Three key issues to watch as lawmakers return to Lansing
When the leaves begin to turn colors each autumn, the wardrobe around the MEC offices also undergoes an unmistakable change.
Friends, the glorious days of t-shirts, jeans and flip-flops are coming to an end. Now begins the season of the necktie. The Legislature is coming back to town.
Our summer dress may have been casual, but we've been working hard behind the scenes on issues we expect to make some waves in the next few months. There's no time to waste; lawmakers will only be in session for nine days in September, three days in October and a smattering of lame-duck days after the November election.
Some of the fall's meatiest environmental debates will be hammered out quietly through the administrative rulemaking process, not in the Legislature. And what follows certainly isn't the only important legislation that will see action in the House and Senate chambers. But for our money, here are a few of the most interesting issues to watch in the new legislative session that begins Tuesday.
Oil and gas.
As oil and gas operations have moved beyond rural parts of the state to more populous residential areas, citizens have begun organizing to call for greater local control over drilling regulations.
A crowd of those advocates will greet lawmakers on their first day back in Lansing. The rally is in support of legislation introduced by a pair of Republican state senators from Macomb County-Jack Brandenburg and Tory Rocca-that would restrict drilling in townships with more than 70,000 residents.
MEC supports giving local residents and governments more authority over oil and gas activity in their communities. At one of our regional meetings in the spring, we hosted a presentation by the group FLOW on what townships can do to regulate fracking for oil and gas. We also have urged the state to apply proposed fracking rules-including required baseline water quality testing before drilling begins-to all types of oil and gas activity to better protect communities like those in southeast Michigan where methods other than fracking are proposed.
However, we believe-and will make the case to lawmakers-that the recently introduced legislation should be broadened to give that same authority to communities across Michigan, including those with fewer than 70,000 residents.
In any case, we applaud residents in Shelby Township, Scio Township and other communities who have organized to have a greater say in what happens in their backyards. If you're interested in joining the Sept. 9 rally, you can find more information here.
Time may heal all wounds, but-as a recent Detroit Free Press editorial made clear-Michiganders are still hopping mad three months after lawmakers failed to pass a desperately needed transportation funding package. Leaders from both parties admit a solution is unlikely before the election, since filling Michigan's more than $1 billion annual road funding shortfall means raising taxes. Some lawmakers even doubt they can get the job done during lame duck, according to the Free Press editorial.
That is unacceptable. From MEC's perspective, the Legislature simply cannot let another year go by without approving a plan to fix our transportation system.
You might ask: Why does an environmental group care so much about a road funding package? For one thing, we all rely on roads in our everyday lives. Their sad condition is a safety hazard that only gets more expensive each day without new funding.
More broadly, we're advocating for a transportation funding package that's about more than just roads and bridges. As we did in the spring, MEC will continue to urge lawmakers to run new funding through the full Act 51 formula - the traditional way to divvy up dollars among Michigan's entire transportation system.
Fixing the immediate problem of our crumbling roads is crucial, but we'll also urge legislators to keep in mind the key role other transportation assets will play in Michigan's future. Under the traditional Act 51 formula, transportation funding would help provide the strong passenger rail, bus service and other public transportation services that today's young professionals list among their must-have amenities when choosing where to live. It also would support infrastructure for freight rail and shipping, which are crucial for agriculture and other industries. And it would yield new investments in public boat launches, trails and other outdoor recreation facilities.
We urge lawmakers to approve the funding Michigan needs to fix our roads and bridges while also building a 21st century transportation system that supports thriving downtowns, discourages sprawl and helps cut air pollution and carbon emissions.
The remainder of 2014 could be pivotal for Michigan's clean-energy outlook. Important action already is underway on a pair of bill packages that take very different approaches to renewable power.
Michigan's existing clean-energy mandates-which require utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015 and trim energy use by one percent each year-are set to plateau next year. MEC is part of a workgroup assembled by Senate Energy and Technology Committee Chair Mike Nofs, a Battle Creek Republican, to map out the future of Michigan's renewable-power and energy-efficiency programs. We're hopeful the group's meetings will produce draft legislation soon and that lawmakers will approve new energy standards this year to continue accelerating our state's transition to a clean-energy economy.
As we work to build consensus on new clean-energy benchmarks for our utilities, a bipartisan group of lawmakers already has introduced a bill package designed to empower homeowners and businesses to help the state reach those targets. The "Energy Freedom" package aims to make it easier for utility customers to produce their own power and sell it at a fair rate. It also includes provisions to make the electric grid more efficient and reliable. MEC supports these bills as important complements to larger, utility-scale renewable energy projects. We look forward to working with legislators to make them law.