No single issue is worth risking the Iowa Senate majority

Shortly before the end of this year’s legislative session, former State Representative Ed Fallon announced “political action” to stop the proposed Bakken Oil Pipeline. He warned that if the Iowa House and Senate did not approve a bill to block the use of eminent domain for the project, he would organize and fundraise “to help defeat one or two Democratic Senators and one or two Republican Representatives” who oppose the bill.

On June 5, the Iowa House and Senate adjourned for the year without passing an eminent domain bill in either chamber. Last week Fallon confirmed that he is sticking to his goal of defeating one or two majority party members in both the House and Senate, adding that he had already raised $4,500 toward the cause.

All I can say is, count me out of that political crusade.

Come to think of it, I have a few more things to say on the subject.

THE RIGHT GOAL

I have long admired Fallon for his willingness to stand on principle, even when doing so was unpopular and put him at odds with almost all of his Iowa legislative colleagues. I voted for and volunteered for him in the 2006 Iowa Democratic primary for governor, then did the same in the 2008 primary to represent Iowa’s third Congressional district. I share Fallon’s views on the Bakken pipeline and am an active volunteer with several of the non-profits in the coalition formed to fight the pipeline, including 1000 Friends of Iowa, the group Fallon co-founded during the 1990s to advocate for responsible land use.

The Bakken project is a bad idea for many reasons. As Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson explained here, proponents have greatly exaggerated the fiscal and economic benefits to Iowa. The pipeline threatens serious harm to Iowa soil and water. Iowa’s current law on indemnity funds would not require the parent company to set aside enough money to cover the cost of cleaning up an oil spill. The pipeline would reinforce our reliance on fossil fuels, increasing future greenhouse gas emissions without even reducing U.S. consumption of foreign oil, as there is no guarantee products refined from Bakken crude oil would remain in this country.

To his credit, Fallon is incredibly committed to stopping the pipeline. He spent nearly two months earlier this year walking some 400 miles along the proposed route, talking with landowners who would be affected and holding public meetings to mobilize opposition. He staged a sit-in at the governor’s office last month to call attention to eminent domain policy, eventually getting arrested. (He pled guilty to trespassing, got credit for the hours he served in jail, and paid a fine plus court costs.)

The eminent domain bill Fallon went to such lengths to support includes the following language: “A major oil pipeline company […] that has not received a permit under this chapter on or before January 12, 2015, shall not be granted, or otherwise vested with, the right of eminent domain.” House Government Oversight Committee Chair Bobby Kaufmann introduced this bill in the Iowa House, where it failed to make headway. An identical bill, Senate File 506, passed the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee on May 6 thanks to Democratic State Senators Rob Hogg, Brian Schoenjahn, and Kevin Kinney, and Republican Jack Whitver. The bill never came up for a vote on the Senate floor, however. On the last day of this year’s session, it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee instead.

I back the eminent domain bill, even though some in the environmental community had misgivings about provisions that would prevent the seizure of private land to complete the Rock Island Clean Line for transmitting wind-generated electricity.

According to a February poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register, 57 percent of respondents support the Bakken pipeline and 64 percent feel the same way about the wind energy transmission line, but “Only 19 percent of Iowans favor allowing the use of eminent domain to build pipelines or transmission lines, while 74 percent are opposed and 7 percent are not sure.”

In other words, Fallon’s perspective on this land use issue is not only grounded in legitimate concern for the environment and private property rights, but also shared by most Iowans.

THE WRONG MEANS

Fallon sees public opinion on his side of the eminent domain debate as an invitation to play a “trump card.” Scroll to the bottom of this post to read his entire call to hit Iowa House and Senate leaders “on the two things they pay most attention to: money and votes.”

The political strategy is deeply flawed.

The eminent domain bill was always going to be a heavy lift.

You only have to look at the lobbyist declarations to realize that the eminent domain bill was a long-shot prospect, at best. A smattering of environmental and progressive advocacy groups were registered in favor of the legislation. Lined up against it were the Association of Business and Industry (an influential group with statehouse Republicans) and lobbyists representing various labor unions (who often have the ear of Democratic lawmakers).

