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Nuclear Concerns Enter Senate Confirmation Debate

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DES MOINES, Iowa - The Iowa Senate's confirmation debate is going nuclear.

Nuclear power opponents are worried Gov. Terry Branstad is "stacking" the three-member Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) with pro-nuclear members that eventually may be called into an oversight role if Mid-American Energy's now-stalled plan to build a nuclear plant in Iowa makes it to the regulatory panel in the future.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the pro-nuclear bent to the Iowa Utilities Board is a legitimate concern and it is causing problems for former Marion GOP Rep. Nick Wagner's IUB appointment in the Iowa Senate. Senators likely will take up the confirmations of Branstad nominees to state boards and commissions next week.

Another Marion resident and former state lawmaker, Swati Dandekar, already was confirmed as a Branstad appointee to the utilities panel in March 2012. She took the lead in the Iowa Senate as part of an ill-fated effort during the 2011 legislative session to create a regulatory framework for a small-scale nuclear energy project by MidAmerican Energy.

Hogg said Dandekar at least was receptive to Senate modifications to a House-passed bill that sought to protect MidAmerican customers in a proposed financing arrangement that initially would have placed the costs on ratepayers -- even if plant was never built -- rather than investors. In Wagner's case, however, Hogg said, the former GOP representative voted for "the raw, unadulterated giveaway bill" in the Iowa House.

"The concern about Rep. Wagner is that if he wants to be on the utilities board some day, what does the fact that he voted for this basic giveaway to the utility at the expense of the ratepayers say about his inclination to protect consumers?" Hogg said Friday. "If he just rubber stamped a legislative proposal that totally favored the utility at the expense of ratepayers, what does that say about what he would do on the board?"

Wagner, 39, is an electrical engineer who has worked on energy and utility projects at The ESCO Group for the past 12 years. He said his week that he is qualified and will "continue to fight" for his nomination and Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said Friday the governor does plan to withdraw the names of any of his nominees seeking to be confirmed by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the 50-member Iowa Senate.

"We expect the Senate Democrats to drop the Washington, D.C.-style hyper-partisanship and to confirm the governor's nominees," Albrecht said Friday. "As it stands right now, everyone is still a Branstad nominee and the governor and this administration expect them to be confirmed."

Two other Branstad nominations to the state Board of Regents current board president Craig Lang of Brooklyn and construction executive Robert Cramer of Grimes face uphill fights landing the 34 votes needed for confirmation in a chamber that has 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans.

To date, Albrecht said, Senate Democrats have been "unable or unwilling" to articulate one reason why Wagner is not qualified to serve on the utilities board and he dismissed the charge of stacking the IUB with nuclear proponents as "engaging in their own hypotheticals."

However, Hogg said Wagner has no legal or economic expertise in the area of utility regulation, and Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, expressed concern over having two members from the same community on a regulatory board that is asked to address issues that are regional in nature and decide territorial disputes between utilities. The Iowa Utilities Board has broad responsibility for rates and services of electric, natural gas, and water utilities, the services of communications utilities, and generally supervises all pipelines and the transmission, sale, and distribution of electrical current.

Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said he had not heard any concerns about Wagner or IUB issues related to nuclear energy. He said no problems have raised by Republican senators about Wagner's nomination.

Dix said he was not sure how the Senate confirmation votes would play out. Senators must approve, reject or defer the governor's nominations by April 15.

"From my perspective, they're all good people, they're qualified for their jobs, and it should be the prerogative of the governor to appoint his people. That's my view," Dix said. "There's no reason that it has to turn into a big partisan event in my view. There's still time, people are talking and so hopefully we can find a way to bring resolution to these matters."

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