Monday, April 14, 2008

Great Lakes Compact Deal: A Glass Emptied To Half-Full

Given that we're talking about the Great Lakes water management Compact, it's an apt metaphor, don't you think?

Granted, it's a little hard to tell, since when the powers that be gathered in New Berlin last week to announce the deal, then didn't release any details.
I can't remember if it was a cloudy day, but there sure wasn't much sunshine out there.

But with what we know so far, it's fair to say that the glass is no better than half-empty because it was filled more fully in State Senate Bill 523, which passed on a strong, 26-6 bipartisan vote - - before GOP Assembly members threatened to toss the contents down the drain, and Democrats began to help empty enough of the contents to satisfy the tougher GOP negotiators.

Half-full because the legislature will approve the Great Lakes Compact.

But emptier than it could have been, because the legislation that will implement the Compact in Wisconsin - - where the details and rules become crucial - - will subtract content from SB 523, a variety of sources have said.

A summary entry point to that reality is here.

In what were partisan discussions in a legislature divided - - Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the Assembly - - the Republicans were, shall we say, more focused, perhaps more strategic, on winning the outcome their Waukesha County cohort wanted.

The Republicans in the Assembly simply balked at passing anything.

They said "No," demanding that the Compact itself be rewritten - - when everyone knew that wasn't going to happen, because a real delay in Wisconsin's Compact approval - - setting aside what was in the implementing bill - - made it impossible for New Berlin to get the Lake Michigan water it wants now and what the City of Waukesha wants pretty soon.

So the Republicans appeared to 'cave,' and agreed to 'drop' their essentially fake demand that the Compact be rewritten - - in exchange for substantial Democratic concessions that weakened SB 523 with amendments that are circulating around the Capitol, and which appear to have the votes for adoption in this coming week's special legislative session.

So, again, to summarize:

The glass is roughly half-full, because the Compact will get approved.

That will move the issue forward and encourage Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to join the others states that have already approved the Compact.

But what the Democrats were not willing to try (which would have meant being as resolute as were the Assembly Republicans) was to say in response:

"OK, Assembly Republicans, you've said "No," so we'll all wait until the November election, and see if we can get SB 523 through an Assembly with a new Democratic majority."

If that tactic were to have failed this November, and I don't think it would have come to that because New Berlin, a Republican stronghold wants its Lake Michigan water now, then the compromise the Democrats agreed to last week could be gotten after November, with little lost in the overall process.

But by taking the deal now, the Democrats did this:

* They gave up on mandatory statewide water conservation, agreeing instead to voluntary programs. Folding such improvement in public policy and planning into this major piece of water conservation legislation was perfect timing, and failing to keep it in Wisconsin's bill is a major lost opportunity.

* They agreed to include into the diversion review procedure - - until the Compact's final final final approval at some future date - - certain diversion precedents in Wisconsin.

These "historic applications," as I hear that the amendments call them, skirted the federal law that mandates all diversions to communities that are outside of the Great Lakes basin get the approval of all eight Great Lakes states.

Previous diversions to Pleasant Prairie, and to part of Menomonee Falls were allowed to happen without all the other states' approvals.

Becoming a benchmark in Wisconsin law for an indefinite period makes diversions easier to seek in our state.

And the "historic applications" language validates some previous imperfect procedures.

Should Wisconsin law strengthen, reify if you will, earlier, bad practice? Is this what we want Wisconsin legislators to do when we send them to the Capitol?

Because let's remember: the end goal of the Compact, when it is approved by all the other states and, it hoped, by the Congress, is to make diversions rare, and granted by uniform standards.

No wonder this amending process is happening in the shadows.

* Democrats also stepped away from using now the Compact's eventual mandate for the return of diverted water piped beyond the Great Lakes basin's boundaries.

Yes, that will be the hard-and-fast requirement for applicants, but again, only after the Compact is approved by all the eight Great Lakes states and the Congress - - a time frame conceivably years away, at best.

In that interim period, Wisconsin communities seeking out-of-basin diversions will not have to make that return flow pledge because it is not in the state implementing law.

Diversion-seeking communities would be smart to put these return flow pledges in their applications, and to show good faith in their budgets and spending so there is no doubt that return flow will happen.

But in the amendments that are heading into SB 523 to produce this 'compromise,' it's not a requirement.

* Finally, the amended SB 523 might contain language that makes it harder for citizens to bring complaints about violations.

This little-discussed possibility is vital if Wisconsin is to have a Compact implementing bill that encourages enforcement of water management on behalf of the public interest, and Great Lakes preservation.

