The Capital Times, March 3
Supreme Court contest matters as much as presidential vote
The highest-profile races on the April 5 Wisconsin ballot are likely to be the primary contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. It is possible that both fights could be settled before the 2016 campaign reaches Wisconsin, but our bet is that voters will get a chance to weigh in on continuing contests on the Democratic side between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (the new Marquette University Law School poll has Sanders at 44 percent, Clinton at 43 percent) and on the Republican side between Donald Trump and whichever Republican finally emerges as his clear rival (the Marquette poll has Trump leading with 30 percent, but that means 70 percent of Republicans are disinclined toward the billionaire).
While the attention will be on the presidential competitions, there will be an equally important contest on the April 5 ballot. Voting for a place on the state Supreme Court will determine whether Wisconsin's historic commitment to judicial independence and integrity will be renewed.
The good news is that Wisconsinites appear to be excited about addressing the damage done to the courts by Gov. Scott Walker and his hyperpartisan allies. Walker and his corporate and legislative minions have sought to make the Wisconsin Supreme Court an extension of the governor's administration. But under the Wisconsin Constitution, voters are given the power to push back against executive overreach. And they are doing just that.
The Feb. 19 primary for the state Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Patrick Crooks drew 563,386 voters to the polls.
That was a significantly higher turnout than had been predicted.
We believe that it is because Wisconsinites are justifiably agitated about the governor's assault on the courts.
Last fall, Walker seized on the death of Crooks to appoint a crony, Rebecca Bradley, to the high court.
Bradley is a Walker creation. She was named by the governor to three judicial openings in three years: Milwaukee County Circuit Court, state Appeals Court, state Supreme Court. And she has mounted a campaign that is so closely tied to the governor's campaign donors and political networks that her claims of impartiality are unconvincing.
The voters just don't seem to be buying Bradley's slickly packed and very expensive political appeal.
Despite the fact that Bradley was campaigning as an appointed incumbent, despite the fact that she and her allies spent heavily before the primary, despite the fact that she had a lot of support from the powerful interests that are aligned with the governor and his party, Bradley won only 44.7 percent of the vote.
A striking 55.3 percent of Wisconsinites voted for candidates who stressed judicial independence and integrity.
To get a sense of how significant that number is, consider this: In 2008, Barack Obama was considered to be a very big winner in the presidential race, and he only won 52.9 percent of the vote. Or consider this: When George H.W. Bush trounced Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush won just 53.4 percent of the vote.
If the supporters of judicial independence and integrity make up 55 percent of the potential electorate in the April 5 Supreme Court election, Bradley's challenger, state Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg is in a very strong position.
Kloppenburg ran almost even with Bradley in the primary. While Bradley secured her 44.7 percent, Kloppenburg won 43.2 percent. The rest of the vote went to Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, another critic of Bradley, who won 12.1 percent.
Last week, Donald endorsed Kloppenburg, uniting the independence-and-integrity bloc. Donald praised Kloppenburg's experience and dedication to the rule of law, adding, "I also appreciate that her campaign is based on hope not fear: She is running because she believes deeply in the power of the law and our courts to make our communities and our state a better place for all our citizens."
Those fine words of endorsement do not guarantee that Kloppenburg will win. Big-money interests and the governor's allies will continue to pull for Bradley. And history suggests that they will go negative.
But Wisconsinites are getting tired of Walker's crude "divide-and-conquer" politics, just as they have grown increasingly frustrated with the governor's determined efforts to maintain control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.
If Kloppenburg builds a coalition of Wisconsinites who are sick of the cronyism that is on display in the governor's appointments, and if the voters begin to see through the ugly "messaging" that this governor and his allies employ in order to maintain their authority, she can win.
The key is to forge that coalition. Judge Donald's endorsement suggests that there is unity among those who want to renew the honor of Wisconsin's high court. Now it is time to build upon that unity, to keep primary voters working together, and to expand the electorate to bring in more voters who embrace Wisconsin values.
Walker and his allies will always have the money advantage. And they are more than willing to use the power of their positions to remake Wisconsin in their image. But the evidence is mounting that Wisconsin is over Walker — and Walkerism. If that is the case, then Walker's favored jurist, Rebecca Bradley, is indeed vulnerable.
The Journal Times of Racine, March 6
DNR shouldn't abdicate its responsibilities
The Department of Natural Resources is the one agency in Wisconsin tasked with protecting our air and water. So it's alarming to learn that the DNR is on the verge of abdicating that responsibility in the name of making the state more business-friendly.
The DNR is closing in on a major reorganization that could send duties to other agencies and streamline regulatory work, including an experimental plan to allow some businesses to draft their own environmental permits, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Feb. 26.
