The decision whether to reapprove permits for the Keystone XL pipeline across South Dakota soon will lie with three state utility regulators.
Unlike most states, South Dakota utility regulators are elected officials. That means they receive campaign contributions, opening up potential conflicts of interest.
So have any of South Dakota’s utility commissioners accepted campaign cash that might have swayed their opinion on the pipeline?
The short answer is no.
FollowTheMoney.org, a site that tracks state-level election spending, earlier this summer reported that in the 14 states with elected utility regulators, candidates have accepted more than $51 million in campaign contributions, often from industries they regulate.
In Texas, for example, the oil and gas industry has heaped at least $20 million on utility commission candidates who make decisions on whether to approve pipelines and other projects.
In South Dakota, though, contributions to Public Utility Commission candidates are a relative trickle, with hardly any coming from the oil and gas industry.
An Argus Leader review of PUC campaign contributions identified only one Keystone connection. Brett Koenecke, a lobbyist whose clients include TransCanada, gave $250, $500, and $1,000, respectively, to the campaigns of commissioners Kristie Fiegen, Gary Hanson and Chris Nelson.
Koenecke declined to comment.
Nelson, who chairs the PUC, said anyone who follows the commission knows the officials base decisions on facts, not campaign contributions.
“Everything that we do is done openly and publicly. People can see how we vote and can listen to us as we deliberate,” said Nelson, who was elected to a six-year term in 2012.
One of the larger donors to South Dakota PUC candidates is the South Dakota Telecommunications Association, which represents 19 companies that provide services across 75 percent of the state.
“What we really look for is a candidate who can make good, strong policy decisions that are good for the people of South Dakota,” said Greg Dean, the association’s director of industry relations.
The association typically gives $20,000 to candidates in each election cycle, including PUC candidates. It has given $21,000 to PUC candidates in the past 15 years.
Calder Burgam, a researcher for the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said elected utility regulators are relatively rare.
“They’re interesting case studies because they’re generally focused on one industry,” Burgam said.
South Dakota PUC candidates have accepted $1.8 million in campaign contributions since 2000, with 20 percent coming from donations of less than $100.
“South Dakota was one of the lower amounts (contributed) of all of the states,” Burgam said.
In their most recent campaigns, Nelson accepted $178,000 in contributions, Fiegen took in $192,000, and Hanson accepted $67,000.
That hasn’t kept it from coming up as an issue from time to time.
In 2012, Matt McGovern refused to take money from lobbyists or industries the commission oversees when he tried to unseat Fiegen. He was able to outraise the incumbent by $47,800.
The commission “acts like a judge in a court hearing, and judges aren’t allowed to take contributions from the lawyers in a lawsuit,” McGovern said.
McGovern said he thinks South Dakota should continue to elect utility commissioners but that campaign contributions should be capped.
“I just think the elected commissioners are more accountable to the people that they represent,” he said. “It would be better if there was a restriction on contributions that could be accepted by the commission from the industries.”
Nelson said being elected rather than appointed allows commissioners to maintain independence in their decision-making.
“In South Dakota, we have a pretty rich history of keeping public officials accountable, and one of the ways to do that is holding periodical elections,” he said.