Californians had an opportunity to demonstrate the wonders of solar power this year. In February, the largest solar power plant of its type in the world opened in their state. It includes solar arrays spread over nearly five square miles of land.
Proponents of the facility, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, claimed it would produce enough power to serve 140,000 homes.
But the bragging has died down. Since the power station began operating, it has generated only about half the promised electricity. The California Energy Commission explains that "factors such as clouds, jet contrails and weather have had a greater impact on the plant than the owners anticipated."
As you may have expected, we taxpayers have a stake in the facility. The federal government provided $1.8 billion in loan guarantees for it.
Rational people understand energy sources such as solar and wind power can never be more than back-ups for dependable, low-cost electricity generated with coal. Instead of pouring money into "green" energy, Washington should be devoting more to technologies such as clean-coal power plants.
The Grand Rapids Press. Nov. 24.
After vote to raise gas tax, Lansing should tap brakes to debate other road fix plans
At long last, Lansing is beginning to move toward a long-term fix for roads.
As Michigan's second largest city, Grand Rapids stands to gain — and, should inaction continue, lose — plenty from whatever proposal to fund those fixes prevails.
It's been past due for lawmakers to vote on different funding proposals, and we're heartened to see that occurring.
The state House will soon consider a measure passed last week by the Senate. The plan would gradually replace the flat 19-cent tax on fuel and 15-cent tax on diesel with a percentage-based levy tied to wholesale gas prices.
This is a good start. But lawmakers in the House should give serious consideration to other proposals before all is said and done.
The risks of tying road funding to the state gas tax must be weighed. According to an analysis from the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency, the Senate-passed measure could net anywhere from $781 million to more than $1.5 billion each year for road fixes.
That's an awfully large question mark on how much money the state could expect from a gas tax increase. The amount taken in will depend on the wholesale price of gasoline, which is very volatile, and rises and falls based on many external factors.
Critics of the plan say it would make our state's gas tax highest in the nation. If passed, Michigan's gas tax could top 40 cents by 2018.
At a time when gas prices are hotly debated among residents and businesses, that dubious honor could be quite problematic. The potential hardship the proposed rate would impose on some residents is worthy of discussion.
Of course, legislative leaders have acknowledged that the Senate's move is just the opening salvo. Things could change by the time the lame duck session ends.
Another proposal narrowly defeated by the Senate would have asked voters to decide whether to increase the state sales tax to fund road fixes.
We believe this an option worthy of consideration and debate in the House, despite its defeat in the Senate. Based on the Senate Fiscal Agency analysis, this option would generate $1.1 billion in its first fiscal year and $1.6 billion in the second. But like the proposed gas tax increase, a hike in the sales tax should be debated for its impact on residents' own finances.
As they move forward, lawmakers should keep Grand Rapids in mind when deciding how to raise money for roads.
Last May, voters resoundingly approved a plan to hold city income tax rates steady for 15 years to pay for local infrastructure improvements. Legislators should take that result as a bellwether of Michigan residents' willingness to help pay for fixes.
Lansing is finally moving in the right direction by acting on the demands of their constituents. But with significant concerns over a gas tax hike, it would be prudent to tap the brakes just long enough to give consideration to all options on the table.
Battle Creek Enquirer. Nov. 22.
Obama is right on immigration, but what about Congress?
President Barack Obama's immigration initiative may or may not be good politics, but it is good policy, and it's the right thing to do. Our hope is that it marks a beginning, rather than a derailment, of efforts to reform U.S. immigration policy.
Admittedly, that hope is remote. The GOP response has thus far been both predictable and discouraging, which is why many Republicans who support immigration reform, and even some Democrats, have suggested that Obama's sweeping action may have dashed any chances of Congress passing a bipartisan bill.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising a forceful response to Obama's order. The possibilities range from the defunding of government agencies to a legal challenge.
Other Republicans have been less nuanced in their remarks.
"The president seems intent on provoking a constitutional crisis by adopting policies that he previously said were illegal," said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas.
