Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lingering Limburger Smell of Scared-Rat Politics

Rat has been sniffing around the halls of the Capitol and found more than a little Limburger. And in these days of tea parties and heightened rhetoric, there’s also the smell of fear in the air. This fall, the governor’s seat, all 99 Assembly seats and more than half the Senate seats are up for grabs. You can bet that played a big role in our elected representatives' lily-livered inaction this spring.

There’s nothing new to election-year politics, is there? Don’t the guys in office always try to rig the system to hang onto power? Sure.

But the question draws a rat’s nose to those currently in power, the Democrats. Rat would love to surface some conservation group newsletters (including that from my beloved River Alliance) from November 2008, no doubt expressing glee (in very careful non-partisan tones, of course) that the Dems were total lords of the Capitol, and we could expect big breakthroughs on conservation policy.

Conservation went a dismal 0 for 4 on its top priorities. (There were some things to cheer about: two new Wild Rivers named, phosphorus bans in the form of lawn fertilizer and dishwasher soap, e-waste legislation.)

What’s at the bottom of the Dems dropping the conservation ball? The messy knot of money and power, Rat thinks, and not just on conservation.

First, there’s the obvious currying favor with interests with money to burn on campaigns. That can be the only explanation for the Democrats’ shameful dithering on regulating payday loan operations. This should have been a no-brainer for a party supposedly committed to struggling people. But they milked the industry for tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations, not to mention throwing out any shred of integrity about the policy when Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (in effect, the Assembly Dems’ majority leader) was found with a payday industry lobbyist on his arm.

Then there’s the hideous process of letting AT&T write their own bill to deregulate land lines. Dems’ fingerprints are on that too. (Luckily the bill died.)

Sheridan’s Democratic counterpart in the state Senate, Russ Decker, deserves a few brickbats for holding up good legislation, out of fear of making his colleagues have to vote on it, for fear that it might lose the Dems a senate seat. His pettiness ended up holding up said good legislation for another reason: he was punishing some senators for voting for someone else for majority leader. (Turns out those senators were on to something.)

But why cling to power when you won’t use it for a good purpose? Power ought to me a means to an end, and in the current Capitol climate, where both majority and minority leaders get picked as much for their fund raising ability as for their diplomacy, the means is the means is the means – raise money from wherever you can to hold a seat, so you can get re-elected so you can hold a seat, so you can…..

Part of the blame for such dismal performance by the Legislature (Dems in charge, so more shame on them) has to go to Jim Doyle. He’s never been a back-slapping, glad-handing, hustle-the-Legislature kind of politician. He never served in the other wings of the Capitol, and seemed to avoid them like a vegetarian steers away from a butcher. Rat overheard the complaints of many Democratic legislators that they felt dissed by the Gov because he simply paid them no mind. It’s very hard to advance an agenda if legislators and the governor don’t talk to one another. Note to Dems: See Tommy Thompson.

Total majority is a privilege that the Dems may have squandered, leaving them in this paradox: by having been so cautious and so beholden to cash constituents, they may lose the very power their caution and special-interest pleasing was supposed to help them keep.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hydro Hijinks

Rat has watched with interest the unfolding, and what now may be the unraveling, of “Clean Energy Jobs Act” (CEJA), a coal pile of policy proposals to get us away from burning hydrocarbons and move us to “renewable” energy. It has been in circulation for months in the Wisconsin Legislature, and was a product of a task force convened by Governor Jim Doyle to look at global warming.

It was always questionable how much the bill had to do with jobs, and now it’s even questionable how much it has to do with clean energy.

Unless, that is, you call hydropower – power generated by dams – clean. It certainly is renewable because the rivers always run, but river rats have always been suspect of hydro because of the damage it does to rivers. (And, in developing countries, the damage it does to people who get displaced by the flooding for the reservoirs.)

It’s very unlikely we’ll see any new hydro dams in Wisconsin (all the good spots are already taken), so if you want hydropower in this state, you get it from Manitoba, where they still build big dams on pristine rivers.

Hydropower was deemed “renewable” by the Global Warming Task Force and therefore deemed so in the legislation. That put it on par with wind and solar and biofuels and other things – all energy that can be produced in Wisconsin. But a little rat informed us about how power companies operating in Wisconsin were trying to wire the legislation to have all the power they could buy from Manitoba Hydro (a Canadian “crown” corporation) get counted as “renewable.” One analysis showed that the 5 biggest utilities in Wisconsin could get all their required renewable energy (the bill called for 25% from renewable sources by the year 2025) simply by connecting their wires to Manitoba hydro.

That would have undercut a fundamental premise of the CEJA legislation – encouraging the development of renewable energy generated in Wisconsin. Not to mention the new dam construction it might have triggered in Manitoba.

The bill was amended last week, and things appear to have gotten worse. The only tiny barrier to Manitoba Hydro providing ALL “renewable” energy in Wisconsin is some paperwork shuffled between Manitoba and Wisconsin “regarding the final licensure of two existing hydroelectric projects in Manitoba” (emphasis ours). (The quote is from the Wisconsin Legislative Council’s overview of changes to the bill.) That’s a pretty low threshold: native Canadians have fought with the utility over the decades, but there’s little history of Manitoba Hydro not getting its way, especially for dams already built.

CEJA has been compromised in other ways, and conservation groups are acting like it’s the drunk uncle at the party – entertaining at first, embarrassing as time went on. We’ll know its fate in a few days’ time.