Today’s Senate Floor discussion on Senate Bill 15–and the maneuvers leading up to that vote–are a prime example of how lawmakers, industry, and state agencies block citizens from engaging in the process, yet claim citizens are “ignorant” when they voice legitimate concerns.
In a 21-14 vote, a majority of Senators moved to pass a bill that started out the session as a simple one-page update to the wind facility permitting timeline and turned into a seven-and-a-half page gutting of the public hearing process for all energy facility permits.
Then, it was amended again on the Senate floor.
Senators Cast Doubt on People’s Input
In his floor pitch, Senator Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown), who has worked as an attorney for the wind development industry, claimed that opponents of the bill were ignorant as to its actual language and intent–while also admitting that opponents (Dakota Rural Action was specifically named) received a copy of the amendment language the night before the committee hearing. Other proponents testified that due to the fact that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), corporate wind developers, and the Governor’s office had all signed off on the new language, the bases were covered.
Except they forgot the most important base of all–South Dakotans and the grassroots groups that represent them.
SB 15 started out as a bill that extended the timeline for the PUC’s wind energy permit process from six months to one year. DRA supported that bill, as the number of massive wind project applications, primarily from out-of-state or foreign development corporations, have jumped substantially in the past year, and citizens are scrambling to digest and respond to the (literally) shopping carts-full of documents generated in these application processes.
Also testifying in favor of the PUC bill was the recently-formed group South Dakotans for Responsible Renewable Energy (SDRRE).
Citizen Groups Cut Out of the Process
Opposition to bringing the wind facility process in line with other permitting timelines was composed of wind development corporation lobbyists and the governor’s office, who claimed that if the PUC was unable to fulfill their duties in the current timeframe, they should hire more staff or become more “efficient.” The committee deferred action, and asked that the proponents and opponents sit down and work out a compromise.
But citizen groups were cut out of that process. Neither DRA or SDRRE were invited to work on the compromise amendment despite both groups’ lobbyists expressly and repeatedly indicating their desire to do so.
In fact, PUC Commissioner Gary Hansen wrote in a message to DRA’s lobbyist that, “You were not at the table because the other side would not permit it.” In other words, industry and the governor’s office dictated who got a seat at the table, and the PUC simply caved to those demands.
Dakota Rural Action did receive a copy of the draft amendment the night before the hearing–which was the last day for Tuesday/Thursday committees to consider bills in their own houses. That draft amendment clearly replaced the “public hearing” process outlined in state law with toothless “public input meetings” and gutted the section on who is eligible to file for a contested case hearing on permits–including removing grassroots groups like DRA.
Recognizing the hour was late, and other bills would likely interfere with our ability to attend the hearing, we forwarded the language to allied groups and members seasoned in the PUC permitting process, who all agreed that the amendment was troubling in the extreme.
While the language presented in committee the next day did not exactly match that received from the PUC the night before, it was substantively the same. Despite our late-night and early-morning mobilization, the amendment was adopted, the bill passed on a 5-2 vote, and it proceeded to the Senate floor.
Senate Floor Amendment Shows Potency of Public Input
While proponents of the bill claimed that the “tsunami of emails” they and other Senators received regarding this bill were uninformed as to its actual contents, DRA’s membership-wide alert on the bill came out after the “official” amendment was adopted, and our Weekly Legislative Update linked to that language–not to the “draft” amendment as Schoenbeck and others claimed.
While it’s disturbing to see some Senators acting as proxies for industry lobbyists, it was clear from testimony on the floor that they were frantically attempting to discredit the tidal wave of citizen opposition, while capitulating just enough with a new amendment to admit that, yes, citizens and the grassroots groups that represent them knew exactly what this bill did, and they were willing to act.
Dakota Rural Action supports renewable energy development. What we don’t support is corporate control of the process that excludes citizens and undermines their ability, as individuals or through the grassroots groups who represent them, to advocate for the health, safety, and welfare of their families and communities.
Stay Engaged! Citizen Input Can Impact the Outcome
With the new language in place just this afternoon, we will be analyzing the amended bill for further discussion ahead of the House Commerce & Energy Committee hearing. Your input is welcome, and you can send it to our lobbyist, Rebecca Terk, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for Taking Action!!!