JACK SPENCER: Didn’t see this one coming
ometimes one issue inadvertently affects another.
On May 5 Michigan voters will have their say on Proposal 1, a measure to hike the state Sales Tax and earmark about 63 percent of the resulting revenue for road funding. Placing the proposal before the voters was exactly what lawmakers tried to avoid for years and it looks like that was with good reason. If polling on Proposal 1 can be believed, it will be soundly rejected.
A side effect of Proposal 1 has been the legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder being placed in sort of a holding pattern. Although things have picked up a bit since spring break, the first four months of 2015 have featured less legislative activity than usual. The explanation for this legislative lull is obvious; it is difficult to move ahead on a number of fronts until the fate of Proposal 1 has been determined.
This legislative lull produced by Proposal 1 has had an unforeseen impact on the totally unrelated “electric choice” issue. Under state law the big utilities control 90 percent of the electricity market. “Electric choice,” means that the utilities (Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison) must compete with alternative electricity sources within the remaining 10 percent. House Bill 4298, which the utilities support, would eliminate this last bit of completion.
Energy policy is complex and tends to be technical and tedious. It is not a topic that generally attracts an overload of news media coverage. For large and powerful entities like the big utilities the usual strategy for advancing legislation like House Bill 4298 is pretty standard. The idea is to move the measure out of committee early and then let the lobbyists work quietly, perhaps for several weeks, to secure enough votes for it to pass on the House floor.
But this year that usual strategy seems to have backfired. Due primarily to the legislative lull caused by Proposal 1, the news media has had fewer issues to cover. To fill the vacuum it has paid far more attention to House Bill 4298 than it otherwise would have. Credit should also be given to the coalition battling against the bill for highlighting the “electric choice” issue during the lull.
Making matters worse for those who support ending “electric choice” is their complicated explanation for wanting to do so. Under normal circumstances that complexity might have helped the utilities press for the legislation by causing the news media to shy away from the issue. But now it is too late for that to happen. Instead, those opposing the bill can utilize their bumper sticker — easily understood — message, while those supporting the bill are stuck with a long — difficult to understand — tale to tell.
In short, too much light has been shed on the “electric choice” issue for the bill to be easily slipped out of committee. A poll commissioned by the group opposing the elimination of “electric choice” was timed masterfully to stop the legislation in its tracks. That poll revealed that 74 percent of Michigan voters would oppose the bill.
A poll of this sort, which focused heavily on the fact that the measure would return the utilities to full monopoly status within their regions, is enough to give nearly every lawmaker a reason to balk at voting for the legislation. Still, what really adds weight to poll is that it was about an issue the news media has been covering heavily and will now almost surely continue covering.
Putting it bluntly, for those supporting a measure such as ending “electric choice” the less light initially shed on it the better. Monday morning quarterbacks can’t help but wonder if the situation would have been different had the committee waited until after the May 5 election to begin holding hearings on the legislation. By that time there would be tons of things happening in the legislature and the news media’s focus would have been splintered. But that’s not what happened and now the proverbial barn door is open and the horse is out.
No one should assume the effort to eliminate “electric choice” is over. With powerful entities like the utilities behind it, the bill could still eventually be passed. What has taken place, however, is the task of getting it passed has become far more difficult.
With the polling numbers staring lawmakers in the face regarding this issue, every step toward possible passage has become a tougher chore. Do members of the committee really want to vote “yes” on something that 74 percent of voters would oppose? Does it make sense to ask them to vote for it when the chances of the full House passing the bill have probably diminished? Does it make sense for the House to pursue the issue at all, unless there is certainty that the Senate won’t drop it like a hot potato?
Here’s another consideration; what about the Democrats? With 74 percent voter opposition to the measure and near assurance that the news media is watching, they also need to be careful. At the very least it now appears that the political price they will demand for supplying “yes” votes for House Bill 4298 has increased significantly.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.