The 2006 legislative session had some noteworthy accomplishments. We increased state funding for early childhood education. We eliminated the “marriage penalty” from the state income tax. And we passed a bonding bill for public works projects to repair our infrastructure and improve our higher education system.
But there were many missed opportunities to pass good legislation that would help make Minnesota a better place.
Last fall, the price of home heating skyrocketed. I held hearings around the state, taking suggestions for solutions. The best ideas were turned into a series of bills when the session convened in March. We put them into a package, which had the support of the Minnesota Senior Federation, AARP, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, the Children’s Defense Fund, and many environmental groups.
The DFL-controlled Senate passed a balanced, comprehensive energy bill that would have helped to hold down prices, conserve energy, promote clean, renewable energy sources, and help low to moderate income people cope with the high cost of home heating. We did this ten days before adjournment, so there was plenty of time for the House to pass its own version and send it to a conference committee.
The Republican-controlled House refused _even to take the bill up and consider it_ !
How and why did this happen? What happened to bipartisan cooperation?
The sad answer is that the electric utility lobbyists and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce went to the Republican House leadership and demanded that they not take up the bill. Why? They were afraid that if the energy bill came up on the House floor, someone might bring up the topic of clean, renewable energy. They were determined this topic should never be brought up, debated, or heaven forbid, actually voted on!
So we worked to forge a bipartisan agreement. As the DFL chair of the Senate committee, I met with my counterparts, the Republican chair and Vice-Chair of the House committee. We figured if we could agree on the items that no one was opposed to we could put together a bill before adjournment. After some discussion, we agreed on a list of about a dozen items; here are a few:
* An “affordability program” to help low and moderate income Minnesotans cope with home heating bills without any additional state spending
* A plan to identify families having trouble paying their bills at an earlier stage so they don’t get cut off.
* Consumer protection for people who use delivered fuels like propane and home heating oil.
* Provisions for the state to buy those two fuels in the summer, when prices are lower, to save about a million dollars next winter when helping low income families.
* Measures to promote greater energy savings through the Conservation Improvement Program (CIP).
* Measures to help school districts save energy through efficiency improvements and to promote the use of wind turbines to generate electricity in schools located in the windiest regions of the state.
* Promotion of hydrogen as an alternative fuel of the future
* A study of ways to create incentives for utilities for energy conservation rather than energy use.
Putting a bill together this way is not as good as a conference committee with public input, but it’s important to remember that every one of these provisions had already been addressed in public hearings and voted on in either the Senate or the House, and most of them in both. And the reason there could be no conference committee was that the House leadership would not allow it.
The items in our list had all been vetted with many parties involved in these areas, and none were opposed to any of them. And there was plenty of time left to pass them through both Houses.
So why couldn’t this plan be enacted? The raw power of the electric utility lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce. Even though they didn’t oppose these provisions on the merits, they went to the Republican House Speaker and the Republican House Majority Leader and insisted that no bill be taken up. They just wanted a chance to flex their muscles.
And that’s a shame for those who just want good public policy for Minnesota.
State Sen. Ellen Anderson lives in St. Paul.