You likely were never taught anything about Minnesota’s 6th governor, Horace Austin, when you were in school, but as consumers of electricity and other price regulated utilities he is definitely someone to learn about. Our lesson on Governor Austin is said best on his plaque next to his portrait at the State Capitol:
“A reputation for clearheaded objectivity and disdain for contentious party politics enhanced the appeal of Judge Horace Austin as a gubernatorial candidate in 1869. Minnesota’s sixth governor was determined to bring legislative power to bear against the railroad barons. His advocacy of strictly regulated passenger and freight rates and his opposition to the wholesale allocation of state lands to railroad development earned him a second term.”
He was a well-educated son of a prosperous Connecticut farmer who like many Yankee boys of his times could not resist the call to go west. He came to St. Peter Minnesota to practice law where he would distinguish himself during the Dakota War of 1862 as a volunteer in the Frontier Guards militia. After the war he served as a judge where his “clearheaded objectivity and disdain for contentious party politics” caught the attention of Republican leaders who were seeking a reformer to run for governor in the 1869 election.
He surprised the Legislature in his first term by vetoing a bill granting land to several railroads that was very advantageous to the railroad moguls. This act made him extremely popular with the public, and he won his reelection in 1871 by a landslide. Using that momentum, he helped make Minnesota one of the first states (along with Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin) to enact the first business regulatory rate commissions in American history. It was in the rulings resulting from the challenges to these state laws that the US Supreme Court first established the doctrine that industries “clothed with public interest” are subject to government controls.
Unfortunately, after Austin left office after his second term future legislatures quickly began to chip away at the powers of the state railroad commissioners. It wasn’t until after the progressive movements in the early 1900s that such regulatory commission became effective and would eventually evolve into what we know today as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The governing authority of the PUC is a five-member board of commissioners appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Presently the PUC regulates three key service industries – electricity, natural gas and telecommunications. Their statutory mission is to create and maintain a regulatory environment that ensures safe, reliable and efficient utility services at fair and reasonable rates. As consumers we benefit greatly from this regulatory structure that allows Americans to have the most secure, reliable and affordable utility services in the world, and this is in no small part thanks to Minnesota’s little-known 6th governor.
Because these commissioners play such an important role in our lives, Conservation Minnesota wants to applaud Governor Dayton for a selection this week of the newest PUC Commissioner Nancy Lange. She has over two decades of experience advancing clean energy policies and practices in Minnesota. Prior to appointment, she was Manager of Policy and Engagement at the Center for Energy and Environment’s Innovation Exchange.
What few people may know is that she demonstrated qualities very similar to Governor Austin as a coordinator of a broad coalition of conservation and consumer organizations that were advocating for the adoption of Minnesota’s national leading renewable energy standard (RES) passed in 2007. It was her “clearheaded objectivity and disdain for contentious party politics” that help our coalition stay on track and not lose sight of our mission. I can still recall her surprise while saying “really?” during our coalition meetings when those of us who are seasoned, inside-the-Capitol lobbyists explained the silly twists and turns we were taking as we struggled to the pass the RES. Fortunately through her role as coordinator of our coalition, she never let us take our eyes off of the important work of passing meaningful RES that had strong support amongst Minnesota consumers.
Because of her strong commitment to Minnesota consumers I’m pretty confident Governor Horace Austin would concur with his successor’s selection of Ms. Lange to this important regulatory position of PUC Commissioner. Her can-do spirit and clearheaded objectivity will be a great asset to the PUC and the ratepayers of Minnesota.
*Minnesota, A History of the State by, Theodore C. Blegen University of Minnesota Press, 2nd edition, page 292