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Board delays money for U. Iowa climate research

Board delays money for U. Iowa climate research

IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa regulators disclosed Tuesday they are withholding legally-mandated funding for a second state energy research center — one that studies climate change — even though critics say they have no authority to do so. The Associated Press reported Monday that the Iowa Utilities Board, under new chairwoman Geri Huser, was withholding $4.4 million from the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University. On Tuesday, the board told AP it’s sitting on $772,000 earmarked for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, which awards grants to researchers studying global warming’s local and regional impact. The board has collected the money from utilities but delayed the transfer, which typically happens by mid-September.

Both centers say they haven’t received any formal explanation for the delay, which is a first in their 25-year histories. Instead, they received letters Monday from Huser asking their directors to give presentations to the utilities board Dec. 15 about their activities. The letters asked for an analysis of all grant awards over the last five years, the results achieved and copies of program and financial audits.

The centers are admin-istered by the universities and receive guidance from advisory councils that include government, public and utilities representatives. The Board of Regents, not the utilities board, governs them.

“We never intended for IUB to do anything more than pass the money on. I think she’s way out of line,” said David Osterberg, who helped write the law creating the centers in 1990 as a Democratic lawmaker. “Why is she doing this and who is she doing this for? She’s brand new on the IUB. This has to be very political.”

Osterberg, a member of the UI center’s advisory council, added, “It’s not misreading the law. It’s just not reading the law.”

Utilities board spokesman Don Tormey noted that the law doesn’t specify a timeline for the board to transfer the funds.

He said the “board understands both organizations have reserve funds” and is seeking to better inform the public and ratepayers about their programs.

“The board will disburse the funds when they are satisfied (the centers) have answered all the board’s questions,” Tormey said.

Lawmakers funded the centers with a 0.1 percent annual assessment on the operating revenues of investorowned electric and gas utilities. The board is to collect that money, and then transfer 85 percent for the ISU center and 15 percent to its UI counterpart.

Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll said its center — which promotes energy efficiency and renewable fuels — was happy to respond to questions from the utilities board and would make the presentation requested. But he said the school “isn’t aware of any statute or administrative rule” allowing funding to be withheld, and that the center wouldn’t be able to fund grant programs and would eventually cut staff if the funding delay continues. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointment of Huser in a recent board shakeup was seen by some as a move to appease powerful utilities it regulates, including Mid-American Energy. Huser denied that she had been lobbied by utilities to scrutinize the centers. Instead, she said she seeks financial audits on every board upon which she sits.

Her push for an audit of the ISU center received support Tuesday from MidAmerican.

“All she’s trying to do is make sure the money collected for the Iowa Energy Center is spent in a responsible way,” said Mike Fehr, the company’s vice president for regulation.

John Euchner, who represents rural electric cooperatives on the center’s advisory council, supported Huser’s push for an audit but said he now finds it strange that the funding delay wasn’t disclosed to the council.

“A lot of us are sitting back and saying, I’m not sure how this will play out,” he said. “Weird is probably a good word for it.”

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