Tag Archives: lobbyists

Farmers, consumers want new management of organic program

Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute delivered to the USDA more than 5,000 letters from farmers and consumers calling for new management of the National Organic Program.

The food and farm policy research group collected the letters from concerned organic advocates across the country.

“This is one more indication of the growing dissatisfaction with deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy’s direction and oversight of the rapidly growing organic industry,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst.

The Cornucopia Institute, along with many other public interest groups, has been critical of what they describe as a “corporate takeover” of the regulatory process that Congress designed specifically to protect organic rulemaking from the influence of agribusiness lobbyists.

“Under the direction of deputy Administrator McEvoy, the independence of the National Organic Standards Board, an expert policy panel convened by Congress to act as a buffer between lobbyists, like the powerful Organic Trade Association, and USDA policymakers has been seriously undermined,” said Dr. Barry Flamm, a Montana farmer, scientist and past chairperson of the NOSB.

In the cover letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the organization cited several areas where it says the USDA management is failing. These include:

A lack of enforcement activities on major fraud and alleged violations of organic regulations occurring with “factory farm” livestock activities — all cloaked in secrecy.

Ignoring the questionable authenticity of the flood of organic imports coming into this country from China, India, a number of former Soviet Bloc states and Central America that have effectively shut American organic grain farmers out of the U.S. market.

Allowing, in violation of the law, giant industrial-scale soilless production of organic produce (hydroponic and other management systems), along with ignoring NOSB prohibitions on nanotechnology, using conventional livestock on organic dairies, and other issues.

Usurpation of NOSB governance and authority by USDA/NOP staff and other violations of the Organic Foods Production Act (Cornucopia has a federal lawsuit being adjudicated that charges the USDA with appointing agribusiness executives to the NOSB in seats Congress had specifically earmarked for stakeholders who “own or operate an organic farm”).

Unilateral changes to the Sunset review process for synthetic and non-organic materials, making it difficult for unnecessary or harmful substances to be removed from organics when agribusinesses lobby for them (the USDA is currently involved in litigation with Cornucopia and other stakeholders on this Sunset issue).

“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” Kastel said. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”

Due in part to the issues that Cornucopia is spotlighting, Consumer Reports has downgraded the credibility of the USDA organic label from its previous top-tier ranking.


Powerful dairy lobbyists are behind fouling of state’s water supply

The Dairy Business Association, which was created in 1999 and is based in Green Bay, is run by agri-business and large dairy interests that support looser agriculture and environmental regulations and enforcement. The group is backed by dozens of wealthy special interest sponsors that have contributed more than $2.1 million to statewide and legislative candidates, including more than $710,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker in recent years.

Those sponsors include big-name law firms, banking, energy, and large agri-business interests, like Foley and Lardner, Alliant Energy, American Foods Group, BMO Harris Bank, Cargill, Merck, and Monsanto.

The DBA’s backers give it considerable political clout that helps it move a lobbying agenda to deregulate agri-business. The DBA’s achievements include legislative bills and state rules to loosen land use, high-capacity well, wetland, groundwater protection, and factory farm regulations and enforcement. Factory farms are formally called concentrated animal feeding operations — informally known as CAFOs — and house several hundred or thousands of cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys.

In a February 2016 opinion piece about controversial legislation to ease state oversight of high-capacity wells, which did not pass, DBA lobbyist John Holevoet wrote: “Our ready access to fresh water gives Wisconsin a competitive advantage in attracting new farms and other businesses that rely on water. We should be promoting this advantage, not regulating it out of existence.”

The DBA, which spent $179,045 on lobbying in 2015, employs five lobbyists, including Bill McCoshen, a prominent State Capitol lobbyist who was chief of staff to former longtime GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson. In the last full 2013-14 legislative session, the DBA spent nearly $304,000 on lobbying state policymakers.

In addition to lobbying on proposed state policy and spending, media reports as far back as 2010 show the DBA has met directly with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to change the way the agencies site, permit and regulate factory farms. Such ready access by a large corporate interest has raised questions about the DNR’s independence from both inside and outside the agency. “This particular lobbying group has been able to elbow its way into the higher levels of the regulatory agency. That kind of access is unprecedented,” Jamie Saul, a former Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney, said in a March 2010 media report.

Earlier this summer, the DBA met with the DNR after Walker’s office gave the DBA and other farm industry groups proposed rules drawn up by the agency to restrict manure spreading by factory farms. Shortly after its meeting with the DBA, the DNR reduced the scope of the proposed rules, which govern how and where manure could be spread. Walker then approved the looser rules, which are scheduled for consideration by the DNR Board at its Aug. 3 meeting.

