Wisconsin Republicans fire state utility regulator, latest in string of Evers appointees to lose job

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin state Senate voted Tuesday to fire a state utility regulator because he supports setting energy rates according to customers’ ability to pay.

The Senate voted 21-11 to reject Public Service Commissioner Tyler Huebner’s confirmation. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers appointed Huebner to the commission in March 2020 and reappointed him in March 2021. Huebner previously served as executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that advocates for renewable energy.

Huebner is the latest in a line of gubernatorial appointees the Senate has fired over the last five years as Republican lawmakers chafe under the Evers administration. Democratic Sen. Brad Pfaff — who served as Evers’ agriculture secretary until the Senate fired him in 2019 — argued before the vote that Huebner is one of the brightest minds in renewable energy and accused Republicans of trying to cripple state government.

Voting to reject Huebner’s confirmation “is not something you should be doing so you can be bragging about it to your base,” Pfaff said. “It sends a signal it doesn’t matter what your background is. It doesn’t matter your qualifications, your hard work … what matters is the political party and who appointed you.”

Republican Sen. Julian Bradley, a member of the Senate’s utilities committee, countered that the vote wasn’t political, pointing out that the Senate has confirmed scores of Evers appointees since the governor took office. The Senate voted 27-5 on Tuesday to confirm Commissioner Summer Strand, whom Evers appointed in March 2023, after firing Huebner.

Bradley said on the Senate floor that Huebner supports setting energy rates based on a customer’s ability to pay rather than usage, a concept known as income-based rates, Bradley said. State law doesn’t allow the PSC to take that approach, Bradley said, but Huebner insists it does. He’s using his position on the commission to be an activist, Bradley said.

Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, another member of the Senate utilities committee, said in a statement after the vote that Republicans also were upset that the PSC in 2021 ordered utilities to provide workplace diversity data in annual reports without any authority to do so. Wanggaard added that he met with Huebner several times and found him to be evasive.

Huebner didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment The Associated Press made through his executive assistant, Katlin Schwartz.

The governor appointed Kristy Nieto, administrator of the PSC’s Division of Energy Regulation and Analysis, to replace Huebner immediately after the votes. He issued a statement ripping Republicans for ousting Huebner, saying it “defies justification and logic.”

“These are qualified, hard-working Wisconsinites we’re talking about,” Evers said. “They should be celebrated for service and experience, not bullied, vilified, and fired simply for doing their jobs.”

Tuesday’s votes mean Evers will have to find two new appointees to the three-person commission. Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq announced earlier this month that she plans to leave the agency in early February. Evers appointed her in 2019.

Senate Republicans have voted to reject multiple appointees’ confirmation since 2019. The string began when they refused to confirm Pfaff. Evers branded Republicans “bastards,” among other profanities, following the vote.

Last September they voted to reject Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, but Attorney General Josh Kaul won a court ruling nullifying the rejection vote after arguing Wolfe’s appointment wasn’t properly before the Senate.

In October the Republicans rejected eight more Evers appointees, including Joseph Czarnezki, a Democratic member of the elections commission who abstained from voting on whether the commission should reappoint Wolfe. The move resulted in a deadlock that prevented Wolfe’s reappointment from legally reaching the Senate, angering Republican who have vowed to oust Wolfe.

Also among the eight appointees who lost their jobs were four Evers appointees to the state Department of Natural Resources Board. They angered Republicans on the Senate’s sporting heritage committee after hedging on whether the agency’s new wolf management plan should include a hard population cap.