For Everyday Iowans the Game is Rigged

That former Iowa Senator Swati Dandekar was a lapdog for certain public utilities became clear while I was listening to the House of Representatives debate HF 561 in the gallery earlier this year. HF 561 is what is called a construction work in progress bill designed to remedy certain aspects of application for and financing of construction of a new nuclear reactor in Iowa to make it more attractive to investors. In a surprising move, freshman Senator Dandekar had been appointed to chair the Senate Commerce Committee and, along with Senator Brian Schoenjahn, was shepherding the nuclear power bill through the committee. The bill seemed unstoppable and it passed the Iowa House without problem.

While the rest of the world put the brakes on an advancing nuclear power industry after the dramatic failure of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan, Iowa legislators, on both sides of the aisle, were rushing in where angels fear to tread to pass a nuclear power bill. Only there was a fly in the ointment. Citizens were finding out about the bill and they overwhelmingly opposed building a new nuclear reactor in Iowa. The jig was up and enough public opposition surfaced to stall the bill in the Iowa Senate where Democrats hold a 26-24 majority, the slimmest of slim.

After the session, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal put his spin on the nuclear power debate when Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson asked him on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, “There are a few high profile issues that got left on the table, we’ve talked about a few of them. One of them was a bill that dealt with nuclear energy and the prospect of the construction of a nuclear power plant in Iowa. That languished and never passed. Senator Gronstal, is that still a live round for 2012?”

Gronstal replied, “I continue to believe that it makes sense to explore that possibility as to whether that makes sense in the state of Iowa. That’s what that legislation would have done. I think to some degree the tsunami and earthquake in Japan kind of cast a pall over that discussion and I think you can make a case any new plants that are going to be built — the next generation nuclear plants are going to be a lot safer. So, I think that’s still there, I think that’s still possible but this session of the legislature maybe overshadowed by other events found it difficult to …” and the program ran out of time.

Senator Gronstal is believed by many to be in the pocket of electric utilities because of tens of thousands of dollars contributed to his campaign and political action committee by MidAmerican Energy. Senator Dandekar was the face of Gronstal’s ambition and during committee meetings I attended, she referenced the fact that leadership, meaning Gronstal, wanted the nuclear power bill to move out of committee, which it did.

In February, I pointed to the fact that Dandekar was a key swing vote in the Iowa Senate and would be the target of Republican ambitions. On Friday, September 16, in another surprising career move, my prediction again proved accurate. Dandekar left her Senate seat to take an appointment from Republican Governor Terry Branstad to serve on the Iowa Utilities Board. Thus proponents of nuclear power got two things of value from Senator Dandekar, a friendly ear on the regulatory body that would review and potentially approve an application for a new nuclear reactor, and a chance to weaken the slim Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate through a special election on November 8 to fill Dandekar’s seat.

I recall the day of the House debate on HF 561, sitting behind a couple of gents who were also listening. A lobbyist I know pointed out that they were from MidAmerican Energy and the sheaf of papers in the older man’s hand was copies of the amendments being debated on the floor. He was following the action more closely than most, flipping each page as the vote was taken. This, even though we all knew the outcome of the debate would be to pass the bill.

Senator Swati Dandekar entered the gallery and delivered a report to the utility representative. She crouched down on the steep steps of the gallery and looked up, speaking softly so others would not hear. The older man’s face beamed and he congratulated the Senator, in what seemed a patronizing manner. It was clear where the power was in that conversation. It was also evidence that for everyday people like us, the game is rigged.

We’ll see what the outcome of the special election will be. We’ll see if the Iowa Senate debates the nuclear power bill in 2012. But what we know is that once again, the influence of powerful interests is strong, and to combat their power and money, like minded people will need to stick together during a tough special election that could decide the fate of more than just the nuclear power bill.

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