Energy policy by constitutional amendment debated

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Locally grown wind and solar energy are looking to make their way into Michigan’ s constitution. Photo: ecopolitology via Flickr

Voters will determine this November if Michigan will be the first to insert a clean energy requirement into its state constitution.

If approved, Proposal 3 will mandate that 25 percent of electricity sold in Michigan comes from renewable energy by the year 2025. The initiative’s nickname is 25 by 25.

It is one of six proposals on this fall’s Michigan ballot, and among the five that aim to amend the state constitution. That constitutional mechanism to require such the energy provision is as controversial as the proposal itself.

The state’s constitution has been amended by ballot seventeen times. Those amendments include the definition of marriage, guidelines for affirmative action programs, rules for human embryo and stem cell research, limits on how long members of Congress can serve and a rule preventing the increase of property taxes without direct voter approval.

But some critics say energy policy doesn’t belong in the constitution.

It is a bad idea because it is difficult to change and adapt it to newer technologies, said Michigan Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who chairs the House Energy and Technology Committee.

Proposal 3 defines renewable energy as electricity from wind, solar, hydropower or biofuel. Other potential sources include geothermal, methane gas from landfills and the incineration of trash. Michigan and Illinois would be the only states to count electricity exclusively from the sources listed in Proposal 3 towards their requirements.

Once in the constitution, that definition would be difficult to change and the lack of flexibility worries critics.  If new technology ended up being cheaper than any of the four methods listed in the constitution, electricity it produces wouldn’t count towards the 25 percent.

Horn supported legislation in 2008 that required 10 percent of electricity sold in Michigan by 2015 to come from green energy.

“My opposition to the 25 percent in this ballot proposal is because I don’t believe that this energy policy should be engraved into the granite of our constitution,” he said.

But it’s that very difficulty of changing a constitutional amendment that appeals to some supporters of Proposal 3.

Getting the 10 percent renewables by 2015 mandate through the legislature was difficult, said Jim Dulzo, a senior energy

Wind is one example of the growing alternative energy sector in Michigan.

policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, a non-profit group that works toward a stronger economy through green energy.

“There are now people in the state House and Senate that are actually trying to repeal it, along with its efficiency requirements,” Dulzo said. Big issues like energy policy are popular to debate, but action is rarely taken.

“These things can, and do, quickly become political footballs, especially if they involve money and large companies,” he said, “and this allows people to truly decide, once and for all, and remove the football from the stadium.”

To change an amendment further would require another petition drive or a two-thirds lawmaker vote, something that doesn’t happen often.

“What is more basic to our economic success than energy policy?” Dulzo said. “That’s an entirely appropriate thing to build into our state’s DNA.”

Other Great Lakes states have similar energy requirements, but none of them are tied to their constitution. Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois all have a 25 percent by 2025 requirement, but they are required by law.

Energy policy belongs in a statute, according to Ken Sikkema, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants and a veteran of multiple terms in both the Michigan House and Senate. If new technologies emerge, statutes can account for changing technology, since they are far easier to change than the constitution.

One example Sikkema gives is Colorado’s renewable energy standard, which was also enacted through a ballot initiative, but not enshrined in the constitution. Colorado’s standard has already been amended twice.

The problem with a statutory initiative is that much more detail would have to be included in the proposal, because it couldn’t leave actual implementation to the legislature, like an amendment can, said Hugh McDiarmid, the communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of more than 70 organizations that advocate for environmentally friendly public policies.

Michigan residents will head to the polls in November to decide the fate of Proposal 3. Photo: theocean (flickr)

Michigan is already on track to meeting the renewable energy requirement set out in 2008 by the legislature, according to McDiarmid.

Michigan citizens can determine the merits of including a 25 percent clean electricity requirement for themselves, McDiarmid said. Voters have rejected 39 proposed amendments on a variety of issues in the past.

“Amending the Constitution will demonstrate our commitment to clean energy and encourage renewable energy businesses to make long-term investments in Michigan,” he said.

Every 16 years, the people of Michigan vote on whether their constitution needs to be re-written, making it a living document, meant to reflect contemporary values, McDiarmid wrote in an email.

But in a video opposing the measure, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says that the proper time to re-evaluate an energy policy is in 2015, once it has been determined if Michigan met the 10 percent by 2015 requirement.

“We shouldn’t put something in our constitution in a fashion like this, particularly when we lack a national energy policy,” Snyder said, “If we don’t know what the federal government is going to do, do we want to have our hands tied by what we’ve done in our constitution rather than making good calls and judgments as time passes?”

