Profiles in Cowardice

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature bow to lobbyist pressure and approve a government-backed monopoly…they just don’t want you to know they did it.  Dan O’Donnell on the shameful path to pass Right of First Refusal.

Feb 20, 2024
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

The Wisconsin Assembly passed one of the more controversial but lesser-known pieces of legislation last week and no one can tell you what the final vote was.  In a move generally reserved for benign actions like naming post offices, Assembly Republicans passed their Right of First Refusal bill on a voice vote—giving each of them plausible deniability when confronted by an angry constituency.

The measure allows the three electrical transmission companies that currently serve Wisconsin to decide whether to allow out-of-state-companies to bid on new large transmission projects. The first round of projects in Wisconsin is “only” $2 billion of construction in Wisconsin. However, the Upper Midwest’s regional power grid estimates a total package of up to $100 billion, and Wisconsin would pay for roughly 13% of that. This would create a government-backed cartel that could push the cost to taxpayers as much as 30% higher than it would be with open, competitive bidding.  Long term, the financial damage accumulates even more due to the utilities earning 10.52% return on equity (profit). The competitive financing packages, much like a lower interest rate on a home mortgage, provide relief to the consumer in the short and long run.

With as much government money on the line and a chance to eliminate any competition for it, the Wisconsin-based utility companies hired a truly eye-popping 45 lobbyists who spent a combined 2,234 hours in the Capitol in just the last six months of 2023—more than double the amount of time spent lobbying on any other piece of legislation.

No politician wants to be seen as being in the pocket of lobbyists, of course, so Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Tyler August allowed the measure to pass on a voice vote, in which members shout “aye” or “nay” instead of recording their votes.  August, who was presiding over the Assembly at the time, could have called for a roll call vote—which would tell taxpayers exactly which of their representatives voted for an electrical transmission oligarchy—but did not.

Any one of the Assembly’s 98 other members could have requested a roll call vote if 15 other members seconded the motion, but none of them did.  A handful of Republicans raced to the Speaker’s dais immediately after the vote to request that their opposition to the measure be recorded, but none of them dared to make a motion to require a voice vote and there is no evidence that any of them would have seconded such a motion.

The measure now heads to the Wisconsin Senate, where Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu has been feverishly working to get Democrats to support the measure since as many as 10 or 11 Republicans will not.

This is what passes for conservative leadership in Wisconsin: One legislative chamber that is too afraid to let voters know which members support a government-backed monopoly and another chamber that is actively seeking Democrat support for a measure that is antithetical to everything Republicans profess to stand for.

It’s a revealing look at the dirty business of politics; where lobbyist dollars rule, and taxpayers are sold out by cowards desperate to avoid accountability.  True conservatives in the Senate have a chance to stand against this and stand up for their constituents, but even if they are outnumbered by the lobbyists’ puppets, they can at least demand that voters know who it was that sold them out.

Because a good number of them will remember their names come November.