Staff Columnist

Statehouse energy bill didn't have to be slash-and-burn

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

It’s truly too bad snake oil isn’t a source of energy, especially considering the sheer volume of flammable flimflam oozing from a bill sent to our governor’s desk this week rewriting Iowa’s energy policies.

But backers of Senate File 2311 did manage to light up the Iowa House all night last Thursday into Friday in the interest of slashing energy efficiency programs by more than $100 million and making other changes to utility law only a utility lobbyist could love. The bill passed just after 5 a.m., 52-42, and well before sunrise.

Sleep deprivation and cover of darkness always make for some fine lawmaking.

It cleared the Senate this week on a party-line vote with majority Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. Gov. Kim Reynolds could sign, or veto, the bill any minute now.

Republican backers insist starving a bunch of effective, once-bipartisan energy efficiency efforts will make energy cheaper and benefit consumers. It’s the sort of argument that would get laughed out of a high school debate club, but not under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

Republicans claim the bill will cut consumers’ bills by capping the amount of money utilities can spend on energy efficiency, cutting it by as much as two-thirds. It also allows consumers to opt-out of paying for energy efficiency plans that can’t meet a cost-effectiveness test, or the “ratepayer impact test.”

Trouble is, the test favors programs that save utilities money, short-term, and flunks many programs that save consumers bucks and yield long-term conservation benefits. So a discount for LED light bulbs underwritten by utilities might make the cost-benefit cut but weatherization and insulation assistance might not. In fact, critics of the bill contend most current efficiency efforts would fail the test.

But that’s a feature, not a flaw. With caps and the opt-outs, Republicans say ratepayers will save big bucks now. They call energy efficiency a scam and a “hidden tax.”

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But what will Iowans pay later when energy efficiency efforts evaporate, energy use rises and utilities need to build new plants and other pricey infrastructure? And what about all the small businesses that sell energy efficiency products and services? Thousands of jobs could be lost. What a way to celebrate National Small Business Week.

Speaking of scams, if the bill is so pro-consumer, why is it that not one group, interest or organization representing consumers is registered to lobby in support of the bill? Why is it that the only entities lobbying for it are utility companies?

“As passed by the House, SF 2311 is a utility bill good for utilities that will result ultimately in higher rates for customers,” wrote Mark Schuling, Iowa’s actual state consumer advocate, in a letter to lawmakers.

This could have been different. When Reynolds led the push to draft the Iowa Energy Plan, she brought everybody to the table. The resulting strategy emphasizes the importance of energy efficiency as a pillar of Iowa’s future. The GOP Legislature could have done the same in reforming, but not gutting, these programs. Why is it always slash-and-burn with these guys?

Reynolds should veto the bill. But this legislation never should have slithered all the way to her desk.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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