As public frustration over DTE Energy’s long outages and high rates grows, the utility’s political action committee is mounting a defense in Lansing – it’s on pace to spend over 60% more on campaign contributions in the 2022 election cycle than either of the last two elections.
Meanwhile, the most recent records available for the company’s affiliated dark money non-profit and charitable giving foundation show their spending significantly increased in recent years, suggesting a longer-term political and public relations mobilization.
The results appear to have paid off, observers say: Legislation put forward this session that would advance policies DTE opposes – like encouraging renewables or increasing compensation for customers suffering outages has died, while investigations into DTE’s outages led to no legislative action, despite intense public pressure. There is a clear “alignment” between DTE’s increased spending and public outrage, said Karlee Weinmann, a researcher with utility industry analyst Energy and Policy Institute (EPI).
“DTE has exerted influence in the Michigan Legislature for a long time, so it’s not exactly surprising to see it double down and escalate that strategy given that customers are getting louder in their protest,” she said.
The DTE Energy Company PAC spent $813,000 through early October, an analysis of Michigan Secretary of State campaign finance records by Planet Detroit and EPI finds. That already exceeds totals of around $650,000 through the entirety of each of the 2018 and 2020 election cycles.
Meanwhile, spending by DTE’s affiliated dark money nonprofit and charitable foundation peaked in 2020 at $5.5 million and $34 million, respectively, doubling 2017 spending totals. The charitable level remained elevated in 2021, the last year for which records are available. Dark money totals for 2021 are not yet available.
The company gave cash to all but eight members of the legislature in the 2022 cycle, and the highest sums have gone to key legislative leaders like House Speaker Jason Wentworth and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The spending comes as the company has struggled to address issues with long outages stemming from systemic grid failures. Federal data shows DTE fares particularly poorly when compared with similar utilities around the country in the time it takes to restore power when there’s an outage.
The company’s rates jumped higher than all but one other investor-owned utility around the nation between 2015 and 2019, and have increased since, all while shutting off power to thousands of largely low-income Detroit customers. Meanwhile, DTE has pushed legislation that has impeded and devalued rooftop solar production and put limits on its generation at a time when demand is soaring.
In November, the Michigan Public Services Commission, the state regulatory agency that must approve DTE and other private utilities’ plans for rate requests, rejected DTE’s request for a $388 million rate increase, instead only granting a $30 million increase.
The stunning decision marked a seismic shift in how the state has regulated DTE in recent years and was viewed by many observers as a result of pressure on state officials from the public and consumer advocacy groups.
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, officials are considering a public takeover of DTE’s grid. These developments and the growing backlash have left DTE “panicking,” said Democratic House Floor Leader Yousef Rabbhi, who has authored several bills the utility has opposed.
“They’re on spending sprees because they want to control Lansing to keep their power,” he said. “If DTE can buy out the regulators who are supposed to hold them accountable, then they don’t have to worry about accountability.”
The commission comprises appointees from the governor and is partially limited by state law in what it can order DTE to do. Many changes that the public demands must come from the legislature, which is awash in utility industry money.
DTE defended its spending in a statement to Planet Detroit.
“We owe it to our customers and employees to support candidates for public office that help us meet our purpose of providing safe, reliable, affordable and clean energy for the 3 million plus residents and businesses we serve every day,” DTE spokesperson Peter Ternes said.
‘The driving force that’s killing many good environmental bills’
Throughout the current election cycle, which concludes at the year’s end, lawmakers who take DTE money have helped kill legislation and soft-pedaled investigations into the company’s failures.
In early 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation to eliminate a 1% cap on distributed energy, like rooftop solar. It marked the third attempt to raise the cap, approved by the legislature in 2016 at the utilities’ behest.
The legislators were optimistic because of a change in House GOP leadership at the start of this legislative session, but the chair of the House Energy Committee, GOP Rep. Joe Bellino, never allowed a vote on the bill.
Bellino received $7,500 from the DTE PAC and $11,000 from company executives during a fundraiser this election cycle. The PAC even paid for Bellino to play golf with professionals at an outing last year.
Bellino also killed a 2022 bill that would have significantly increased the amount that DTE has to compensate customers who lose power for more than 24 hours
“The reality is DTE is the driving force that is killing many good environmental bills that happen to conflict with their profit margin, and this bill falls into that category,” Rabhi said.
