Staff Columnist

Is more local control blowing in the wind?

A worker waits to take off a lifting strap fixed around a turbine blade as it is secured to the hub at Alliant Energy's English Farms Wind Farm near Deep River, Iowa on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Once completed, the farm with 69 wind turbines will produce around 170 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 60,000 houses. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A worker waits to take off a lifting strap fixed around a turbine blade as it is secured to the hub at Alliant Energy's English Farms Wind Farm near Deep River, Iowa on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Once completed, the farm with 69 wind turbines will produce around 170 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 60,000 houses. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

It didn’t get a ton of attention, but in late August, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds expressed what appeared to be a clear preference for local control. Some of us had to gain local control of our dropping jaws.

That’s because, as you might have noticed, the Branstad-Reynolds-Republican Trifecta era In Iowa has hardly been a golden age for cherishing local control under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

Asked about an effort by Madison County officials to limit the construction of wind energy turbines amid worries over health effects, Reynolds deferred to locals. The county board is considering an ordinance that would place a moratorium on new wind projects.

“This is a local decision, so that’s exactly what they should be doing,” Reynolds told reporters at a news conference. Turbine permits are a local, not a state, matter, she said.

Wind power advocates aren’t fans of the Madison County ordinance. And Iowa governors, as a general rule, have been wind power advocates. So I asked the governor’s office this past week whether Reynolds had further thoughts since August.

“Gov. Reynolds is proud of Iowa’s leadership role in renewable energy, supports the wind industry and the economic contributions it has made to the state,” Reynolds’ spokesman, Pat Garrett said in an email. “The governor’s comments from a few weeks ago concerned an isolated and non-binding resolution from a local county government expressing their opinion on wind turbines.”

It sounds as if the governor might be walking back her newfound affinity for local control. It’s fine, so long as it’s isolated and non-binding.

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Still, it’s an interesting shift of the weather vane, considering what we’ve seen in recent years.

Your kids and grandkids couldn’t start school before Aug. 23 this year because former Gov. Terry Branstad decided pleasing the State Fair and tourism interests was more important than letting local school boards control their calendars.

Republican lawmakers repealed minimum wage increases approved by several counties, including Linn and Johnson. Locals got tired of waiting for the Legislature to raise Iowa’s $7.25 hourly minimum that’s remained stagnant for a decade. As a bonus, the GOP majority refused to raise the statewide minimum.

GOP lawmakers passed legislation threatening to pull funding from localities that declined to follow orders from federal immigration officials. Local law enforcement agencies tried in vain to stop the bill, which would open them up to legal liability when ICE accidentally detains citizens. Oops. Reynolds raised campaign cash off the fears of “sanctuary cities” and immigrant hordes.

Of course the granddaddy of all affronts to local decision-making is Iowa’s system of statewide rules for siting large hog confinement operations. Calls for more local control over where confinements can be built have fallen largely on deaf ears, in both parties, over the past three decades.

But it’s the current crop of GOP leaders who have stubbornly refused to revise the oft-criticized “master matrix” scoring system for evaluating the potential impact of confinement projects. Supervisors in numerous counties, and in both parties, have called for a review of the deeply flawed scoring system. The Legislature and governor largely have ignored their concerns.

We simply can’t have a “patchwork” of rules, wages and livestock regulations. It would be chaos, say leaders of a state with a threadbare quilt of 99 counties dating back to fringed surreys.

But most recent state power grabs have involved a ruby red Statehouse targeting blue local governments that dare to resist the trifecta’s bulldozer agenda. Most of these moves also please the GOP’s big business and agriculture allies, writers of checks and loaners of jets.

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Cast against all of this, even Reynolds’ shifting wind stance stands out. But the turbine issue is more complicated.

Sure, Reynolds isn’t exactly a fan of the environmental groups who oppose turbine limits. But big utilities also oppose restrictions, and Reynolds has supported their agenda. For example, she signed a controversial utilities-backed bill in 2018 slashing funding for energy efficiency programs.

The health effects cited by turbine opponents aren’t backed up by any scientific consensus. Reynolds has declined to weigh in on the health debate. But her ally President Donald Trump has, repeatedly.

Back in April, when Trump asserted that “windmills” cause cancer, Reynolds refused to repudiate the president’s theory — dubbed “idiotic” by Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“You know how those things change. One year coffee’s good for you. The next year coffee causes cancer, I mean, that’s what happens,” Reynolds said.

Wind energy is an important, growing Iowa industry. The state is home to hundreds of turbines and thousands of wind energy jobs. Maybe local control can work, but with large turbine projects crossing county lines, we also might need the state to weigh in. Perhaps a good balance can be struck.

But that would take leadership. And with shifting winds coming from the governor’s office it’s tough to know which direction we’re going.

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

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