Minnesota's utility regulators hosted a record more than 600 people in downtown Minneapolis last week for an annual regional conference, but some of the sponsors helping to pay for the event are also at the whim of the regulators' rulings.

That financial relationship at the center of the Mid-America Regulatory Conference (MARC) has some energy advocacy groups feeling uneasy about what they worry is a conflict of interest. But the lead organizer of this year's event, Katie Sieben, the DFL chair of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), argued the gathering helps commissioners foster connection and make stronger decisions, not blur the lines between government and business.

This year, most of the sponsors for the conference that wrapped last week either have regular business before the PUC, participate in major cases or represent those that do. That includes: unions; trade groups for power developers; trade groups that represent electric and gas companies; prominent local environmental nonprofits; and several law firms that help businesses navigate the regulatory system.

"It creates an optics and public trust issue that could be particularly damaging to commissions that are doing their jobs in good faith and trying to invite diverse voices to the table as the Minnesota PUC has begun to do," said Karlee Weinmann, a Minnesota-based researcher for the national advocacy group Energy and Policy Institute that is broadly critical of influence from utilities and fossil fuel interests. "It gives the impression that access can be bought."

Sponsorships are commonplace for MARC and other utility regulator associations but still periodically draw criticism, including MARC's event last year in Michigan.

Sieben, however, said she deliberately worked to highlight voices from tribes, unions, diversity and equity advocates and consumer groups during the four-day Minneapolis conference, which MARC has put on since the 1950s. She said the conference broke no ethics rules and it is good for regulators to meet during an "increasingly complex" energy transition.

"Our access as regulators is not for sale," Sieben said. "I stand by the decisions that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission have made since I've been the chair of the commission, and the public interest is always what we're striving for, and I think that we have protected and will continue to protect [it]."

Big spenders

Top sponsors in Minneapolis were Google, regulatory consulting firm AESL and three unions: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Each chipped in at least $20,000, though there were sponsorships as low as $1,500. Signage on booths, TV displays, hotel key cards and flower arrangements promoted sponsors around the Renaissance Hotel.

MARC bans entities it directly regulates from sponsoring the event, including utility companies such as Xcel Energy or CenterPoint Energy in Minnesota since the PUC oversees their rates and business. Trade groups representing utility companies were sponsors, however, including Edison Electric Institute and the American Gas Association.

Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for LIUNA in Minnesota, said "MARC provided a unique opportunity to show other states what organized labor can contribute, and that's why you saw so many unions step forward. We're ready to be at the table and tired of being on the menu."

Beyond sponsors, MARC's other income comes from registration fees for the event, which top out at $775 for the general rate. Minnesota's biggest electric and gas utilities had several people sign up for the conference — registrations that would add up to thousands of dollars — as did environmental groups, energy developers and state officials.

MARC, made up of utility regulators in 14 states from Minnesota to Texas, rotates its annual conference among member states. The event is the nonprofit's moneymaker, bringing in a net profit of $92,480 last year and $103,350 in 2022.

That cash funds the conference itself, as well as other basics like audits and the salary of a part-time executive coordinator. It also pays for travel stipends — $500 this year — for commissioners to attend the conference.

MARC also covers travel, hotels and food for members who attend a commissioners-only meeting typically held in January in warm-weather states such as Texas or Oklahoma. In Houston this year, the stipend was up to $1,000. Sieben said MARC tends to prioritize cities with direct flights and less risk of disruptive winter storms. MARC also sometimes pays for commissioners to attend trainings on utility rates.

Coming together

The Minneapolis conference included substantive panels on energy topics such as electrifying transportation, data centers, the Inflation Reduction Act, building a workforce, equity and affordability. This year, panels featured regulators from the state and federal level, utility executives and industry leaders, including Xcel President Ryan Long, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Lower Sioux Indian Community President Robert Larsen.

MARC organized tours of big or notable energy facilities. And there was entertainment, including a walking tour of downtown Minneapolis, a Minnesota Twins game and a reception with food and drinks that LIUNA hosted and featured Sieben.

Weinmann, helping a consumer advocate group in a case about Xcel gas rates at the PUC, said it's helpful for regulators to be on the cutting edge of hard topics during a challenging transition away from fossil fuels. She also said Minnesota is better than other commissions in being more inclusive of underrepresented voices in debates about utility rates and power projects.

Larsen praised the PUC's steps to work with tribes during a keynote panel for the event. Sieben said it was good for other states to hear about how Minnesota incorporates tribal voices and other perspectives, such as an Xcel foreman who spoke on a panel about the benefits of the company's massive Becker solar project as the huge coal plant next door retires.

Pranis also said the the PUC is "increasingly recognized as a national leader in efforts to bring the priorities and voices of working families into regulatory decisions that have historically been dominated by energy companies and environmental advocates."

Still, John Farrell, a critic of the regulated monopoly system for power companies and co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said not everyone has the opportunity to be high-level financial sponsors for events like MARC. Weinmann said state legislators could approve more funding to cover events with utility regulators.

Donors are "getting decisions that are the basis for whether or not their business is successful or not, and here they are having a financial relationship with their regulators outside of that," Farrell said. "It's really bothersome."