Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who authored the bill?

That was a question asked repeatedly at yesterday's hearing on LRB 3520, the bill designed to ease environmental protections and the permit process so that one out-of-state coal mining company can open a gaping wound in the North Woods to get iron ore to sell on the international market.

Democrats (and a whole lot of us) want to know who authored the bill and why the rush? These are begging questions, obviously, since we all pretty much know the answers. Most bills come to hearings with the author's name/s on it. The absence is a first indication that something about this bill really smells.

The company involved, Gogebic Taconite (GTAC, part of the Florida-based coalmining Cline Group), insists it did not write the bill. That's fine, but earlier reports indicate that their lawyers did. It is a law designed exactly for this one project. And we also know that Walker and State Reps. Jeff Fitzgerald and Mark Honadel received significant campaign donations from GTAC. We also know that several of the Repub committee members are also members of the  Koch-backed American Exchange Legislative Council (ALEC), the group remaking laws in states around the country to promote rightist corporate interests.

For more extremely important info on the specifics of this kind of corporate contamination of our state politics, go here.

It is a sad state of affairs when one's own state government becomes a tool for the advancement of certain corporate interests. This is not new to US politics, but we are living one of those extreme versions of it right now. Best to go back into our history to realize how this happens and the long struggle involved in getting democracy back where it belongs. It will not be given back to us; the people must reclaim it.

But it's hard to identify a 'people' in such an atmosphere. In the standing-room-only crowd were many people who came not to listen but to be agitated. They had to be repeatedly silenced, shushed at times by the crowd itself, to keep things relatively civil. But I was so struck by the nastiness and arrogance of many of the committee members themselves. Chair of the hearing, Rep. Mary Williams (R-Medford), was often nasty, strident, and even downright insulting to panelists and to the democratic process itself, as if the need to even conduct such a hearing was a real inconvenience. She is a piece of work! When Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton) repeatedly asked for the names of the bill's author/s, she refused to answer, or better, obfuscated (a real talent of many of our state Repubs), saying it was a 'combined effort.' Combined? Well, then, who made up that combination?

When they don't want you to know, you know something's up, and that lack of transparency is enough reason to snuff out this bill until we all have a chance to see how those campaign donations, the industry lobbyists, and the organizations backed by industry, have influenced this destructive piece of legislation.

I had to smile, too, at the many moments when Walker's own DNR officials could not answer questions about the bill because they had not had time to read and process it - 183 pages in just 6 days before this hearing. This is beyond devious, it also magnifies the incompetence of this administration.

Mike Higgins, tribal leader of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and Marvin Dafoe, vice chair of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, were eloquent as usual, as was their tired-looking lawyer. They've been waging these kinds of battles for, oh, about a couple of centuries now.

"Trees, fish, and water need a voice, too," said Dafoe. "People in my community would rather have clean water than a job."

When the culture arrives at a point where that is true for a majority of us, the quality of life in this country will begin to improve.

Finally, don't let anyone tell you this is about 'jobs.' I am so, so sick of hearing that woeful, empty mantra. This Walker/Fitzgerald regime turned down a GRANT of $810 million from the federal government to build high speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison, the beginning of an eventual link all the way to Minneapolis. This would have created thousands of jobs, including those in long term staffing of the rail line, along with economic boosts all along the path of the train. But that would have run into opposition from the road builders associations, another major contributor to Walker and state Repubs.

The state had an incipient wind energy industry working to develop an alternative to dirty fossil fuels, but the Walker/Fitzgerald regime changed regulations involving property setbacks to a point where it is nearly impossible to build wind turbines anywhere in the state. Jobs - in wind-powered energy, in building and maintaining the turbines. Energy giant Koch Industries and Ron Johnson (plastics manufacturer wedded to oil) do not want to see us get off oil, do not want clean energy sources, because that conflicts with their business interests.

And they do not want to see stringent environmental regulations. One of the reasons Tea Party candidate Johnson is in the US Senate is to fight to roll them back. His fellow state-level Repubs are trying to do their part.

It's not about jobs; it's about what kind of jobs in what industries. When mining interests tell us that the only alternatives for Ashland and Iron Counties, where unemployment is high and people are really struggling, is to tear up the North Woods and contaminate groundwater, destroy wetlands, and threaten Lake Superior, we should all cry, "Foul!!!"

The dirtiest industries have always taken advantage of the poorest communities for the sake of their bottom line. We can do better than this. We are not this stupid. These are political decisions, not economic decisions. And the best way to determine that is to look at where the campaign donations came from, and for whom these legislators really work.

Friends, woe is us when government is a tool of corporations. Government should be there to protect us from them when they behave like this. Government should be there to regulate, to work with its citizens to create economies that promote the health and well-being, along with long-term sustainability, of the human community embedded within healthy, vibrant eco-communities. You cannot destroy the latter without also destroying the former. And that should be our bottom line principle as we consider the future of our state.


Photos: Margaret Swedish

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