Iowa Senate Commerce Committee clears pro-nuclear bill

Republicans saved the day for Iowa Senate Commerce Committee Chair Matt McCoy, providing most of the votes he needed to drag the nuclear energy bill over the line on Tuesday.

McCoy twice postponed Commerce Committee votes on House File 561, unsure he had enough votes for letting MidAmerican Energy bill ratepayers up front for possible future costs of building a nuclear reactor. The third time was a charm yesterday. In the afternoon, the committee members considered what McCoy has described as his “consumer-friendly amendment.” That amendment was drafted to prevent MidAmerican from walking away from a project after collecting construction fees for years. However, several analysts say McCoy’s amendment addresses none of House File 561’s central problems and still allows the investor-owned utility to shift costs and risks onto consumers.

McCoy admitted that his amendment was not “perfect” but said it would greatly improve the version of House File 561 that the Iowa House passed in April 2011. The Commerce Committee approved the amendment by ten votes to five. All the opponents were Democrats: Joe Bolkcom, Tom Courtney, Liz Mathis, Joe Seng, and Mary Jo Wilhelm. Democrats Brian Schoenjahn, Daryl Beall, and Tom Rielly joined McCoy in supporting the chair’s amendment, as did all the Commerce Committee Republicans: Bill Anderson, Rick Bertrand, Randy Feenstra, Steve Kettering, Pat Ward, and Brad Zaun.

The Commerce Committee adjourned for several hours so that members could conduct business on the Senate floor. Later in the day, the committee resumed consideration of the bill.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, attempted to amend the bill to ease the impact on consumers but all of his amendments failed.

One would have exempted customers 65 and older from paying increased rates to help defray the costs of the plant if the Iowa Utilities Board moved the project forward.

Another amendment would have exempted residential customers from paying increases until the plant was operational and generating power, and another would have left cities, counties and school districts out of the rate increase.

Bolkcom also tried to tack on an amendment that would have required a public vote to approve a nuclear plant project.

“This is going to cost people money, a lot of money, and I just think it might be important to give them an opportunity to support this proposal by allowing a popular vote on whether or not we should move ahead with this facility,” he said.

Credit goes to Bolkcom for trying to improve to a bad bill.

After considering all proposed amendments, the Commerce Committee voted eight to seven to send House File 561 to the full Senate. The only Democrats in favor were McCoy, who’s in a safe seat and not up for re-election until 2014, and Rielly, who is retiring this year. All seven other Democrats voted no: Beall, Bolkcom, Courtney, Mathis, Schoenjahn, Wilhelm, and Seng. All the committee Republicans voted for the bill, proving the Des Moines rumor mill wrong. James Q. Lynch reported that Feenstra initially voted against House File 561 but switched to a “yes” vote when he realized the bill would fail otherwise.

McCoy promised that when the whole Senate takes up House File 561, “We’re going to have a full and faithful debate and consider amendments.” I suspect that many Democratic incumbents will beg Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal not to bring this bill to the floor. There’s no chance of making this one a low-profile vote:

A spokesman from the AARP – a group that is one of the most aggressive fighters of the bill –  told The Des Moines Register late Tuesday that the organization will soon unveil an Iowa voter education program complete with a Web site to highlight how each lawmaker voted on the issue.

“We’ll make every effort to make sure that Iowans know how these lawmakers – both the Senate and the House – voted on this all the way through the election,” said Anthony Carroll, a lobbyist for the AARP.

McCoy didn’t strengthen his case:

“I don’t know whether this is the right piece of policy to pursue, but I do believe allowing this legislation to go forward and keeping this option on the table will allow us as a state to set the course on energy policy for the next 50 to 100 years,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who is leading discussion on the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee. […]

McCoy noted federal environmental standards are making coal plants increasingly difficult to keep open. Expansion of use of renewable fuels such as wind and solar energy is admirable and preferred, but such fuels are not dependable for peak usages like nuclear power is, he said. He noted that more than $450 million in federal grants is available to states that consider nuclear expansion.

So, the bill’s chief sponsor doesn’t “know whether this is the right piece of policy to pursue”; he just wants Iowa to keep its options open. If I’m a vulnerable incumbent, do I want to incur the wrath of the AARP for something McCoy doesn’t even fully stand behind? The Des Moines Register’s editorial board pointed out this week that a three-year feasibility study on nuclear power will be completed in 2013. Why rush to pass an unpopular bill now when senators can wait to see whether the nuclear option is viable for Iowa? MidAmerica’s ratepayers are footing the bill for that feasibility study, by the way.

Several other states have approved advanced cost-recovery legislation, and the federal government has offered loan guarantees for new nuclear energy projects for years. Still, no new nuclear power plant has been built in the U.S. in decadese. If nuclear energy were a wonderful, dependable solution, investors would have already financed at least one of those projects. If billing ratepayers up front were such a great idea, Florida legislators wouldn’t be trying to repeal their own law forcing consumers to pay for a utility’s nuclear dreams.

Yesterday was a setback for opponents of House File 561, but there’s no guarantee the bill will ever come to the Senate floor. If Gronstal does decide to bring it up for a vote, passage is assured, because Senate Republicans support the measure, and the Democratic caucus is divided. In that case, the amended House File 561 would go back to the Republican-controlled Iowa House. I believe it would pass, but probably not by as large a majority as it did last year. Three separate statewide polls have indicated that Iowans oppose the central elements of advance cost-recovery legislation. Once the AARP turns up the heat, I expect several state representatives to change their minds on this issue.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Democratic Senator Beall discussed the nuclear bill in his March 16 newsletter.

I cannot support this legislation, not because I am anti-nuclear per se, but because it socializes the investment and privatizes the profit. Ratepayers are left holding the proverbial bag, even if the plant is never built. I think Warren Buffett and MidAmerican’s stockholders should pay for this, not MidAmerican’s ratepayers. We gave MidAmerican three years to research the issue and report back to the legislation. I voted against that issue too, because their customers — ratepayers — had to pay for it. One year later (not three) they asked the legislature to move forward without even providing any results to their $15 million study. I am told they won’t have the study completed for another year. Nevertheless, MidAmerican is asking the legislature to move ahead. As a populist, I cannot support this financing scheme.

And as a proponent of renewable energy, I had a feed-in tariff bill that could have been added as an amendment, but was killed last year by the Commerce Committee chair. It would have required more of MidAmerican’s portfolio to be renewables — wind, solar and biomass. The bill is technically still alive, but not as part of the nuclear bill. Natural gas is another alternative, and it’s safe and relatively inexpensive.

Finally, I have serious reservations about the radioactive waste. What is MidAmerican’s plan for unspent fuel rods? We don’t know. There are other environmental concerns and the specter of Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima should not hang over Iowa. From 1952 until 2009, there were 99 serious accidents at nuclear energy generating plants. I continue to have safety concerns. A nuclear accident could make Iowa farmland unproductive and uninhabitable for 25,000 years. That’s too great of risk and price to pay, especially when other alternatives exist.

So at this time, I cannot support HF 561. The Commerce Committee, of which I am a member, met until 9 p.m. Tuesday. It passed out of the committee on an 8-7 vote. I voted no. Three Republican senators were on record opposing the measure, but all three voted yes. One Republican senator, Randy Feenstra from Hull, voted no and then when it was apparent the bill would fail, changed his no vote to yes. HF 561 would have died in Commerce Committee on a 7-8 vote, but instead, barely passed on an 8-7 vote. It now moves to the full Senate for floor debate. I have been consistently recorded as a “no” vote.

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