No wonder Gov. Walker was in such a hurry to get his budget repair bill passed. Every day new stuff comes out about it.
The labor issues were obvious and got all the attention for a while. But then people started uncovering the fact that the bill would hand the Walker administration sweeping powers to revamp Medicaid with little public and legislative input.
Now a third piece of the 144-page bill is making headlines — a power grab some critics believe could be political payback to the conservative Koch brothers.
The bill allows the Walker administration, without approval of the Public Service Commission and without a competitive bidding process, to sell off or lease the state's several dozen energy plants to private companies.
The state can sell the energy plants "with or without the solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state," according to the rather circular wording of this clause, which then concludes that "any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest."
This is not new news — shortly after the release of the bill, the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about the measure, and so did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other state media.
What's different is that now, thanks in part to the delay caused by Democratic state senators fleeing the state to stall the measure, people are starting to connect some dots.
Two of Walker's biggest backers are the secretive conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries, the largest privately owned company in the U.S. with 70,000 employees and annual sales of $100 billion in the fiscal year 2008. Among their holdings in Wisconsin are significant lumber and coal interests, a network of gasoline supply terminals, and a toilet paper factory.
The Koch brothers' political action committee gave Walker $43,000, his campaign's second highest donation, and helped to fund a multi-million dollar attack ad campaign against his opponent, according to pieces in Mother Jones and other publications. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lost by five points.
And then this bill comes out and opens the door to the privatization of the state's power plants.
Adding to this interesting political snarl is the fact that the guy Walker put in charge of the office that will oversee these potential power plant sales — though some people worry they will be more of giveaways than sales — is Jeff Plale. Remember him? He is one of the two Democratic senators who at the very last minute defected from the Democratic ranks to vote against state employee contracts last fall.
Around a month later, Walker handed the former South Milwaukee Democratic legislator the $90,000 post as the administrator of the Department of Administration's Division of Facilities. And now he is busy defending the administration's move to sell off the state's power plants as no big deal.
Sound fishy? A lot of people think so.
"Here you have a situation where extremely wealthy interests help propel Walker into office, and one of the first things he does is to privatize electricity in this state and to do so with the removal of public oversights and checks and no bidding," says Lisa Graves with the Center for Media and Democracy. "There should be red flags going up all over the place."
At RortyBomb, Mike Konczal writes that "the attempt to break labor is part of the same continuous motion as saying that the crony, corporatist selling of state utilities to the Koch brothers and other energy interests is the new 'public interest.'"
And yet another liberal blogger, Joan McCarter at Daily Kos, claims in a Monday post she calls, "The other part of the Scott Walker plan: Firesale of Wisconsin state assets," that Walker's budget and intention goes "well beyond" rolling back union rights. "He's selling the state to the highest bidder (or more like it, the largest campaign contributor, since bids won't be required for the acquisition of state assets). The new slogan: What's good for the Koch brothers is good for Wisconsin."
But a Tuesday statement from the company denies that it would be a potential buyer. "We have no interest in purchasing any of the state-owned power plants in Wisconsin and any allegations to the contrary are completely false. This is a dispute between public-sector unions and democratically elected officials over how best to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, there are those who would prefer to portray it as something else entirely. A balanced budget will benefit our company and its nearly 3,000 Wisconsin employees no more and no less than the rest of the state's private-sector workers and employers," says the remarks attributed to Philip Ellender, president of Government & Public Affairs for Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC.
So then why did they beef up their lobbying operation and move into stylish headquarters just off the Capitol Square, as reported by Judith Davidoff here at The Capital Times?
The Koch brothers may be interested in a very different kind of power than that provided by coal plants.
Tim Phillips, the president of the Koch-funded conservative tea party group, Americans for Prosperity, says he was encouraging Walker to provoke a labor showdown even before the governor took office, according to Eric Lipton's Monday story in the New York Times, "Billionaire Brothers' Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute."
The Koch brothers' agenda might be more straightforward than most people suspect, writes Andrew Leonard in Salon in "The Koch brothers as Wisconsin puppet masters." "I think we should be careful in making the claim that the Walker bill is paving the way for Koch industries to buy Wisconsin state assets, because it is not at all clear that the Kochs are in the market for those specific assets," he says. "Koch industries owns a subsidiary in Wisconsin that delivers coal to power plants. Maybe a privatized power industry will steer more power to the Kochs. But I don't think we have to work so hard to connect the dots between the Koch brothers and Walker. The Kochs have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into election campaigns all over the country in support of a comprehensive political agenda pushing privatization and deregulation and opposing action on climate change. Their support of Walker fits that agenda to a a tee...(party.)"
If you want to learn more about the Koch brothers and their agenda, Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece from last August is one of the best pieces out there.