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What do enviro-minded voters want? Look to ballot questions for the answers

Voters this year seem to want want more public land, some limits on hydrofracking and responsible resource management.

Division over hydrofracking for natural gas production is raising the profile of environmental issues for voters in eastern states like New York.

Second of two parts

So how did “the environment” do in this year’s elections?

Pretty well would be the prevailing view, in that the winning candidates from President Barack Obama on down were usually much more progressive than the losers on matters of energy and environment. Certainly the shift in control of Minnesota’s Legislature to the Democrats can be scored that way – even though, as I wrote yesterday, the new majorities are far from unified on what the state’s environmental agenda should be.

The voters, if asked what they want, will say in poll after poll that they value resource conservation, progressive energy systems, pollution controls, public land, cleaner water and cleaner air.

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But it’s rare to encounter an actual ballot choice between candidates who present a stark contrast on such issues only. Almost always some other subject – unemployment, terrorism, taxes – ranks higher in the public conversation, their campaign strategies, or both.

Division over hydrofracking for natural gas production may be creating exceptions to this pattern in some eastern states; certainly there have been roundup stories this month suggesting that’s so. But the rule of thumb still seems to be that it’s easier to lose an election as an environmental champion than to win one.

Every election cycle brings a flurry of self-congratulory PR from green groups who claim with scant evidence to have elected or defeated particular candidates, usually on unpersuasive evidence.

But for the most part, when Americans want to register their environmental views in a polling booth, it’s going to be on a ballot initiative rather than a candidacy, and this year’s cycle brought a handful of these as well — interesting, varied and often hard to find in a flood of other results.

What do the voters want? The sampling that follows shows they want more public land, some limits on hydrofracking, responsible resource management – and maybe faster progress on renewable power, too, if it doesn’t further burden a struggling state economy.

Michigan rejects more renewables

There’s no getting around it: Renewable energy development took a hit, and not a trivial one, when voters lined up 62 percent against a constitutional amendment that would have raised Michigan’s renewables standard to 25 percent by 2025.

That may not sound like an ambitious goal to Minnesotans who know that our utilities are required to be at 27.5 percent renewables by 2025 (averaging the 30 percent requirement for Xcel Energy with the 25 percent bar for others). But in Michigan it has been but a short four years since the Legislature adopted a 10-percent-by-2015 standard.

An interesting analysis in Midwest Energy News endorses a view advanced by the amendment’s supporters: that many voters were willing to support the new standard but didn’t want to see it written into the constitution. Some poll data supports  it, too.

But another factor is the immense spending on anti-amendment advertising, which ramped up sharply in late October and early November. The amendment also drew editorial scorn from the Detroit News, which joined with Dow Chemical and other big employers in trashing the measure as a job-killer.

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I’m sure the arguments for constitutional purity resounded with lots of civics-minded voters in Michigan. But even if I hadn’t spent some time in Michigan this year, noting signs of economic stress and joblesness everywhere, I’d be inclined to read this as a case of the clean-energy side getting outspent and perhaps outsmarted in a well-timed, negative advertising blitz.

Colorado city curbs fracking

You couldn’t ask for a clearer, up-or-down vote than the hydrofracking referendum in Longmont, Colo., where voters amended their city charter to place a moratorium on drilling and related activity by oil and gas companies within the city limits. The margin of victory was an ample 17 points – 58 percent for the ban, 41 percent against.

Longmont can be understood only partly as a suburb of ecotopian Boulder; it’s also part of the Front Range zone where oil and gas production are important, and expanding, economic drivers.

Opponents of the measure – including the state’s largest newspaper – extolled those benefits, championed the state’s regulatory safeguards and predicted that the limits couldn’t possibly withstand court review. In Colorado, local governments cannot adopt outright bans on drilling.

But voters rejected those arguments, and also the prediction that their city would be only the hook for huge payments to energy companies whose mineral rights had been “seized.”

This was another big-spending campaign considering the electorate’s small size: Campaigns for and against the amendment reported outlays totaling $920,834 by the end of last month, which by my quick calculation is a bit over $28 for for each of the 32,514 votes cast.  And the two sides were almost evenly matched; 55 percent of the money went for efforts to defeat the measure, essentially all of it from industry.

(Down the road in the People’s Republic of Boulder – I say that fondly, as a guy who loves the place and sometime wishes he still lived there – the electorate surprised exactly no one by extending both a municipal carbon tax and a sales tax supporting parks and open space, by 4-to-1 margins on each.)

Alabama extends public-land purchases

By another lopsided margin, about 3 to 1, Alabama voters approved Amendment 1 to extend by 20 years the state’s Forever Wild Land Trust. The trust buys land for state parks, trails and wildlife management areas, spending in the neighborhood of $50 million a year in natural gas royalties, matching federal grants and revenue from special “Go Wild” license plates.

Alabama is not a big public-lands state. Indeed, it has the smallest percentage of state-owned conservation land of any in the Southeast. Nevertheless, it keeps renewing a fund that since 1992 has expanded those holdings by more than a quarter-million acres.

Arizona rejects … um, something

For sheer weirdness I include Arizona’s vote on Proposition 120, a “Declaration of State Sovereignty Amendment” to the state constitution that went down by a margin of 2-to-1.

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Had it passed, according to a neutral account at Ballotpedia, it would have claimed state sovereignty – as a counter to federal authority – over such natural resources as land, air, water, minerals and wildlife.  A leading proponent in the legislature called it “10th Amendment, state’s rights initiative”; opponents said it was an effort to undermine federal environmental protections.

And the Arizona Republic, hardly the most liberal of voices on environment, had this to say:

“This ridiculous measure declares state sovereignty over all federal land in Arizona. A state that can’t afford to manage its own parks system is going to take on running the Grand Canyon and other iconic national parks, forests, wilderness areas, monuments and preserves. Really?”

As it happened, not so much.