Officials said the goal is to increase the DNR's efficiency. Its responsibilities range from management of hunting, fishing and state parks to regulating large-scale farms and keeping tabs on invasive species.
"We can't nibble around the edges," Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede said last month. "We have to make strategic decisions about what we are going to continue to do, where we are going to focus and be brave enough to say we are going to give certain things up."
The Republican-led Legislature is no friend to the DNR. It has cut the agency's funding and advanced a series of measures to limit DNR powers in recent years.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, have grown more dissatisfied, pointing to the drop in enforcement activity, reductions in scientific staff and concerns that the DNR isn't doing enough on matters like groundwater protection, water pollution and oversight of large farms.
Thiede emphasized that environmental protections won't be weakened and the DNR would still have to approve permits. "This isn't about changing the law, not following the law," he said.
Mr. Thiede, you don't have to change the law to satisfy certain constituencies. You can do that by become much less vigorous in enforcement. Or by signaling an appetite for deregulation by saying "You tell us how much pollution is acceptable."
Is a business given the latitude to write its own environmental-permit language going to be more likely to relax pollution standards on itself, or less likely? We believe that we'd hear from Corporation X that the existing standard for dumping waste into nearby streams and rivers is "outdated."
Handing a fill-in-the-blank regulatory form over to a business surely will please that business, but it's a disservice to everybody else.
"DNR should be commended for their efforts to streamline the permitting process to get permits issued more quickly without changing environmental standards in any way," Lucas Vebber, director of environmental and energy policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.
Except for the "without changing environmental standards in any way" part, we agree with the WMC spokesman's assessment of what the DNR is doing.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a former homebuilder, recalled at one agency listening session how an employee told her that "clean air and clean water, that those were our customers. And I said, 'Well, the last time I checked, they don't pay taxes and they don't sign our paychecks.' "
She's got us there. The air and the water do not pay taxes.
But taxpayers also need clean air and clean water. And they need the agency tasked with protection of our air and water to actually do its job.
La Crosse Tribune, March 6
Growth of solar power is a bright idea
Using nature to help generate power isn't exactly a new idea.
These days, when you factor in regulatory and environmental concerns and stir in the debate about climate change, all of a sudden it's a fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — debate.
But two utilities in western Wisconsin have announced a significant investment in harnessing solar energy to generate power — and they've done it the old-fashioned way.
They've made the decision because it makes good business sense.
For the people of our region — from energy users to ratepayers — this is good news all around.
Barbara Nick, CEO of La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, said: "It's finally solar's day in the sun."
Projects announced recently by Dairyland and Xcel Energy will nearly double the capacity to generate solar energy in Wisconsin:
— Dairyland will purchase power from 12 new solar arrays with a combined capacity of almost 19 megawatts.
— Xcel will purchase up to three megawatts of electricity from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin.
Investing in and developing natural sources of energy — and reducing reliance on fossil fuel — is the right strategy for the future.
As Nick pointed out, members of her cooperative believe it's a good idea __and it certainly diversifies the cooperative's portfolio.
Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, says 2016 will be Wisconsin's year in the sun — in part because a drop in prices has made photovoltaic generation cost-effective for utilities as well as residents, business and nonprofits.
So, what does it mean when a utility like Dairyland adds a capacity of 19 megawatts? That can power the homes and farms of about 2,500 members of the cooperative.
It also means that Dairyland can reduce the amount of energy it buys on the open market — something it has had to do more of since it shut down five coal-fired boilers at its plant in Alma in 2014 as part of its agreement to settle a pollution case with the Environmental Protection Agency.
The moves by Xcel and Dairyland also demonstrate that "Wisconsin's electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders in solar energy," said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Madison.
As part of its recently announced plans, Xcel will purchase energy from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin — including in La Crosse County. Those two gardens, to be built by Pristine Sun, a San Francisco-based developer, will double the current capacity of utility-sponsored community solar projects in Wisconsin.
That will double the amount of energy generated by utility-sponsored community solar projects in Wisconsin.
In Minnesota, Xcel is ramping up solar generation to more than 250 megawatts of capacity to meet legislative requirements.
Minnesota just announced 21 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources, putting the state on course to meet its standard of 25 percent by 2025. Wisconsin has already met a more modest target of 10 percent by 2015.
In Wisconsin, the utility's solar projects are part of a pilot program approved last year by the Public Service Commission with the stipulation that it be cost-neutral for the people who are not participating in the project.
As at Dairyland, the company said it is a response to customer demand.
Lee Gabler, Xcel's senior director of customer strategy, said: "Customers are looking for different options. We want to provide those options."
Answering customer demand for solar energy is a good strategy.
And, with today's technology, it's also good business.
It's a bright idea for our region.
And, as Nick said, there's more to come.