Electric lawn mowers at a Madison hardware store. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
Legislation that would bar Wisconsin and local governments across the state from banning fossil-fuel powered tools, appliances or vehicles sailed through the Assembly on party-line votes Tuesday.
Republican advocates called the measures common sense guarantors of free choice and a bulwark against government overreach. The lone opposition speaker dismissed them as unnecessary.
Even with the Assembly’s sharp divisions on the bills, the day’s floor session was marked by comity. Lawmakers passed several bipartisan bills, including one that broadens the membership of county land conservation committees to include people connected with agriculture, and another that expands the participation of farmers in a grant program to combat agricultural runoff and promote conservation.
The Republican-majority Assembly also passed a series of resolutions authored by Democrats, ending a stretch of several years in which the minority party’s members have been frozen out of even that largely ceremonial legislative practice. Among them were resolutions honoring the memory of the late former Gov. Tony Earl and the late former University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and one commemorating April 22 as Earth Day — the holiday created by the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson.
The debate over the two energy discrimination bills was devoid of acrimony, despite the outcome.
AB-141 states that no state agency or local unit of government “may restrict the use or sale of a device based on the energy source that is used to power the device or that is consumed by the device.” AB-142 similarly bars state or local governments from restricting “the use or sale of motor vehicles based on the energy source used to power the motor vehicle, including use for propulsion or use for powering other functions of the motor vehicle.”
The bills passed with only Republican votes, 62-35 for the first measure and 63-35 for the second. Each bill has a state Senate counterpart. If the Senate also votes along party lines, that could signal the probability of a veto from Gov. Tony Evers.
“This bill is important, because we have seen across the country and in different cities, they outright ban a device based on its energy source,” said Rep. Ellen Schutt (R-Clinton) the author of both bills, as she closed out debate on the first piece of legislation.
“I don’t believe government at any level has the right to tell you if you want to buy an electric or gas powered lawnmower, or what kind of kitchen appliance you want in your home,” she said. “And I think this protects you to make that choice or that preference of what you prefer.”
Several advocates for measures referred to other states such as California that have instituted bans on the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035 and have implemented or are considering bans on some gas-powered equipment, such as lawn mowers, sooner.
“I’ve always had a gas lawnmower until my son got me to look at this electric lawnmower,” said Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield). “His did pretty well. So I purchased one. That was my choice” — not a mandate, he emphasized.
“But you know what, if it doesn’t do a good job, I’m going back to gas. Simple as that,” Snyder said. “So it should be the people’s choice.”
Making the only opposition speech, Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) addressed both pieces of legislation. “These bills are really a solution that is looking for a problem that does not exist,” she said.
She attributed to supporters of the legislation the claim that “this is happening in California, they’re being forced to drive electric vehicles — which is not true,” then added: “We’re not California.”
Sinicki compared the rhetoric surrounding the bills to the reaction to proposals to limit firearms in response to gun violence. “I cannot help but think the GOP mantra used to be, ‘Oh, my goodness, the Democrats want to take our guns away.’ Now it’s, ‘Oh my goodness, the Democrats want to take our gasoline away.’ That is not true.”
The bills “are not necessary,” Sinicki said. “We should not be wasting our time.”
Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) mocked Sinicki’s argument. “It’s a basic premise of good government that we try to look into the future and say, ‘OK, what might people do?’” he said. “[If] we’re going to say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to pass this because nobody has attempted to do it.’ Well, there’s a whole lot of things that haven’t been attempted yet. And yet, we have laws and constitutions to protect the rights of the people to live their lives, without interference of future governments.”
No speakers addressed references to climate change, the issue that has prompted states to institute regulations such as the 2035 goal for a carbon-free energy future.
Testimony submitted at a public hearing last week was equally lopsided, with lobbyists for business and the petrochemical industry registering in support.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce hearing testimony suggested that while the administration of Gov. Tony Evers has set a goal for most vehicles in Wisconsin to be electric in two decades, at the current pace of the transition “it is unclear how the Evers administration anticipates its vehicle electrification target can be achieved without aggressive new government mandates.”
While two environmental groups, Green Fire Wisconsin and Wisconsin Conservation Voters, registered their opposition with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, the only opposition testimony was submitted by the American Lung Association, which focused on the first bill.
“We are concerned that AB 141 seeks to curtail the ability of local governmental entities in Wisconsin to enact policies to protect the health of its citizens through restrictions on the sale of products that the community deems dangerous,” the association stated.
Natural gas use in the home can worsen asthma and allergies in children, leading to reduced lung function, according to the association. “Preempting local public entities from limiting the sale of appliances based on how they are powered in the best interest of their communities ignores a community’s right to self-govern and protect health.”
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