Touting A 'Looming Energy Shortfall,' Utility-Connected Nonprofit Spent $7.4 Million Last Year

Group With Ties To Electric Utilities Increased Its Spending Seven-Fold In 2015

By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network

LANSING — Without having to disclose its donors, a nonprofit organization that’s tried to influence state lawmakers’ debate over energy policy spent $7.4 million in 2015, according to its newest tax filing.

Much of that money went to pay for TV ads and mailers that declared Michigan is facing an “energy shortage” and that urged viewers to ask their lawmakers to do something about it.

The new tax filing says that Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, spent $6.7 million on media buys and $360,718 on mailings last year. Because it’s a nonprofit, the organization doesn’t have to disclose its donors but it has obvious connections to the state’s dominant electric utilities.

The nonprofit’s treasurer is Daniel Mahoney, a manager at DTE Energy. And in 2015, a Consumers Energy spokesperson told MLive that Consumers had used shareholder dollars to support Citizens for Michigan Energy’s Future.

The spokesperson noted that Consumers doesn’t use “ratepayer dollars for this activity.”

As the debate over energy laws heated up in Lansing in 2015, Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future’s funding ballooned.

In 2012, the year the organization incorporated in Michigan, it raised $982,000. In 2013, it raised $0. And in 2014, the nonprofit raised $1.0 million. However, as committees in the House and the Senate considered energy bills in 2015, that revenue total grew to $7.4 million.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokesperson for the organization, acknowledged that the increased spending was connected to the energy debate in the Legislature.

“It was important to us to make sure that the residents of Michigan understood it was time for the Michigan Legislature to act on energy policy,” she said.

Rossman-McKinney also re-stated that the group doesn’t release the names of its donors. But, she added, “I don’t think it’s any secret” that the state’s “hometown utilities” are dedicated to ensuring that residents know what’s at risk when it comes to the future of energy policy in the state.

The organization’s tax filing says it “conducted research and developed an educational plan and materials and presented these findings to the general public in regards to energy policy.”

On its filing, Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future disclosed contractors that made over $100,000 for 2015. Among them was Joe Slade White & Company, a New York-based media consulting firm. The nonprofit paid the firm $6.7 million for consulting work and media buys.

Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future ran a variety of TV ads in 2015 on both broadcast and cable stations. Earlier this year, MCFN tracked about $2.5 million from the group in broadcast ads in 2015.

One of the ads was entitled “Urgent.” It said that nine power plants in Michigan would soon be shut down.

“If we don’t act Washington, D.C, will decide what happens next, and Michigan will be dependent on outsiders,” the ad continued. “Shouldn’t we decide? Our Legislature must fix our looming energy shortage and pass a plan that puts Michigan first … call your legislator today.”

Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future also paid Arena Communications $360,718 for “mailing communications” (an example of one of the mail pieces is seen above) and Mouthpiece Communications $260,600 for “phone communications.”

One of the mailers promoted a bill proposed by House Energy Chair Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) that was favorable to the state’s incumbent electric utilities.

“Michigan finally has an answer to our looming energy shortfall,” the mailer said.

The mailer included a postcard in favor of the bill that constituents could tear off and send to their representatives.

That Nesbitt bill is currently stalled in the Michigan House. Another proposal from Senate Energy Chair Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) is awaiting action in the Michigan Senate.

The efforts of Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future are just one way interest groups have tried to sway the energy debate in Lansing. Groups have bought lawmakers meals, have made campaign contributions, have placed billboards outside the Capitol and have hired lobbyists. An analysis by MCFN earlier this year found that more than 100 lobbyists had worked on the energy policy proposals.

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