coal plants to supply new customers.

Also at stake is the increase in competition that's touted as deregulation's main benefit to consumers, Jensen warns. If the laws aren't written carefully, she says an out-of-state company can "cherry-pick" the best customers in a market--typically the major customers, such as an industry or corporation. The local energy company loses an anchor for its business and private customers start paying higher rates, which in turn may make them jump ship and sign up for the cheaper out-of-state service. "The net effect is fewer utilities, fewer jobs, and less service," Jensen says.

Jensen, Marty, and Hausman agree that it isn't just NSP that's taking advantage of a revolving door that plucks legislative aides and administrators out of public service and into the employ of private companies with their own law-making agendas. There's Jim Wafler, a former assistant to Dee Long (DFL-Minneapolis), who left to become a lobbyist for the highway industry. Sen. Mark Ourada (R-Buffalo) lists an interest in a bituminous company on his résumé, yet sits on the House Transportation Committee. And then there's Jill Sletton, a former aide to Sen. Steven Novak (DFL-New Brighton), chair of the Jobs, Energy, and Community Development Committee. She started lobbying for NSP as one of her first contracts after leaving the Legislature.

"No, it's not just NSP and it's not just Todd Rapp," says Marty, adding that if Rapp goes to NSP it will be "a particularly egregious example" of what he and Hausman call "a record of undue influence" on the part of NSP, which includes a legislative censure against the company last year for questionable communications between its lobbyists and state utility officials at a yacht-club luncheon. "I'd far rather he committed not to lobby than cancel the trip. That doesn't solve the long-term problem."

A long-term problem which, in a nutshell, means more access to lawmakers' ears for NSP and other special interests and less for the public. And in the long run, Jensen fears, that means that "companies that can afford it stand an inordinate chance of prevailing in any discussion."

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