‘Carbon-copy’ resolutions may skew perception of opposition

While opposition to a proposed power line is a given and organized opposition is expected, the methods being employed by a group opposed to the proposed La Crosse-Madison transmission project may be making it too easy for municipalities to go on the record in opposition to the project, resulting in a distorted perspective of the level of opposition.

The Energy Planning Information Committee (EPIC) in the town of Stark, Wis., which has actively opposed a number of projects, including the recently approved CapX2020 line from Alma to La Crosse (Docket No. 05-CE-136), is actively soliciting the involvement of other local governments in opposing the La Crosse-Madison project (Docket No. 137-CE-160).

“More than 60 local governments have adopted resolutions asking our Public Service Commission to provide ratepayers with a clear picture of our energy options as we face these huge cost requests,” the group said in what its web site calls a “resolution and explanation booklet.” While the booklet refers to eight proposed power line projects, its primary focus is the La Crosse-Madison project.

That booklet provides step-by-step guidance for municipalities to pass resolutions in opposition to the project and contains a “fill-in-the-blank” resolution that includes spaces for the entity’s designation and name, and signature and date lines for the approving officials.

The booklet also contains a plea from the group’s co-chairs: “We hope your board will consider adopting the resolution at your next meeting.” Based on a review of PSCW filings by TransmissionHub, more than 30 villages, townships, towns, and cities have filled in the blanks and filed a resolution.

However, EPIC may have made it too easy for entities to get onboard.

“There is evidence that, when people are not thinking very deeply about things, they’re prone to what is called ‘acquiescence bias’; that is, they’re prone to give agreement,” Dr. Roger Tourangeau, co-author of “The Psychology of Survey Response,” told TransmissionHub Aug. 31.

Tourangeau, who co-authored the book with Lance Rips and Kenneth Rizinski, is vice-president of the research and statistical survey organization Westat.

“This is really like a ‘true/false’ kind of item. All they have to say is ‘true’ and you’re done,” he said. “This is not the right way to let protest naturally bubble up to the surface.”

The chair of one town that filed such a resolution told TransmissionHub recently that, in approving the resolution, the city simply “went along with the flow … of the townships around here” that were also opposing the project.

Speaking on background, he also noted that his town was actually far enough away from the proposed line that it would not be affected by the project.

The chair’s comments raise the question: How many of the municipalities that have signed the blank resolution feel strongly enough about the project that they would have gone to the effort of discussing and debating the matter, then drafting and submitting their own resolution to the PSCW, had not a turn-key package been provided for them?

As of this writing, 33 of the 51 municipalities on record used the form that was written and provided for them. If the number of entities that “went along with the flow” is more than a few, that could provide a distorted view of the intensity of the actual opposition.

The actual impact of these petitions depends in part on whether the form used to express opposition is important, or whether the simple fact that one is opposed to the project is sufficient for the PSCW.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of value in an approach like that. People will see it and tend to discount it,” a university professor who studies the psychology of survey responses told TransmissionHub.

The spokesperson for a nationally known political pollster compared it to “carbon copy” legislation, in which lawmakers are deluged with identical letters touting or opposing proposed new laws and tend to hold such submissions in lower regard than original letters.

The professor and the pollster spoke on background because, although similar, their research did not address this issue directly.

A spokesperson for the PSCW told TransmissionHub that commissioners are required to read the record, not just tally the “ayes” and “nays.” As such, the spokesperson said, the form-letter nature of those resolutions would likely be obvious to them. Whether that would cause them to minimize their importance would be a judgment each individual commissioner would make for themselves, the spokesperson said.