Waiting for the legislature to act is not a good option, McDiarmid said. Utilities need to decide whether to close or upgrade coal plants soon, and they cannot wait until 2015.


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9 thoughts on “Energy policy by constitutional amendment debated

  1. Pingback: Energy policy by constitutional amendment debated « « Electric Stocks Electric Stocks

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  4. Teri, your personal interest will be heightened when you or one of your loved ones becomes afflicted by a medical condition resulting from environmental contaminants. You may be more interested in your budget now, but, guaranteed you will curse the polluters when your insurance fails to cover all the costs. This has nothing to do with tree hugging, it has to do with our long term quality of life, both aesthetically and health wise.

  5. Teri-
    $160 a year is $13 a month. Not much, in my opinion, in return for the positives we get back.
    In reality, though, the final cost has been estimated at less than $6 a year, or about $.50 a month, and may actually be a long-term reduction in cost, because there are no fuel expenses.
    Compare that to the big utilities who got PSC permission to increase their rates by 30% over the last 3 years- mostly to pay for the increased cost of transporting coal.
    Now tell me who’s looking out for your budget.
    While I really enjoy a good tree hug, my agenda actually is more concerned about the health of your children and my grandchildren. Reducing coal emissions will reduce public health costs related to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and from mercury poisoning, which comes almost exclusively from coal-fired power plants.
    Those public health costs are hard to quantify, but very real, especially if it’s one of your children with asthma.
    As Nick says above, the constitution is the perfect place for this law.
    Vote Yes on 3, please.

  6. Even if the dollar per month was accurate, that’s $12 dollars the first year, $24+ the second, $36++ the third year until at least 2025 when it will cost us $160 per year. We then continue to pay these increases forever. The amount gets much more if it takes longer than 2025 to get to the full 25%. I am more interested in my budget than I am in your tree hugging agenda. Stay away from my constitution with your personal interests.

  7. There are too many buzz words: clean energy, renewable energy, green energy, and so on. The only things I can see politicians doing is reducing allowed emissions of things such as mercury and carbon dioxide into the environment; and reducing the use of certain natural resources which includes timber used for heating. Otherwise, clean energy is cheap energy. It reflects the amount of emissions used to create a unit of energy.

    In addition, if you reduce the amount of allowed emissions of something like mercury, you encourage the development of methods that capture mercury. This makes more sense than doing something like requiring vehicles to get better mileage. This would encourage the production of vehicles with inadequate standards.

  8. Why put it in the state Constitution? 1. There is a 1% cost cap on rate increases to comply with the 25% standard in the ballot initiative. Without it being in the Constitution, legislators would listen to the utility lobby and raise the cost cap – even though reputable studies show that it will cost less that $1 per month per average customer. 2. The legislature was asked to pass a law to strengthen the RPS, there is legislation introduced to do so, and they have refused. 3. Some in the legislature are actively seeking to undermine the existing 10% by 2015 RPS. 4. Other important things – like the natural resource trust fund – are in the Constitution so that the legislature can’t raid the fund or alter it for political purposes. 6. Energy policy is an important, statewide issue, and over 530,000 people signed petitions to put it on the ballot.

    Unlike other Constitutional amendments like stem cell research, marriage between one man and one woman, the drinking age, etc. this proposal has a built in end date – 2025. As the Michigan Supreme Court held this September, Article 1, § 1 of Michigan’s Constitution provides that “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal benefit, security and protection.” Within our state Constitution, the people have allocated certain portions of their inherent powers to the branches of government. But the people have also reserved certain powers to themselves. Among these powers is the right to amend the Constitution by petition and popular vote.

    Article 2, § 9 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution has reserved to the people the power to enact any law the Legislature could enact. The Michigan Constitution specifically grants the Legislature, and therefore the people, the power to enact laws that, like Proposal 3, ensure the energy we use in the future is safe for people and the environment. A few existing state Constitutional provisions illustrate my point: Sec. 50: Provide safety measures and regulate the use of atomic energy and forms of energy developed in the future, having in view the general welfare of the people of this state; Sec. 51: The public health and general welfare of the people of the state are hereby declared to be matters of primary public concern. The legislature shall pass suitable laws for the protection and promotion of the public health. Sec. 52: The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction.

    The Michigan Constitution is much different than our federal Constitution. It is a living document that reflects our values, and is designed to change over time. The state Constitution even requires that we vote every 16 years on whether to hold a convention to rewrite it. A yes vote on Proposal 3 is good for the state economy, ratepayers, the environment and public health, and it is entirely appropriate to have it in the state Constitution.

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