Capitol Update for April 11, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Raise less corn and more hell.”
Mary Elizabeth Lease, 1890*

Mary Elizabeth Lease was one of the most passionate voices of the prairie populist movement of the late 1800s.  She hailed from Kansas, but her message burned through the populist movement up and down the entire Midwest.  This message took root the deepest in the farm areas and union halls of Minnesota, giving birth to the Farmer-Labor movement.  Though this red-hot flame of progressive thought burned out more quickly in some areas, it grew very strong in Minnesota.  It hit its zenith in the 1930s with the election of Minnesota’s first and most productive third-party governor, Floyd B. Olson.

This movement was marked by a strong vision for economic justice in its battle against monopolistic corporate greed.  Large corporate institutions used their power and money to oppose progressive policies championed by this movement.  They successfully spread rumors that this movement was subversive to the American way of life.

Some 100 years later we are still battling the same tactics of corporate greed versus progressive action.  This time it is the large automobile manufacturers fomenting fear that subversive environmentalists want to end America’s love affair with the big vehicle and the rugged individualism of the open road.  The focus of their scorn is one of MEP’s top legislative priorities, the passage of the California Clean Car Standards. This initiative would have Minnesota join 13 of her sister states in reducing global warming pollution from automobiles. It is known as the California Clean Car Standards because of California’s leadership on the issue.

You may say I’m being overdramatic, but here’s a quote from Scott Lambert of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association found in his recent Star Tribune editorial calling our effort an extremist environmental policy:

“Environmentalists are offended by Minnesota’s use of bigger vehicles. And the California law is one way to wrench people out of the vehicles they need. Farmers, sportsmen, contractors or moms running the car pool…”

I can assure you we do not want to “wrench” Susie soccer mom out of her SUV.  The clean car standard only asks Detroit to put a wrench to SUVs and other vehicles and install already existing technology so that new cars sold in Minnesota as of 2012 will emit fewer pollutants.  Another benefit from the legislation is that Minnesotans will be able to keep millions of dollars in their pockets instead of sending it to Detroit’s partners in greed: big oil.

This war between progressive policy and corporate greed came to a head this last Monday at a joint hearing of the agricultural committees in the House.  It was only listed as an informational hearing regarding the effects of the Clean Car Standard on ethanol.  We knew it would be more than an informational hearing because of the strong resistance from Agricultural Finance Chair, Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar).

Oddly, the opposition to this legislation centers around a perception created by the auto makers that it will harm Minnesota’s ethanol industry.  A common tactic of big-money corporate lobbyists is to spread red herrings all over the Legislature to raise doubt and misinformed opposition.  This was clearly the case with the ethanol scare created by auto makers.  Therefore, last Monday’s hearing was very important to show that the standard at worst has no affect on ethanol and at best may encourage ethanol use for flex fuel vehicles.

Our chief author, Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park), once again did a stellar job in leading the defense of the Clean Car Standards.  The testifiers for the standards included Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Tom Cackette from the California Air Resource Board, and David Kittelson from the U of M, a leading expert on automotive engineering.  These testifiers destroyed the myth that the standards would harm Minnesota’s ethanol industry.

The most compelling testimony, however, came from a young man from Olivia, Minnesota by the name of Matt Baumgartner.  Coming from a strong Republican family and a well-connected agrarian business background, he made it clear that acting now to address global warming is critical for the future of Minnesota agriculture and our way of life.  Energy independence and environmental stewardship were the centerpieces of his testimony.  It’s good to see that Minnesota’s progressive populist heritage still burns out on our prairies.

Monday’s committee hearing also offered some high drama.  After very tense testimony from auto dealers and manufacturers, we were treated to a long list of ethanol supporters opposing the legislation.  The best that I can understand from that testimony was that California didn’t embrace ethanol back in the 1990s and, therefore, we don’t know if we can trust this California standard thing.  They clearly did not, or did not want to, understand that the standards have nothing to do with fuel mixtures.

The opposition’s strategy failed when Doug Peterson, President of Minnesota Farmers Union, gave the final testimony on the ethanol side.  The Farmers Union, being well respected amongst the DFL legislators, was anticipated to be the nail in the coffin of the Clean Car Standards.  Unfortunately for big oil and big auto, there is still a lot of prairie populism burning through Doug Peterson’s bones.  It was clear as he witnessed the prior testimony that he was not buying into the deceptions created by the interests of corporate greed.  Though he testified that he still had concerns regarding the effects of the Clean Car Standard on ethanol, he was willing to consider removing any opposition if amendments could be drafted to provide assurances it will not harm Minnesota’s ethanol industry.  Our ever capable author quickly jumped on the opportunity and indicated a willingness to work with our Farmers Union friends.

Any objective observer given the facts presented would have concluded the green progressive team won the argument that the standards do not harm the ethanol industry.  Though our defense of the standards was successful, the forces within the Legislature that oppose us are not going to give up.  We have continued to work with the Minnesota Farmers Union to find common ground and hopefully this will help us move the bill to the floor for a final vote in the House.  The bill is still stuck in the Senate committee for Business, Industry and Jobs, chaired by Jim Metzen (DFL – South St. Paul).

Every indication is that the session is close to its resolution.  There are still plenty of hurt feelings from this week’s line-item veto of the Capital Investment Bill.  Once the hard feelings are smoothed over, the Legislature could move quickly to its conclusion.  All the elements are there for the Legislature to easily wrap up within the next two weeks if they don’t slide down into a political stalemate with the governor.  Of course that’s a big “if,” but it is still possible.  Therefore, time could be running out for us on passage of the Clean Car Standards.  If this Legislature fails to move this critical environmental proposal forward, it will be a sad day because the politics of corporate greed and confusion will have won out over our heritage of progressive prairie populism.

For details on this week’s line item veto of the Capital Investment Bill, see the supplemental update from last Wednesday.

* Minnesota: A History of the State by Theodore C. Blegen, University of Minnesota Press, page 387.

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