Capitol Update for March 14, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“The best brain and the surest brawn of the nation is found here (in the Midwest) and it should be organized into one mighty moral, material and patriotic force to overthrow paternalism and plunder, and regenerate politics and the Republic.”

John A. Johnson
Governor of Minnesota, 1905-1909*

A century ago Minnesota was in the midst of what was known as the “progressive era.”  Our political leaders, farmers, laborers and out-state business leaders ushered in progressive policies that reshaped our transportation system, commodities markets, employment relations, and economic structure.  This era gave us common innovative ideas like cooperative organizations, antitrust laws, direct election of U.S. Senators, labor rights, and workers compensation.  Things so commonplace to our social structure today that we would be stunned at the political struggle in the early 1900s that was necessary to put them in place.

One of the giants of this progressive movement both in Minnesota and nationally was the silver-tongued Scandinavian, Governor John A. Johnson.  He was one of our most beloved governors.  His statue is one of two that guards the front entrance to our state capitol building.  He was so nationally respected that in 1909 many Democrats viewed him as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in the 1912 election.

Progressive idealism was the desired direction of leaders within the Democratic Party at the time.  Johnson as a Democrat twice reelected in a Midwest Republican state was seen as the ideal candidate.  Unfortunately, a sad fate intervened with the premature death of the much loved governor in 1909.  The Democrats’ second choice for President, Woodrow Wilson, was the surprise victor when the door was opened for him by a divided Republican Party.

The above quote was from a speech given to Chicago businessmen during Johnson’s first term.  It was his belief that Midwest idealism and its determined work ethic would reshape the nation.  Purposeful government policies would set the course of the future generation and leave the plundering paternal barons of the East Coast behind.  The battles that ensued in Midwest politics reshaped our state and nation’s policies and the political structure forever.

We are on the verge of a new progressive era a century after Johnson spoke those words.  An era that, if we are persistent, will bring us a transportation system, energy infrastructure, and an economy totally transformed by clean and renewable energy.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) put forward proposals to move Minnesota toward this new clean energy economy.  The first is the Green Solutions Act, which sets some priorities for lowering and limiting global warming pollution.  The second is adoption of the California Clean Car Standards.  If we are successful, I’ll be willing to bet that a hundred years from now people will look back on these as small steps towards a very commonplace energy system that is independent of foreign oil and other dirty fuels.

Unfortunately, being progressive in 2008 is no easier than it was in 1908.  You still have to fight entrenched corporate giants if you want to move the economy in a bold new direction.  This week the MEP Green Energy Lobbying Team has seen challenging battles in keeping the Green Solutions Act and the California Clean Car Standards bills alive.  A lot of shoe leather was burned pounding the Capitol’s marble halls as we passed by the portraits of such past progressive giants as Governor Johnson.

The Green Solutions Act has run into some tough sledding in the Senate.  This bill has three key parts.  First, it would establish a set of legislative principles to guide the governor in any future negotiation with neighboring states to establish a regional global warming pollution cap and trade system.  This would be an innovative system for the Midwest.  It would be the first such accord struck with neighboring states between the Appalachians and Rocky Mountains.  The second part of the legislation requires a team of legislators to assist the governor in these negotiations.  The third and final provision would require two studies that examine the economic benefits and challenges from developing a regional global warming pollution cap and trade system.

On the Senate side, the Green Solutions Act has been battered and diminished as it has worked its way through the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee.  It is stalled in the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee chaired by James Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul).  We are scheduled for a hearing on Monday in that committee.  We will be fortunate to just get out of that committee with the legislative team and studies intact.  The Senate chief author, Ellen Anderson (DFL – St. Paul), has battled hard against multiple large corporate interests that seek to delay any state action that would reduce global warming pollution.

The House has been more successful in moving along the Green Solutions Act.  The bill successfully passed its last policy committee, Commerce and Labor, on Thursday.  Therefore, it has met the committee deadlines and will hopefully breathe life into the bill over on the Senate side.  The bill’s success is in no small part due to the dogged determination of its chief author, Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL – New Brighton).  Despite repeated efforts to water down the bill, it has remained strong through the House policy committees.

The California Clean Car Standards legislation has received stiff opposition from automobile manufacturers, dealers, and surprisingly, the ethanol industry.  One of the common tactics of corporate lobbyists is what I fondly call “the bushel basket of red herrings.”  They repeatedly spread seeds of doubt with irrelevant red herring arguments in an effort to scare legislators away from making progressive policies in the public’s interest that might hurt their corporate short-term profits.  Needless to say, our California Clean Car’s authors Sen. John Marty (DFL – Roseville) and Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park) have become pretty proficient in filleting red herrings in committee.

Sen. Marty had the greatest struggle attempting to get the bill out of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.  We were finally able to cobble together enough votes to pass the bill out of committee “without recommendation.”  Fortunately, Rep. Hortman was able to make deadline over in the House on Thursday when the bill was successfully endorsed by the House Commerce and Labor Committee and its chair Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL- Inver Grove Heights).

The MEP global warming legislation is still alive, but it will still face some more difficult challenges in the coming weeks.  The do-nothing corporate interests are showing no signs of giving in.  Therefore, your willingness to let your voice be heard will be critical in the coming weeks.

It is clear that the session will probably wind down early after legislators resolve their disputes over the bonding bill and put together a budget balancing proposal.  The Governor’s budget recommendations have spared the environment from major cuts, but things can change during the legislative process – more about that next week.  As a result, we will have little time to successfully pass our global warming solutions and usher in a new era of progressive policies where we can put all “the best brain and the surest brawn” to work creating a clean and independent energy future.

* quote from The Progressive Era in Minnesota, Carl H. Chrislock, Minnesota Historic Society, 1971. p36

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