The Wisconsin Federation of College Republicans made national news recently for taking an audacious stand: In a statement (PDF) bashing President Barack Obama's "nanny-state" climate-change initiatives, the state campus group argued that this is an issue the GOP should address.
"It is time we apply conservative principles to climate policy," the statement said, quoting a member who predicted, "Wisconsin will lead."
That may be overly optimistic. A recent study (PDF) ranked Wisconsin 19th in the nation for clean-energy leadership, behind all four of its Midwest neighbors.
Of the more than 600 bills introduced in Wisconsin's 2013-14 legislative session, none contains the terms "climate change," "greenhouse gases" or "global warming," and only a handful deal with energy policy.
A mostly Democrat-backed bill (SB 64) calling on state facilities to generate or buy 30% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025 has not advanced: no hearings, no committee action. Current law sets the goal at 20% by the end of 2011. The actual level in 2012 was 15.6%.
State Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) plans to introduce an "Energy Jobs Fund" bill this fall (previously offered as a budget amendment). It would create a revolving loan fund to make government buildings more efficient, paid back "through the realized energy savings."
Meanwhile, Republicans have introduced bills to ease a mandate that electric providers use more renewables (SB 47) and let local governments enact tougher rules for wind-power systems than those in state law (SB 71).
Environmentalist Spencer Black, a Democrat from Madison who logged 26 years in the Assembly, says that while states like California have taken major steps to address climate change, Wisconsin is "going the opposite way, making it harder to have renewable energy in this state."
He blames this on Republicans who have "coalesced against anything that would limit the use of fossil fuels." He says that's because the industry has spent millions of dollars trying to create confusion over the danger posed by climate change.
Yet even when Democrats ran the show, in 2010, they weren't able to pass a bill (AB 649) introduced by Black and backed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle calling for new emission controls, along with renewable energy and conservation mandates. Dubbed the "Clean Energy Jobs Act," the bill and its Senate companion (SB 450) generated 15,200 hours of reported lobbying activity, more than anything else that legislative session.
The green group Wisconsin's Environmental Decade (now named Clean Wisconsin), a proponent, logged 1,674 hours. The business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, registered in opposition, put in 1,111 hours.
Lobby groups representing the energy company Koch Industries and its subsidiary, Georgia Pacific, invested 1,124 hours. Their official position: "Undisclosed." Koch Industries is run by billionaire oil barons David and Charles Koch.
Now the Koch-funded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity has crafted a "No Climate Tax Pledge" for state and national politicians, committing them to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue."
The pledge has more that 400 signers, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, U.S. Reps. Sean Duffy, Reid Ribble and Jim Sensenbrenner, state Sens. Alberta Darling, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich and Leah Vukmir, and state Reps. Dale Kooyenga, Bill Kramer, Jim Ott and Don Pridemore, all Republicans.
As governor, Walker has nixed a high-speed train, UW-Madison biofuels plant, state renewable energy initiatives and the state Office of Energy Independence.
Asked about climate change, Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster writes: "The governor believes the focus in protecting our natural resources should be science-based and predictable. He believes you can ensure Wisconsin has clean air, clean land and clean water, while still fostering a positive business climate."
Spokespeople for state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) did not respond to requests for comment.
If the College Republicans want Wisconsin to lead in this area, they have their work cut out.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.
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