I noted in an earlier post that certain big water users, like Murphy Oil, have already had their needs met in the drafting.

Waukesha, and New Berlin, and the water-hungry development interests in Waukesha County, are also big winners in the behind-the-scenes rewriting of SB 523.

If citizens are refused standing to push for enforcement, or if their input is rendered impossible by intentionally-crafted clever legal and financial barriers, then the glass will be pretty much emptied, with Democratic and Republican decision-makers having worked in tandem to make this significant bill just another favor to insider special-interests.


Anonymous said...

"OK, Assembly Republicans, you've said "No," so we'll all wait until the November election, and see if we can get SB 523 through an Assembly with a new Democratic majority."

Exactly. It's been, what, five years? What's another year?

The Democrats in the legislature (and U.S. Congress for that matter) are so timid. It's difficult to call anything they do "leadership".

From what I've seen, Governor Doyle does nothing but pander. Right around election time, the indexed gas tax is rescinded or Cottage Grove gets big bucks to build more roads for its industrial park.

The line item veto legislation was meaningless, and this will be meaningless. (If the Wisconsin State Journal supports it, that's a red flag.)

The Democrats should understand that if Wisconsin is strongly in support of a piece of legislation and the government passes what essentially is an illusion, that helps the party in power, i.e., Republicans.

Hopefully the Senate, with a 26-6 margin, will have the sense to balk when it comes time to resolve the differences.

Jim Bouman said...

I'm getting sick of Doyle and his pandering to the retrograde elements in the Wisconsin Assembly.

Reminds me of the way Al Gore won the 2000 election. The votes were his in Florida. But he was going to have to stand up and defend what was his. Instead, he folded his tent, left town. Left the entire field to Bush.

Pabst Farms and all the hallucinated "growth" that is on the edge of happening is another good example. He's willing to let his Transportation guy blow millions on an unneeded interchange designed for Pabst Farms.

And the insane waste of money on I-43 south to Illinois.

Doyle is every bit as bad as his Republican detractors say--though not for their reasons. For his abandonment of progressive government in return for the misbegotten hope that he'll be considered bi-partisan.

James Rowen said...

I see this as a collective problem with the Democrats.

Compare the active, focused, demanding approach of the Waukesha delegation to that of Milwaukee's group.

As a group, not even close.

It's a matter of temperment, intensity, agenda, vision, effort.

Anonymous said...

Three months ago weren't you complaining that the process was being drawn out and over-politicized?

Something to the effect that there was no reason to stall and negotiate because the Compact was signed like five years ago.

Decide, Rowen: do you want it done now, with a bipartisan agreement, or do you want it done later and as a political win?

James Rowen said...

To Anon: You will see on the blog at the upper left is a graphic about the need for a Strong Compact.

That is what the Senate had adopted, with a great deal of input following well attended hearings. 150 people at one in Kenosha.

That's what the Assembly blocked and is now part of the great watering-down that is underway.

There should be a bi-partisan effort to restore the provisions being jettisoned in the compromise, which is a bad deal for the state as a whole.

Anonymous said...

The Compact in and of itself is "strong". So to say you want a strong Compact is redundant. What you want is "strong" implementing legislation, which you believe you did not get.

Like it or not, this is how things get done these days in a 50-50 red/blue state. Be happy you got the Compact at all and quit complaining about the nuances of the implementing legislation.

The Kenosha hearing was a staged event for the Democrats, especially Bob Wirch, who is up for election this year. So please don't preach to me politics over policy.

The Kenosha hearing was a dog and pony show attended by about 100 retirees with nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon.

Testimony such as "water is life" and "I'm here speaking on behalf of the plants" is worthless when lawmakers are attempting to craft sound public policy.

I agree with the previous entry. You've complained that things were moving too slow, but now you're complaining because things are done. You can't have it both ways.

James Rowen said...

To Anon:

The implementing language is crucial to whether the Compact is strong or not.

Weak language, or barriers to citizen involvement, or giving past diversion permissions that skirted the federal law (WRDA) precedent status - - in the implementing bill itself - - all undermines what the Compact is about.

Your mocking citizens who come out a hearing tells me a lot about where you are coming from.

Anonymous said...

This past Sunday, Kevin Fischer was pontificating on how great the compact would be and how absolutely essential it is that water must be returned to the lake - all the while knowing it will take forever for that to happen,if ever, and that his boss, Sen. Lazich, worked tirelessly to sabotoge the compact. How quick they try to rebuild images!