The families of seven of the DBA’s 10-member board of directors own factory farms, including the group’s president, Gordon Speirs, owner of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion. Early last month, heavy rains washed thousands of gallons of manure from Shiloh Dairy into Plum Creek. The creek runs into the Fox River in northern Calumet County. The DNR said Shiloh Dairy may face enforcement action from the manure runoff. Both Calumet and Kewaunee counties have a large number of factory farms. Nearly a third of wells tested in Kewaunee County last year were so contaminated that the water isn’t safe to drink.

The DBA’s lobbying activities for agri-business are just one part of its political arsenal. The group operates a conduit, which delivered $63,340 in large individual contributions to legislative and statewide candidates between January 2005 and December 2015. Some of the campaign cash came from the group’s sponsors as well as other factory farm owners, and agri-business and construction interests. Conduits are legal check-bundling operations often run by lobbyists and special interest groups that collect contributions from individuals, bundle them together and deliver one large check to a candidate.

The DBA’s conduit contributions supported Democratic and GOP legislative and statewide candidates, but substantially more went to Republicans – about $48,300 versus about $15,000. The top recipients of DBA conduit contributions were Republican Gov. Scott Walker, $8,740; former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, $3,450; and former GOP state representative and lieutenant governor candidate Brett Davis, $3,300.

The top individual contributors through the DBA conduit were Dean Doornink, of Baldwin, owner of Jon-De-Farm, $4,000; John Vrieze, of the Town of Emerald, owner of Emerald Dairy, $3,800; and Mark Mashlan, of Kaukauna, an executive with Fox Structures, $2,875.

The group’s annual conventions have drawn heavy hitters from both parties. Walker and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos addressed the DBA’s most recent 2016 annual convention, and Doyle spoke at its 2008 state meeting.

In addition to the individual contributions through the group’s conduit, the DBA also contributed $35,900 in three contributions in 2014 to the Republican Governors Association’s (RGA) 527 group. The RGA spends several millions of dollars each year to support GOP candidates for governor across the country. In 2014, the RGA’s state political action committee spent nearly $4 million on mostly negative broadcast ads to support Walker’s successful reelection. 527 groups are tax-exempt political nonprofit groups that are named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that governs them. These organizations, which are run by powerful business and other special interests, can accept and spend unlimited amounts of unregulated contributions on electioneering activities.

Selling out Wisconsin to nuclear industry

Sens. Jennifer Shilling and Julie Lassa, both of you voted in favor of AB384. 

I am sorry but I cannot let this pass without calling you to account.  

My belief is that each of you understood but just didn’t care that: 

1) Wisconsin has a contested case system/process in which a utility makes an application to the PSC. The PSC will consider the proposal. If there is not a competing proposal, the one presented will probably be approved. It will probably be approved even if there are solutions higher up on Wisconsin’s energy priorities list. So, now nuclear generation has a place in Wisconsin energy priorities. 

2) the PSC will not have to consider decommissioning costs of nuclear generation but it does have to consider decommissioning costs for wind generation. 

3) along with hiding decommissioning costs for nuclear generation other significant costs of nuclear generation will now be hidden. This is the part about being burdensome to ratepayers; now the burden can be hidden. 

4) new nuclear generation would produce new nuclear waste that there is no permanent solution for. Solutions have to be for hundreds of thousands of years. What arrogance and irresponsibility! 

The proponents talked about the bill being for advanced nuclear but it is not for the most advanced. It allows generation III if my memory serves me correctly; it does not require generation IV nor does it holdout for commercial aneutronic fusion. It settles for lesser technology that has been marketed as “advanced.” 

The proponents talked about recycling nuclear waste, of using it as fuel. Past, present and future capabilities were blurred. So much of what proponents spoke about hasn’t been developed; it is being worked on.  

I think you and many of the other senators who voted for AB384 knew better.

Nevertheless, you sold Wisconsin out.  

If you care to explain your vote, I am all ears.  

John Dunn, Mauston

State GOP ending legislative session on self-serving political issues

Despite the recent revelation that Wisconsin lost 10,000 jobs in 2015 — the biggest loss since the recession — Republican lawmakers returned to Madison after their holiday recess with everything but jobs on their minds.

