• WisBusiness

Marion: Former judge and PSC official now working to ease foreclosure mess
6/19/2009

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

For roughly 10 years, Wisconsin was on a utility building binge.

Now, the push is for renewable and conservation efforts.

With that comes a different debate and a different set of standards, says former state Public Service Commission general counsel and administrative law judge Edward Marion.

“And I have confidence in the PSC,” he adds. “It has a very open process so that anyone who wants to get involved can do so. And the more people we have at the table, the better.”

Marion, who finished a decade of PSC work in December, also has served as chief of staff for former Gov. Tommy Thompson. He has his own firm now, concentrating on energy, telecommunications and other state-regulated industries. In addition, the well-traveled Marion has been a Dane County judge, works as an adjunct law professor at UW-Madison and helps run a new mediation program dealing with foreclosures in Iowa County.

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Marion lauds Iowa County Judge (and former Madison mayor) Bill Dyke for instituting a mediation program in his county.

“Judge Dyke is the first and I believe the only Wisconsin judge who has instituted a mandatory form of foreclosure mediation program that requires people who are faced with foreclosure and lenders to sit down with an attorney mediator and try to mediate a resolution,” he says.  

Marion, who's helping with the effort, says the first foreclosure mediations started in June. He notes Milwaukee and Dane County judges are considering similar programs.  

“Lenders and borrowers find a lot of frustration alike in the foreclosure process which can be incredibly complicated,” he says. “Getting the right people around a table to talk about refinancing, loan forgiveness or various other things to help a family stay in their home is a very important thing to do.  

“What Judge Dyke has recognized is that the buck stops in court and that is the place where you can slow this process down.  

“Not to eliminate it, but to make sure that this is fairly brought and litigated. If a lender can’t go to trial, they will not foreclose on a mortgage.  And if they sit down and spend a few hours with a homeowner…hopefully they will be able to settle.”

On the energy front, Marion recounts the change in emphasis.

“Our energy situation is not unlike other states, though we are better situated than some,” Marion says. “Since starting in 1998, we’ve done a lot to address the base load needs of Wisconsin.''  

Not all of those power plants were popular, he says.  

“But we did it in order in order to ensure that reserve margins were high enough so that Wisconsin utilities could meet peak loads with adequate electricity,” he adds.  

During that same decade, the American Transmission Co. was created by the Legislature. It has put up transmission towers moving electricity from new plants in Wisconsin and bringing in power from outside the state.  

“But what the commission… has been doing in the past few years with great enthusiasm is develop renewable sources of energy,” Marion says.  

With renewable portfolio standards coming into play in Wisconsin and throughout the country, Marion says there's great interest among regulators and utilities to develop wind, biomass resources and other renewable resources.  

“I think it is fair to say the administration (of Gov. Jim Doyle) and regulators alike are loathe to continue to build coal-fired electric power plants,” he says, noting the PSC earlier this year denied Alliant Energy authorization to build a new coal plant at Cassville on the Mississippi River.  

The plant was opposed strongly opposed by many environmental and consumer groups.

Coal is abundant and relatively inexpensive, but Marion admits it has major environmental consequences, “which everyone wishes to avoid.”

Marion praises Alliant for attempting to combine biomass with its proposed coal plant at Cassville.

“It would have been innovative,” he says, suggesting the timing for the plant was bad. “And I know (its denial) was a great disappointment to farmers and others in the area. But the PSC has to balance economic and reliability concerns with the environment.”

With coal plants apparently off the table, Marion says many businesses and other consumers are worried about rising electric rates.

“People are working hard in the public and private sectors to lower the price of renewable resources to make sure they are cost effective,” he says.  

“But I don’t think government is waiting until prices go down. Instead, it is creating incentives to use those fuels. And the hope and expectation is that those prices will come down.”  

Marion says the commission is working to develop rates that can help major manufacturers stay in business.

“I think the PSC is aware of the… need for retention of companies and the development of new ones,” he says. “Businesses have their concerns about rate structures and rate levels. I believe that is important to the commissioners. It’s often a difficult balancing act.''  

Marion says with the proposed legislation stemming from the Governor’s Climate Change Task Force due out this fall, new programs are coming.  

“I think there is kind of a carrot-and-stick approach to the use of renewables,” he says.  

“It is clear the government has to encourage… with soft power and harder power the development of markets for renewable energy and see that more and more of it is used.”

Marion says the renewable portfolio standard Doyle has advocated is more aggressive than in many other states. Doyle can do this because “Wisconsin is blessed with biofuels and the potential for both agricultural and other renewable fuels,” he says.  

And while the wind situation in Wisconsin is better than in many other states, he says regulators will have to figure out how to deal with the legitimate concerns of wind turbine neighbors, who worry about sound, wind flicker and other problems.  

"Having said that… there are great opportunities,” he says.  

“And I have confidence in the PSC,” he adds. “It has a very open process so that anyone who wants to get involved can do so. And the more people we have at the table, the better.”

Though development of additional nuclear power plants has been discussed in recent months, Marion doesn't believe any new nuclear plants will be constructed in Wisconsin anytime soon.  

“Certainly commissioners and other people in powerful positions have speculated that we along with other states should seriously consider lifting the moratorium on nuclear facilities and think about developing nuclear as a fuel source,” he says.  

“I suspect that the dialogue will increase both here and nationally.  But I don’t think it’s at a point where anyone is anticipating it in the near future.”


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