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Volume 4, Issue 1
October 2011

MSU Institute of Public Utilities Facilitates Michigan Forum on Economic Regulatory Policy

Annual Michigan Forum on Economic Regulatory Policy engages policymakers and stakeholders in contemporary trends and issues

MSU's Institute of Public Utilities (IPU), founded in 1965, is one of the longest standing centers on MSU's campus. Its mission is to support informed, effective, and efficient regulation of public utilities. Dr. Janice Beecher, professor in MSU's College of Social Science and IPU director, believes that the Institute's academic affiliation is critical to its role in providing objective educational opportunities and applied research to the regulatory policy community.

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Since 2003, the IPU has offered the Michigan Forum on Economic Regulatory Policy, a one-day seminar for policymakers and stakeholders focusing on Michigan regulatory issues in telecommunications and energy within the changing national context. Beecher describes the Forum as a venue where Michigan regulators and stakeholders can meet, outside of more formal and quasi-judicial regulatory proceedings, and engage in a productive dialog about contemporary trends and issues.

Beecher began her career in regulation in 1983 and joined IPU as director in 2002. "The Institute has a very specialized, transdisciplinary focus on the economic regulation of public utilities and a very broad outreach to national and international regulators. However, we also have a very special working relationship with our home team here in the state, the Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC). The Forum is in many ways a gesture of recognition and thanks for their support."

The current commissioner of the Michigan PSC, Orjiakor Isiogu, has been interacting with the IPU in various capacities since 1989. "It has been both personally and professionally rewarding for me to work with IPU in general and particularly with Dr. Beecher," says Isiogu, and adds that the relationship between the PSC and the IPU has been "extremely beneficial" to the PSC.

Utilities and Public Well-Being

While public utilities are essential for human health and well-being, not everyone understands how they are regulated. "Utilities are generally organized as monopolies," explains Beecher. "Since they are not disciplined by competition, the state provides a substitute for the market and approves prices and profits. Regulators concern themselves with the prudence of investments and the reasonableness of rates, and seek a balance between the interests of utility investors and ratepayers that serves the public interest."

In recent years, she has observed an increasing connection between public utilities and Michigan's economic well-being, particularly with regard to changing demographics and pressure on costs. "Across the nation, utility infrastructure needs are significant," says Beecher. "This presents a challenge, but also an opportunity to invest wisely and modernize the infrastructure to improve efficiency and reduce adverse impacts on the environment. Shifts in Michigan's economic profile should factor into how we invest and position Michigan for the future."

Offering the Forum each year is one way the IPU is trying to help the state. The Forum typically has one or two presentations with a national focus, geared toward understanding how important economic and policy developments impact Michigan. These are followed by several Michigan-focused panels that highlight specific regulatory policy issues. According to Beecher, the agenda is shaped in part by the major drivers of regulatory policy, including federal and state legislation, as well as trends in the Michigan economy.

Forum Provides Objectivity for Regulators and Professionals

Commissioner Isiogu appreciates what the Forum has had to offer to fellow professionals in the regulatory field, and says, "One of the key benefits for regulators and other professionals who are attending the Forum is that they are presented with information with a great deal of objectivity, which enables them to be better regulators."

Over the years, Beecher has had very positive feedback about the Forum—for good reason. "The Forum provides a unique opportunity for collegial exchange in a field that understandably can be contentious, given big challenges and high stakes," she says. "It reminds us that regardless of different perspectives, we also have common interests in the health and prosperity of the state—it is where we all live and work. If we can share ideas and build some common understanding, that's a great accomplishment."

The next Forum will take place in January 2012 and will focus on the intersection of economic development and environmental policy. For more information about the Forum, as well as other programs offered by the Institute of Public Utilities, please visit their website.

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of Janice Beecher