Bills Would Make It Easier to Privatize Public Water Utilities

January 27, 2016

Two bills are moving through the legislature that would make it harder for Wisconsin residents to have a say about whether their publicly owned drinking water supplies should be controlled by private corporations.

The measures, Assembly Bill 554 and Senate Bill 432, change the process for selling or leasing municipal water and sewer utilities. AB554 has been approved by the Assembly and sent to the Senate, and SB432 has received a committee hearing. The Republican-controlled legislature, which hopes to wrap up its work for the current session by March, seems likely to act on at least one of the bills before it adjourns.

Under current law, a municipality that wants to sell or lease its water utility must pass an ordinance that authorizes the sale, and then get the proposal approved by state Public Service Commission (PSC), which also sets the terms and price of the sale. The final proposal with terms and sale must then be approved by local voters in a referendum.

Under AB554, adoption of an ordinance for the sale would still be required, but a referendum would only be held if a petition with signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the votes cast in the municipality in the last governor’s election is submitted within 60 days of the ordinance’s adoption. If there is no referendum, or the referendum is approved, the PSC would then be required to give final approval and set the terms and price of the sale.

Among the bills’ backers are the construction industry; AquaAmerica, a private water and wastewater treatment utility that serves three million people in eight states; and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which represents nearly 600 of the state’s cities and villages.

The bills are opposed by numerous environmental groups, like the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, a handful of municipal utility groups, and AFSCME.

The League of Conservation Voters and AFSCME contributed about $95,000 between January 2010 and June 2015 mostly to Democratic candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

Construction interests, which support the bills, contributed nearly $8.1 million between January 2010 and June 2015 mostly to Republican candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

AquaAmerica employees did not make campaign contributions, but the company spent $36,500 on lobbying in 2015 when the bills were being developed.

The eight sponsors of the bills received just over $53,000 in construction industry contributions between January 2010 and June 2015. The sponsors and their construction industry contributions were:

Republican Sen. Frank Lasee, of De Pere, $17,957

Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, of New Berlin, $8,758

Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch, of Oconomowoc, $8,075

Republican Rep. Dave Murphy, of Greenville, $5,112

Republican Rep. Dan Knodl, of Germantown, $4,610

Republican Re. Tyler August, of Lake Geneva, $3,685

Republican Rep. Ken Skowronski, of Franklin, $3,675

Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick, of Milwaukee, $1,299