Even if the Iowa House and Senate had approved Senate File 506, Governor Terry Branstad would never have signed the legislation. He warned lawmakers in January not to engage in “political interference” with the Iowa Utilities Board process for considering energy projects.

In addition, Branstad’s 2010 campaign manager and longtime chief of staff Jeff Boeyink is now lobbying on behalf of the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access LLC, which wants to build the Bakken pipeline. Lawmakers have not over-ridden a Branstad veto during the last four years, and there’s no reason to think they would start with this bill.

The eminent domain bill is not the only way to stop the Bakken pipeline.

Senate File 506 would be sufficient to block the Bakken project, but it may not be necessary. The Sierra Club Iowa chapter will pursue every legal avenue.

Wallace Taylor of Cedar Rapids, a lawyer for the Sierra Club, said he strongly rejects implications by some pipeline supporters that approval by the Iowa Utilities Board is a foregone conclusion. The proposed pipeline is an unprecedented project for Iowa because, unlike electrical generating plants and many other projects proposed by the energy industry to the Iowa Utilities Board, the Bakken pipeline would not serve Iowa utility customers, he said.

“This project has no benefit to Iowa, and in fact damages our land, our water and our people,” Taylor said.

There are many hurdles that Dakota Access must clear before receiving authorization to construct the pipeline, including environmental approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Taylor said. He made it clear the Sierra Club will fight the project every step of the way, and before every state and federal agency.

Even if the fix is in at the Iowa Utilities Board, a series of delays can sometimes prompt a corporation to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of an investment project. The Sierra Club won’t be the only source of those delays. Gavin Aronsen recently reported for the Ames Tribune on one landowner’s legal efforts to block a survey of his farm, which lies in the proposed Bakken path. Although that Boone County man may not prevail in court, he can help run up the costs for Dakota Access, especially if others follow his example.

The Iowa House and Senate majorities are not equally vulnerable.

In Fallon’s view, replacing a few legislators who oppose the eminent domain bill would

change the political dynamic at the Statehouse, to let elected leaders know that people are tired of being taken for granted. […]

The goal is very strategic: defeat one or two majority party members in both the House and Senate. That would send a strong message to leaders in both parties that if they refuse to do what’s right for Iowa’s people, our land and our planet there will be political consequences.

Trouble is, Fallon’s action would not “change the political dynamic at the Statehouse.” Republicans enjoy a 57 to 43 Iowa House majority. Democrats have opportunities to pick up seats in a presidential election year, but winning back the House would be quite difficult. I doubt Speaker Kraig Paulsen or other members of the House leadership team (who mostly represent safe seats) are worried about Bakken pipeline opponents taking down a couple members of their caucus.

In contrast, Senate Democrats are clinging to the ledge, defending their one-seat majority for the third election cycle in a row. Republicans have a much better chance of gaining control of the upper chamber next November than Democrats do of winning back the Iowa House. Fallon’s pledge to raise $25,000 for each anti-pipeline candidate might not be a large sum in a competitive Iowa Senate district, where both parties might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. On the other hand, every election year at least one Iowa Senate race seems to be decided by a tiny margin, often a hundred votes or fewer.

If Republicans do manage to win back the Iowa Senate next November, does anyone think GOP leader Bill Dix will interpret the election results as a mandate to pass eminent domain legislation?

A power shift in the Iowa Senate would be a catastrophe.

Bleeding Heartland readers probably don’t need me to spell out how many terrible Republican policies have failed to become Iowa law thanks to Democratic control of the upper chamber. A GOP state Senate would have approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, a 20-week abortion ban, new limits on collective bargaining rights for teachers and others, and pro-gun bills including “Stand Your Ground.” Without the need to compromise with Senate Democrats, Iowa Republicans would have passed and Branstad would have signed more income tax cuts for the wealthy and more property tax cuts skewed toward big retail chains. K-12 and higher education would be funded at a lower level, as would many other programs supporting conservation, water quality, legal aid, and even assistance for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Progressives may be disappointed by recent state budget deal-making, but without the Democratic-controlled Senate we wouldn’t win any of those fights.

