Utilities-backed dark money group sparking energy debate in Michigan

The Michigan flag transposed over an outline of the state.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though partisan gridlock is the political buzzword of the day, it’s another kind of grid that’s making political sparks fly in Michigan. There, two powerful utility companies — Consumers Energy and DTE Energy — control the lion’s share of the electric grid and appear to be behind a new advocacy effort that coincides with the start of a new legislative session.

Publicly available television contracts — compiled by Political Ad Sleuth — show that a group called “Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future” (CMEF) has agreed to pay $120,000 for 444 ad spots on broadcast TV stations in that state since December of last year.

Organized as a “social welfare organization” under section 501(c)4 of the Internal Revenue Code, the nonprofit group is not required to publicly disclose its donors, as a political committee would.

According to the nonprofit’s recent ads and a recent report commissioned by the two companies, the Great Lakes State is teetering on the edge of a major energy crisis: The dual specter of aging power plants and new, stiffer EPA regulations will lead to the shut down of nine coal-powered plants run by the two utilities companies. The added strain on the grid will transfer more cost and uncertainty to individuals and businesses unless legislators act quickly to pass a “comprehensive Michigan First energy policy in 2015” ensuring more state control of the power grid and the construction of more “baseload” power plants.

Those utilities companies have battled renewable energy producers over proposed deregulation of the state’s energy market, which would remove state’s current cap on the amount of electricity generated by alternative energy sources.

The ad above and others like it, can be viewed on the group’s YouTube channel. A website for the organization offers some more details on how plant closures would affect average Michiganders (i.e. energy shortages, unexpected rate spikes). Efforts to find more information about the group’s sources of funding, were not as successful.

However, a glance at CMEF’s annual report — available on the Michigan Secretary of State’s website — shows DTE employee Daniel Mahoney, Democratic political strategist Howard Edelson and communications consultant Chris Dewitt direct the organization.

Publicly available TV ad contracts list Eric Doster, former counsel to the Michigan Republican Party as the “Director and Secretary.” Doster wrote the book on Michigan campaign finance law — literally — and also serves as registered agent for “Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy,” which ran similar ad campaigns in 2014.

And while its nonprofit arms try to rally public support for an energy overhaul, state political action committees associated with DTE Energy and CMS Energy — of which Consumers is a subsidiary — have been active players on the campaign trail, doling out thousands to friendly state legislators and party committees.

Recently one of the biggest recipients of utility largesse was state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who’s campaign committees received $7,000 and $2,000 from DTE and CMS respectively in the latest filing period. Nesbitt served as Chair of the Energy and Technology Committee in the Republican-controlled chamber, and won re-election in 2014.

Voice messages left for CMEF have not been returned. A contact email on the group’s website is not functioning. This post will be updated if we receive a reply.

You can see all the ad contracts publicly available on Michigan stations on Political Ad Sleuth.