Bellino did not respond to a request for comment.
In the wake of widespread outages in August 2021, the Michigan Public Services Commission convened hearings to investigate. A week before DTE executive Trevor Lauer was to testify; the company held a fundraiser for Whitmer, whose appointees run the Commission. The fundraiser netted $43,000 for the governor. DTE told The Detroit News the event had been planned months in advance.
Meanwhile, 11 out of 16 members of the House Energy Committee, which held separate hearings to investigate the 2021 outages, received DTE campaign donations in the five-week period leading up to it. The legislature took no action, which was “problematic,” said Nick Dodge, communications director with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
“There needed to be a full investigation into reliability and why power outages happen every time the wind blows, and the hearings didn’t do the trick – DTE wasn’t held accountable,” Dodge said.
The company even spent heavily to support candidates during intra-caucus leadership elections for this legislative session. The utility industry, including DTE, spent $50,000 backing opponents of Rabhi, who lost his bid for the House Democratic Leader position, but secured Floor Leader spot, the number two position.
DTE has given $15,500 this cycle to Democratic minority House Democratic Leaders Rep. Donna Lasinski, who defeated Rabhi. That includes a $2,500 donation around the time of the MPSC and House investigations into the company’s outages.
DTE has also given $7,500 to Rep. Joe Tate, who Rabhi defeated in his bid for Floor Leader. Tate, in November 2022, won the House Speaker position for the next legislative session. Some view him as a DTE ally, and there is fear he will kill any meaningful utility reform Democrats put forward now that they control the legislature.
Whitmer has received nearly $100,000 from the company’s PAC and executives during this cycle, and the most recent records do not show a DTE PAC donation to her 2022 opponent, Tudor Dixon. However, the utility also gives to each state party. Just weeks before the November election, DTE’s PAC sent $20,000 to GOP House and Senate PACs and $10,000 to the Democratic counterparts.
Meanwhile, its executives gave $7,750 in October to the Transformational Leadership Fund, a Democratic Party-linked PAC that distributed funds to candidates. Executives have given $123,000 this election cycle, which is on pace to nearly match their 2018 spending.
“How can [legislators] truly govern and regulate these companies and write laws when they are taking contributions from them at the same time?” Dodge asked.
Dark money and charitable giving
The PAC spending doesn’t include millions in annual political spending by the DTE-tied dark money non-profit and charitable arm.
The DTE Energy Foundation reported spending $15 million in 2017 and $34 million in charitable giving in 2020, before giving out $25 million in 2021. The money is spread among nonprofits and charities across Michigan, and is seen as a way for DTE to shore up public support.
That support can also have a political end. At a June 2019 Michigan Public Services Commission hearing on a DTE energy delivery plan, Detroit pastor Diedric Tupper praised the company and urged the Commission to approve it. But he didn’t disclose that his church had received $30,000 from DTE. Similarly, six other community leaders who had collectively received about $500,000 from the company did the same.
The practice is effective, which is why DTE is likely increasing its spending on that front, Weinmann said, while also noting that utilities across the country use similar tactics. The strategy is even detailed in a ”tactical guide” developed by the Edison Electric Institute, a national utility industry trade group.
“Companies leverage charitable giving to enhance their reputations in the community, and beyond that to build and cultivate and influence with community members who have powerful and trusted voices,” Weinmann said.
DTE, in particular, has been “very active in recruiting community leaders to stand with it amid controversy and backlash,” Weinmann added. Recipients of DTE money have attacked the credibility of reporters who write critically about the utility and do so using industry talking points.
The company’s affiliated dark money nonprofit, Michigan Energy First, has also spread tens of thousands of dollars among area charities and engaged in direct political spending. The political spending peaked at about $5.5 million in 2020.
Like the DTE Energy PAC, Michigan Energy First gave to key legislative leaders and each of the parties, including a $30,000 donation to then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield’s Peninsula Fund, and $250,000 donation to another dark money nonprofit, Road To Michigan’s Future, that supported Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Michigan Energy First also gave $375,000 collectively to Democratic and Republican state party PACs. Though there’s some optimism that Democratic control of the state’s government will bring some change to DTE, the spending has left Rabhi skeptical.
“The forces of evil in Lansing and in our democracy, the big money corporate interests that influence our political and legislative processes – they haven’t gone away,” he said. “They’re going to be bolder and invest more money than ever to keep control.”