Look at states where Republicans have had the “trifecta” (both chambers of the legislature plus the governor’s office) since 2010. Budgets are in shambles, with unaffordable tax cuts starving government services that kids and vulnerable adults rely on. Wisconsin couldn’t even make its regularly scheduled debt repayment this spring.

Opposing the Bakken pipeline is important, but not more important than all of those other battles combined.

Fallon has an answer for critics of his single-issue focus:

Constituency and advocacy groups target resources in political campaigns based on a single issue all the time. And if an issue is important enough, there’s no reason it should not be the litmus test for whether or not a politician deserves reelection.

It’s one thing to conclude an elected official no longer deserves your active support in the form of campaign contributions, volunteer sweat equity, or even a hold-your-nose vote. Working to toss your whole party out of power is another matter.

Is punishing a couple of wrong-headed Democratic senators worth swapping out Senate President Pam Jochum for Republican number two Jack Whitver? How do you fancy GOP Senator Randy Feenstra replacing Joe Bolkcom as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee?

Blowing up our Iowa Senate firewall would be a disaster for the environmental community, including groups in the “No Bakken” coalition.  

I will take that message to every “Fallonista” I know.

Full statement released by Ed Fallon on June 2, “Political Action to Stop the Bakken Oil Pipeline.”

The vast majority of Iowans overwhelmingly oppose letting a private corporation condemn farmland for an oil pipeline. Yet the Legislature’s leadership – both Republican and Democrat – refuses to bring up the eminent domain bill for a vote.

Thousands of Iowans have spoken out against the pipeline and in support of SF 506 and HSB 249. We have written our lawmakers, the Governor, the Iowa Utilities Board and our local newspapers. We have spoken out at public forums. Landowners have gone so far as to record conversations with pipeline representatives, called their county sheriff to prevent pipeline workers from trespassing on their property, hired attorneys, and many more actions that are courageous and commendable.

For my part, I walked 400 miles across Iowa along the path of the proposed pipeline and was arrested for refusing to leave Governor Branstad’s office. I am passionately committed to stopping this pipeline. As I considered what else could be done, I realized that our trump card is to hit the political leadership at the Iowa Statehouse on the two things they pay most attention to: money and votes.

So, today, I firmly commit myself to an action that will be more challenging and more time-consuming than walking across Iowa or getting arrested. Today, I commit myself to organizing landowners and other pipeline opponents to help defeat one or two Democratic Senators and one or two Republican Representatives who are opposed to the eminent domain bill.

The goal is to raise $25,000 for the opponent of each targeted incumbent and to train and organize 100 volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls, and speak to small groups. We’ll put together a grassroots army of pipeline fighters. Iowa’s political establishment should take this effort very seriously, as defeating one or two incumbents could well change the balance of power at the Statehouse.

I am in a credible position to help lead this effort. When I ran for Governor and Congress, I raised half-a-million dollars in each campaign. Over the past three decades, I have helped organize literally thousands of volunteers on political and issue campaigns. And I don’t back down from a fight.

There is one caveat: If the House passes the bill, we won’t work to defeat one or two majority Republicans. Similarly, if the Senate passes the bill, we won’t work to defeat one or two majority Democrats. My sincere hope is that both chambers pass the bill and send it to the Governor. If the Governor signs it, great! If he vetoes it, then let this be the second time in the past decade that the Legislature overrode a governor’s veto on an eminent domain bill.

The proposed pipeline is wrong for so many reasons. It further exacerbates the climate crisis. It will cause great harm to Iowa’s waterways when it breaks – not if, but when. It further consolidates the unholy alliance of Big Oil and Big Government. And it sows despair among the many rural landowners and their urban allies who feel that the average person’s freedom and liberty doesn’t matter anymore and that big corporations with political connections and deep pockets can simply waltz-in and confiscate someone’s land.

One thing is more powerful than Big Oil and Big Government, and that is passionate people who are organized, unafraid, armed with truth, and willing to fight for freedom, liberty and justice.

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