JACK SPENCER: GOP gets a twofer; more fog expected anyway

The two stories that most dominated Michigan politics in 2015 were – to a large extent - simultaneously resolved last week. Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled House and Senate reached agreement on a $1.2 billion road funding package. On the same day the package passed, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, the lawmakers forced out of the House over allegations connected to a sex scandal, lost reelection bids that could have led to them winning back their seats.

Politically-speaking last week’s events pulled two monkeys off the backs of House Republicans, who unlike Snyder and Senate members will be facing elections in 2016. Whether or not one likes the road funding deal; having gotten the issue off their plates is undoubtedly viewed as a big win by the House GOP.

Yes, they’ll experience plenty of headaches facing voters in light of the plan’s phased-in 26.3 cent gas tax hike and its roughly 20 percent increase in registration fees. However, other aspects of the plan, including the fact that it doesn’t rely solely on the tax and fee increases but also taps existing government revenues, may supply just enough rhetorical aspirin to mitigate the pain.

For House Republicans the perception that Michigan roads have been deteriorating with next to nothing being done about it, was a serious concern. The reality that Michigan’s road funding budget for this year was the third highest in state history – and was achieved with no new taxes or fees - is information of the type that most of the state’s news media remains blissfully ignorant or prefers to ignore. Unfortunately, that leaves most of the public in the dark as well.

Considering that 2016 is a presidential election year, which usually means Democrats will turnout in high numbers, it is likely House Republicans saw the final road plan as “the best deal” they could get. Mark these words carefully – “the best deal we could get.” It is probable we’ll hear those words repeated often during next summer’s GOP primary races.

Regarding Courser and Gamrat, House Republican leadership was most assuredly relieved when neither won their special primary elections. To House Republicans the specter of either or both being in a position to return to the legislature would have presented at the very least a distraction, at worst an awkward and uncomfortable conundrum.

As the scandal and road funding dramas recede, other major issues in Lansing ought to start receiving more attention. However, one of the most important centers on a subject the public has difficulty following – energy policy. Lawmakers are currently working on legislation to rearrange Michigan’s energy laws. By its very nature this involves a mind-numbing array of technical terms, acronyms and insider elitist jargon that average folks find both boring and confusing. This in turn invites the dissemination of misinformation to a degree surpassing that of most other topics.

At the beginning of the year there was an attempt to move legislation that would eliminate the scant 10 percent competition Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison face in the electricity market. This competition is referred to as “choice” and the straightforward effort to eliminate it was quickly defeated by public opinion.

But Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison, the state’s two quasi monopolistic utilities, exercise tremendous influence over the legislature and they were ready with an alternative plan. The new plan ostensibly keeps “choice” in place, but puts more restrictions on how it operates. Proponents of “choice” argue that this plan is a wolf in sleep’s clothing that would simply eliminate “choice” over a period of time instead of all at once.

The new cleverly nuanced plan seems to be proving more difficult to combat politically than the one that would have eliminated “choice” immediately. With backers of the new plan denying it would get rid of “choice,” the dispute is no longer about the merits of “choice,” it is instead about what the legislation would actually do. As a result, compelling arguments pointing out the benefits of competition are now landing wide of the target.

Another development on the energy front includes legislation that sets a goal for 30 percent of Michigan’s energy sources to be provided by a combination of alternative energy and reducing “energy waste” by 2030. The term “alternative energy” for all intents and purposes means “wind power.”

There is a huge difference between a “goal” and a “mandate.” A “mandate” is a requirement; a “goal” is . . . well just a goal. This is something environmental groups were quick to notice and quick to complain about.

To many who see “wind power” as an expensive inefficient gimmick, setting a “goal” of 30 percent by 2030 can seem relatively harmless. However, that might not prove entirely true. The 30 percent “goal” could provide wind developers with an additional tool for confusing local officials and pressuring them into approving wind projects. There are already so many misperceptions used to promote “wind power” that even simply setting a “goal” potentially adds to the muddle.

How transforming would it be if the public generally knew the following basic facts about “wind power”? Two-thirds of what is called “wind power” is generated from fossil fuels and no measurements are ever required to determine how much “wind power” really lowers emissions; or whether it actually lowers emissions at all.

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.