At 'public' hearing on energy, the public is relegated to sit in the back of the bus

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It may be impolitic to say this while we are encouraging people to attend public hearings on the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, but the first public hearing on the bill, held Wednesday by a special State Senate committee, was a nightmare if you were a member of the public trying to have a voice.

Most of the activists from the Carbon Free Nuclear Free campaign, opposed to the nuclear section of the bill,waited more than eight hours to testify for four minutes in a nearly-empty room with almost all of the committee members gone. Environmental groups, who supported the bill, didn't fare much better.

If you had the misfortune to be a woman, or a person of color, you were at the absolute bottom of the barrel. With a single exception, a parade of white men in suits testified for the first eight hours. The one exception was a woman representing an electric utility.

The hearing on the comprehensive 174-page bill drew a full house in one of the State Capitol's biggest hearing rooms. Many of the CFNF representatives -- which included most of the women in attendance -- got there early and registered before the hearing started at 10 a.m., when the room was less than half full. The page who took my registration slip said people would be called in the order the slips came in.

It's understandable that the first witnesses were the heads of three state agencies -- the Public Service Commission, Natural Resources and Commerce -- with key roles in the legislation, although it's debatable whether that should have taken two hours with questions and posturing from committee members.

After that came the parade of lobbyists, business and utility executives, unions, and other suits -- the people who are in the Capitol regularly and, in many cases, probably had already delivered their messages personally to members of the committee in private meetings.

You might have thought that, for comic relief, if nothing else, someone representing a citizens group might have been thrown into the mix -- maybe even one every hour or so, just to provide a little contrast and have someone talking about something besides money.

Never happened. And as the hours dragged on -- and on -- and on -- without a single member of a citizen group or individual citizen called to testify, it sometimes became theater of the absurd, as State Sen. Glenn Grothman and State Rep. Jim Ott put on a show to challenge whether global warming was really happening. If you could keep a sense of humor, what John LaForge of Nukewatch called a Flat Earth Society meeting was kind of amusing -- for awhile.

"The reason to fight global warming is to make it colder," Ott, a former TV weatherman said. "How much colder would you like it to be?" It was, indeed, cold outside, not that it had any relevance.

Grothman, meanwhile, declaring that the last two years had been colder in Wisconsin, asked witnesses how many years in a row it would have to get cooler before they gave up this silly global warming idea.

A representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the last decade was the warmest on record, and explained that climate change is measured in periods of 20 to 30 years, while weather -- which is measured by TV weathermen --- is measured pretty much all the time.

And that thought that someone from the public should get shuffled in now and then? What a silly idea. The suits marched on. (In fairness, I should note that even the we energies lobbyist, Joel Haubrich, a white guy in a suit, didn't get called till around 4 p.m.)

After that, the first environmental groups, Clean Wisconsin and Wisconsin Environment, (represented by two suitably attired white men) got a chance to weigh in.

I was the first (suitless, but reasonably clean) Carbon Free Nuclear Free representative called, about 5:45 p.m. The only people left in the room were those doggedly awaiting their turn to speak. Many had left, including more than half of the dozen people in our loosely-connected contingent. John LaForge of Nukewatch drove 4-1/2 hours from Polk County on Tuesday, and finally had to leave and drive the 4-1/2 hours back late Wednesday afternoon without ever getting to testify.

By the time I finished, or soon thereafter, the only members of the eight-member committee still there were the co-chairs, State Sens. Jeff Plale and Mark Miller, who were awarded the Order of the Iron Butt when the hearing ended.

Sometime after 6, Shahla Werner of the Sierra Club (profile: woman representing an environmental group) got her turn. Then the floodgates opened. Plale, in the chair, began calling names of women and activists,, most of whom had had to leave by then. Finally he reached Jennifer Nordstrom of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and Rosy Ricks of Think Outside the Bomb, the first person of color, who noted that "the working poor, women and people of color" were missing from the hearing.

"I don't have a fancy degree; I'm working on it. I don't have a suit, and I didn't get paid to be here," Ricks said in what was hands-down the most heartfelt testimony of the day. More nuclear power, she said, will expose her 3-year-old son and other Wisconsin children to poison for the sake of corporate profiteers.

Then came the only black man of the day, Royal Elmore, a nuclear advocate and gratuate student with the Nuclear Engineering Research Group at the University of Wisconsin.

The last person called, at 6:40 p.m., about nine hours after she registered, was Diane Farsetta, who coordinates the Carbon Free Nuclear Free campaign for the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice.

Democracy in action.

Rosy Ricks suggested we might do better at next week's hearing if we change the name of our organization to something like Wisconsin Network for Corporate Profit and National Security. It might be worth a try. Should I wear a suit?

For the record, here is some of the testimony that was or would have been delivered at the hearing. Those with asterisks had to leave and only were able to submit written comments. Others without written comments simply had to leave after waiting for hours.

Jennifer Nordstrom, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

Bill Christofferson, Wis. Network for Peace and Justice

John LaForge, Nukewatch*

Pam Kleiss, Physicians for Social Responsibility*

Diane Farsetta, Wis. Network for Peace and Justice's Carbon Free Nuclear Free campaign

Sara Barczak, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy*

Rosy Ricks, Think Outside The Bomb

(The Wisconsin Eye camera was there to capture the entire proceedings, so if you have nine hours to kill, here's a link. It's the Senate Committee on Clean Energy on 1.27.10) Enjoy.