Instead of employment, they continued focusing on anti-environmental laws and wrapping up their 2015 agenda, which included rolling back the reforms of the last century and returning to the days when government was shrouded in secrecy and conducted in backroom deals that made elected officials wealthy. The GOP apparently has nothing against big government when its members can pocket a slice of the proceeds. In fact, last year Republicans took multiple powers away from local governments and consolidated them at the state level, where they can pull all the strings and benefit from all the lobbyists’ largesse.

Republicans, who have complete control over every facet of a state government that’s consequently bereft of checks and balances, voted last year to ban prosecutors from using secretive John Doe investigative tactics to ferret out corruption. They reworked campaign finance laws to allow yet more dark money into the political process.

The GOP also has drawn up bills that would make it easier for big polluters and environmentally destructive developers to operate in the state. The law would ease the regulatory path for development on water bodies. It also would take away power from local governments by barring counties from enacting county-wide development bans. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he likes the property rights bill, which would force developers to grease state lawmakers’ palms for project approval — and prevent local residents and officials from opposing projects they don’t want.

In addition, the Senate seems set to pass  on Jan. 20 a bill that overhauls the state’s 110-year-old civil service system. The bill eliminates exams for applicants and allows hiring officials to oust workers so that each new governor could reward campaign supporters with state jobs. The civil service system was adopted to safeguard against such Chicago-style cronyism in state hiring practices. But Republican voters seem indifferent about the issue, which is being spun spuriously by right-wing leaders as “reform” that will improve state hiring practices.

With most of the self-serving portion of their agenda accomplished, GOP lawmakers will spend the next few months passing bills that appease the state’s far right. The goal: to shore up their conservative credentials and ward off potential tea party challengers in the August primaries.

They’ll have to move fast. The last floor debate days are scheduled for late April, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he wants his chamber to wrap up by the end of February. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hopes to finish in March.

Awaiting action is a proposal that would ban research using tissue from fetuses aborted after Jan. 1, 2015, and prohibit the commercial sale of fetal tissue. Scientists have said the measure could chill work on potentially life-saving cures and treatments. The law would also damage the burgeoning biomedical research economy in Madison, which is one of the state’s only economic success stories.

Republicans already have shored up their support among anti-choice voters by passing bills banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and stripping Planned Parenthood of $3.5 million in federal funding. The fetal tissue ban, although it would destroy jobs, could energize religious right voters even more.

Also on the agenda is an Assembly bill limiting the ability of transgender citizens to use public restrooms. It would force transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender at birth rather than their chosen gender expression. Opponents insist the bill violates federal civil rights law, but it’s a red-meat issue for Christian fundamentalists.

Despite the fact that the United States recorded more than one mass shooting for every day in 2015, the GOP also wants to allow guns in more public places. Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Devin LeMahieu introduced a measure that would allow people to carry concealed weapons into college buildings. They say the legislation would make campuses safer.

University of Wisconsin leaders oppose the bill. Vos said the measure probably isn’t going anywhere in his house. Fitzgerald hinted the bill was all but dead in the Senate as well, saying it would be tough to take it up without Assembly support.

Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate said they’re bracing for a frustrating four months. 

“(The Republicans are) just so brazen in terms of their willingness to feather their own nest without doing anything significant for the people of this state,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said.

Vos countered that he has created three task forces addressing how to bolster resources for dementia, urban education and preparing young people for the workforce. He also pointed out the state budget gives schools $69 million more in 2016–17.

Meanwhile, more and more businesses are leaving the state, along with talented young people who see no future in a state that’s racing backward on a path greased with corruption.

This analysis relies in large part on AP reporting. 

Republican Senators seek to roll back auto, rail safety regulations

At a time of record auto recalls and high-profile train wrecks, Republicans are working on legislation to roll back safety regulation of the auto and railroad industries.

A bill approved this week on a party-line vote by a Senate committee brims with industry-sought provisions that would block, delay or roll back safety rules. The measure is to be part of a must-pass transportation bill that GOP leaders hope to put to a vote in the Senate as early as next week.

They are under pressure to act quickly because authority for transportation programs expires on July 31. Without a cash infusion, the government will have to delay highway and transit aid to states.

One provision would block a new Department of Transportation rule requiring that trains hauling crude oil are equipped with electronically controlled brakes that affect cars all at the same time, rather than sequentially. The bill calls for a study of the technology and puts off any regulatory mandate, which could delay implementation for years.

The brake rule was prompted by a series of train wrecks in which cars of crude oil and ethanol exploded, igniting fires that burned for days. Freight railroads oppose the rule, which could cost them billions of dollars.