"If the President goes forward with this, if he goes forward with unilaterally defying the Congress elected by the people, defying the American voters, then it is incumbent on Republicans in Congress to use every single constitutional tool we have to defend the rule of law," said Sen. Ted Cruz, making the rounds on Fox News.
In reality, there's little reason to fear a constitutional crisis. Obama isn't, as some argue, unilaterally re-writing law, but rather is engaging in prosecutorial discretion that is well within the authority of the executive branch.
Further, he is using that discretion to remove what amounts to a hollow threat: The federal government, thanks to Congress, lacks the resources to deport a significant number of the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States. The 4.3 million people protected by Obama's executive action - most of them parents of U.S. citizens or immigrants who arrived as teenagers - are, for all intents and purposes, here to stay.
Yet Obama's executive order is far from hollow. It's a humanitarian gesture to a community of people who are in every sense deserving of the rights and privileges accorded to every U.S. citizen.
For those who disagree with that declaration, you can take comfort in the fact that Obama's order is not, as some have asserted, amnesty. It grants no permanent legal status and does not create a path to citizenship. Obama's successor can undo the order with a stroke of a pen.
What it does do, however, is allow people already working and contributing to the U.S. economy to come out of the shadows. The Center for American Progress estimates that allowing more than 4 million immigrants to obtain temporary work permits could generate about $2.87 billion in new payroll tax revenue.
Of course, facts carry little weight in the rhetorical war over immigration policy. In today's political theater, immigration is far too useful a wedge to be blunted by anything resembling an honest assessment of what's in our national interest. That's just not how things work in Washington.
The president, like every other pol in D.C., is playing a high-stakes game looking for political advantage. While many argue that Obama's gambit has so infuriated the Republicans that any hope of compromise is lost, it seems just as likely that his order could force lawmakers to screw up their political courage and actually do something on immigration in the coming term.
What an excellent turn of events that would be.
Lansing State Journal. Nov. 21.
Improve Michigan's lobbying disclosure laws
Michigan has much room to improve transparency in how lobbyists interact with lawmakers.
As LSJ's Justin Hinkley noted in a report on lobbying in Michigan, lobbyists documented more than $35 million in spending in 2013 and may be on pace to spend slightly more this year.
Yet, while the largest spenders are multi-client firms that handle multiple issues, the state mandated reporting doesn't require enough detail to see which clients are wooing the lawmakers or which issues are getting the most attention and spending.
Locally, term-limited Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing and leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, benefited the most from lobbyists' hospitality with nearly $12,000 spent by those hoping to plead their case during 14 years in the legislature.
Federal court rulings that allow more spending on issues and campaigns have put even more money into the state's political mix. Term limits increase pressure, some say, because many lawmakers are focused on the next campaign. The lobbying industry runs regular training to teach its members how to avoid errors.
Still, there's no question Michigan could improve its laws. In 2013, $820,000 was spent on hospitality, travel or accommodations, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Yet much of that spending did not have a lawmaker's name attached because it didn't cross the limits included in Michigan law.
Food and drink is reported at more than $58 a month or $350 a year, for example. Travel and accommodations are reported in excess of $750.
Financial transactions between lawmakers and lobbyists — such as loans or sales — are reported only if they exceed $1,175.
One can quibble about whether it's worth making lobbyists document every $5 sandwich they provide a lawmaker during a lunch time conversation. But it's hard to imagine why the state would allow lawmakers to take loans from lobbyists at all, much less allow them to be unreported at any amount.
Michigan got an "F'' for lobbying disclosure on the State Integrity Investigation done by the Center for Public Integrity. While the state requires reporting, the review found reports are not frequent enough and often not of high quality. Worse, Michigan got a zero on monitoring, in part because it has no independent auditing of the reports.
Those are lapses that should be fixed. Reports must be reviewed and there should be penalties for sloppy documentation. Some limits for nondisclosure should be lowered. Better transparency protects lobbyists, lawmakers and citizens.