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Watchdog says backers of controversial power line gave hundreds of thousands to lawmakers

Watchdog says backers of controversial power line gave hundreds of thousands to lawmakers


Executives of two utilities seeking to build a controversial power line through southwest Wisconsin have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to state political campaigns over the past eight years, according to a campaign finance watchdog.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported Tuesday that employees of American Transmission Co. and Dairyland Power Cooperative donated more than $338,000 between 2010 and 2017.

Among the largest beneficiaries were former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican Senate and Assembly committees, which received a total of $168,000. The next two largest beneficiaries were committees to elect Democrats to the Senate and Assembly, which got just under $63,000.

“They’re playing on both sides,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the group. “They’re covering their bases.”

The Democracy Campaign did not break down the total contributions by party.

The largest individual donors from ATC included: president Mike Rowe, of Pewaukee, $18,050; executive vice president Randall Satterfield, of Fitchburg, $16,700; and vice president Michael Hofbauer, of Waukesha, $15,050.

Dairyland’s largest contributors were: vice president Brian Rude, of Coon Valley, $6,825, and former president Bill Berg, $5,600.

ATC and Dairyland, along with ITC Midwest, want to build a high-voltage transmission line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek between Dubuque, Iowa, and Middleton. The project has an estimated price tag of more than $500 million, of which Wisconsin ratepayers would pay up to $72 million, and has generated widespread and vocal opposition across southern Wisconsin.

Dairyland is also looking to build a jointly owned $700 million natural gas plant in Superior. The La Crosse-based cooperative submitted an application to the state Public Service Commission Tuesday for the 625-megawatt Nemadji Trail Energy Center, which would be jointly owned and operated by Minnesota Power.

Decisions about whether to construct the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line and where to place it will be made this year by the PSC.

Two PSC members, chairwoman Ellen Nowak and commissioner Mike Huebsch, were appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Rebecca Valcq, selected last month to serve on the commission by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, is expected to take over as commission chairwoman in March.

ATC corporate communications director Anne Spaltholz said: “Like at many other companies, ATC employees at all levels of the company have chosen to be active in the political process and donate to both the Republican and Democratic candidates of their choosing over the past several years.”

Dairyland spokeswoman Katie Thomson said employees contribute to candidates of their choosing.

“It is an individual decision, as it is with all citizens,” she said.

Rothschild said the point of releasing the numbers was to highlight efforts by proponents of a controversial project to exert political influence.

“We’re not drawing a direct causal equation,” he said.

Since 2010, the commission has authorized four transmission projects with costs in excess of $100 million each, three of which were headed by ATC. Dairyland was a partner in two of the projects.

The largest was the $580 million Badger Coulee line between La Crosse and Madison, which is owned by ATC and Dairyland and was completed last year.

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