Another provision would give freight and commuter railroads and Amtrak more time to install a safety system called positive train control. The technology relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position and slow or stop trains in danger of derailing because they’re traveling too fast, are about to collide with another train or are about to enter an area where crews are working on tracks.

A 2008 law requires railroads to have the technology installed and operating by the end of this year. Most are not expected to make that deadline.

The National Transportation Safety Board says that if the technology had been in operation, it could have prevented an Amtrak derailment in May that killed eight people and injured about 200 others in Philadelphia, and a derailment that killed four passengers and injured 64 others in New York City in December 2013, as well as other fatal accidents.

Railroads say they have spent billions of dollars on the technology but have been hampered by technical and financial difficulties and need more time.

The bill would effectively allow states to lower the qualifying age for interstate commercial truck drivers from 21 to 18. The provision was sought by the trucking industry, which says there is a shortage of drivers.

Another provision sought by the industry would require the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to remove safety ratings of truck and bus companies from its public website. The companies disagree with the methodology the agency uses for the ratings.

The bill would impose requirements on the motor carrier agency that safety advocates say could stymie new safety regulations by making an already lengthy rulemaking process even more difficult.

Following record auto recalls last year totaling almost 64 million vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked that its staff be increased and the limit on fines levied on offending automakers be raised to $300 million, from the current $35 million.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee agreed to increase the agency’s budget, but only after it satisfies 17 recommendations made by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. The maximum fine would double to $70 million, but only after the agency comes out with regulations identifying all the factors that go into calculating fines. The conditions could effectively delay action on both matters by a year or more.

Two GOP presidential candidates on the committee — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — didn’t attend the meeting while the bill’s provisions were being voted upon. However, the chairman, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota., cast proxy votes for them on amendments and for Cruz on final passage of the bill. Rubio voted in person in favor of passage of the bill. Several Democrats joined GOP senators in opposing changes to controversial provisions.

Thune and other Republicans on the committee said the changes were necessary reforms to federal agencies that have overstepped their bounds or have issued regulations that unfairly penalize industry without improving safety. Thune noted the bill contains several provisions sought by Democrats and safety advocates.

One of the biggest would prevent rental car agencies from renting vehicles that are under a safety recall, but have not been repaired. Initially, the bill had said rental car agencies could rent unrepaired cars if they first informed customers. Other provisions would make it easier for states to qualify for federal grants to tackle drunk driving, promote seatbelt use and address other safety issues, and start a pilot program to inform motorists of recalls when they register their cars.

That was not enough to sweeten the bill for safety advocates.

The GOP bill is “loaded down with giveaways to special interests that will set back safety for years to come,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The influence of corporate lobbyists had more sway than commonsense and cost-effective solutions to deadly problems.”

See also Congressional Republicans attack environmental policies.

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U.S. Wildlife Services killed more than 2 million wild animals in fiscal 2013

The Wildlife Services section of the U.S. Agriculture Department killed more than 2 million wild animals in fiscal 2013, including wolves, coyotes, bears, mountain lions foxes, eagles and other animals.

The increase of almost a half-million animals since fiscal year 2012 represents a 29 percent increase in the program’s killing and ends an overall downward trend since 2008.

The federal program’s latest kill report includes more than 320 gray wolves and one endangered Mexican wolf, 75,326 coyotes, 419 black bears, 866 bobcats, 528 river otters, 3,706 foxes, three golden eagles and a bald eagle, according to the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

The division also killed 12,186 black-tailed prairie dogs and destroyed more than 30,000 of their dens.

“Rather than dialing back in the face of criticism, the program that has the nerve to call itself ‘Wildlife Services’ seems to be putting its foot on the pedal in its systematic slaughter of America’s wild animals,” said Amy Atwood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned to reform the program. “These numbers pull back the veil on a staggering killing campaign, bankrolled by taxpayers, that’s happening every day beyond the view of most Americans.”

The new data reveal the federal program has increased its killing despite a growing public outcry, an ongoing investigation by the Agriculture Department’s inspector general and calls for reform by scientists, members of Congress and nongovernmental organizations.

“Wildlife Services has long been out of step with the values of Americans, and the new figures make clear it has no interest in changing,” said Atwood. “These appalling new numbers show that Wildlife Services is simply thumbing its nose at the growing number of Americans demanding an end to business as usual at Wildlife Services.”

Since 1996, Wildlife Services has shot, poisoned and strangled by snare more than 26 million native animals.

Last December, the Center and other animal welfare and environmental groups submitted a petition to the Agriculture Department calling for new rules to reform the program.

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