By Janette Rosenbaum, 350 Madison
In November 2018, Wisconsinites will vote for a governor. This post is the second in a series on the environmental views of the candidates. This series is for information only. 350 Madison does not officially support any candidate.
What are the most important issues that you would take on if you were elected governor?
“There are many important issues,” began Democratic candidate Kathleen Vinehout, who has been serving as a state senator for the past ten years. “I see as important priorities fixing problems with public education and the universities; focusing on quality, accessible healthcare; and fixing the many, many problems in the state related to the environment and conservation.”
Vinehout went on to explain that these three priorities encompass a slew of interrelated pieces, which are difficult to separate or even to count. The most important issue is the budget, Vinehout emphasized, since that is how a government sets out its priorities and allocates funds for addressing them.
Where would you rate environmental issues on your priority list?
Vinehout reiterated that the environment is in her top three priorities – along with healthcare and education – and that among those three, none is more important than the others. Vinehout then talked about the crucial role of money in making progress on priorities. “There are investments that need to be made,” she said.
In Wisconsin, expenses related to environmental issues are primarily funded by federal money, not state money, said the experienced senator. “The refrain that we hear over and over again is, there’s not enough money,” said Vinehout. She believes there’s plenty of money; we just need to be wiser about how we spend it.
“I wrote an alternative to the governor’s budget for the past four cycles,” said Vinehout, “showing that the cuts that were made – whether it’s environment, schools, or healthcare – did not have to happen. And my alternative budget took the same amount of money, rearranged the priorities, and accomplished these goals with the same amount of money that was in the budget.”
“It’s a question of leadership from the top,” Vinehout added, referring both to the governor and to highly-placed officials. Recent heads of Wisconsin’s DNR, Vinehout believes, did not have relevant experience and were not good choices for this important position.
What will we stop spending money on in order to free up funds for these priorities?
“I have a really long list,” Vinehout said, before going on to answer the question enthusiastically and at length. She began by naming tax credits to manufacturing and agricultural businesses, as an example of a big-ticket item that would make a real difference in the budget. There are 43 such tax credits, said Vinehout – 44 once Foxconn is in operation – and eliminating the 2011 Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit would, by itself, free up approximately $620 million in the biannual budget.
Next, Vinehout targeted public money going to private schools. “When you think about environmental issues,” she said, “it’s important to realize that a huge amount of money in the budget that is environmental money comes from either program revenue, or it’s fee-based, or it’s federal money.”
Vinehout also criticized Governor Walker’s decision to fire scientists who were primarily funded by federal dollars.
Returning to the topic of why the environment is such a high priority, Vinehout said, “I think it’s a mistake for people to say schools are more important than the environment, healthcare is more important than the environment. Frankly, if we don’t have a planet, none of that matters…. We have to fix the planet first, or we’re not going to have a home.”
Vinehout next focused on the problem of energy generation. “We love energy, as a society,” said the senator, who has a PhD in research and describes herself as a science-loving non-scientist. “But we have to change the way we generate that energy.”
Ten years ago, Vinehout recalled, when she began her career in the state senate, people were talking about renewable energy, and there were lots of ideas on the subject. Vinehout herself worked with farmers to help them be “more mindful of carbon emissions,” in terms of the diesel fuel being used in their tractors, but also their soil amendments and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2009, thanks to Vinehout’s efforts, the state budget included a prototype for an inexpensive manure digester that could be shared among medium-sized farms as a kind of co-op. “Everybody benefits from the sale of power back to the power company,” Vinehout said, referring to the use of manure digesters as a source of renewable energy. “By 2019, the whole infrastructure would have been developed.” But the project needed public investment to bring an affordable manure digester to market. This investment never materialized.
Do you know what Line 61 is?
Vinehout asked for a hint on 350 Madison’s pop quiz. Then she recalled that this tar sands pipeline was enabled by a “change in eminent domain law that allowed the pipeline companies and the transmission companies to, in my mind, cross the line between laws that benefit the public and laws that benefit the private sector.”
The change was snuck into the budget and is causing a lot of problems, Vinehout said, adding that she thinks the amendment violates Wisconsin’s constitution by creating a private law. **
Vinehout thinks the law should be changed, both because of the constitutional issue, and because of her own experience with eminent domain. “I have a transmission line that runs diagonally through my farm,” said Vinehout. “I’ve lived 12 miles away from a coal-burning power plant…. Another detail that was changed in the law has to do with the right-of-way of the power company to be able to take down trees and foliage from the center line.” The law used to allow the power company to clear land up to 50 feet from the right-of-way’s center line, but now that distance is 80 feet. Following the change, Vinehout said, in 2015, the power company took “huge swathes of mature hickory and black walnut trees off of my farm.”
But Vinehout did not want to focus on her personal experiences. “Much, much worse problems than me are happening all over the state.”
Vinehout said people often ask her how she will work with a Republican senate and a Republican assembly. “We have to focus on climate change,” she said emphatically, in answer to this question. “We have to do everything we can as a state.” What can we do as a state? Vinehout pointed out that the governor has many ways to address environmental issues, including appointing people, leveraging existing laws, and using the court system.
Before leaving for another meeting, Vinehout expressed her interest in learning more about the science behind environmental issues, and working with people around the state to create opportunities to make progress on these challenges.
**The budget rider that Vinehout refers to was passed in 2015, and would make it easier for a pipeline company to take additional land alongside Line 61, in order to build another pipeline in that corridor. Line 61 itself was constructed in 2009, well before this law was in place.