Jewish World Review August 8, 2001 / 19 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Governors defend their turf -- PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The motto on the old American Revolutionary flag, "Don't Tread on Me," is one that all state governors who gathered here this week for their summer conference take to heart, especially when it comes to their dealings with the federal government.

So when Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham rather casually mentioned that "as a last resort" the Bush administration might have to seek legislation giving it power to acquire land for new electricity transmission lines in the states, governors of both parties saw a red flag.

Even Abraham's clear caveat that the administration expected that the states would cooperate by locating suitable sites for new transmission grids for anticipated increased power needs did not becalm the state leaders, always super-protective of their own political domains.

In producing their own broad proposals for increasing supply as well as conservation of energy, the governors' bipartisan Committee on Natural Resources in effect told Abraham and President Bush to trust them to meet their responsibilities without being leaned on by the Feds.

Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, the chairman of the committee, said he and his colleagues agree on the need for more transmission facilities, "but they need to give us a chance. Don't assume we can't work together," he said. If the governors fail to meet the need, he went on, it will be time enough then for federal intervention. "It's premature to suggest it."

Republican Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the vice chairman, agreed, saying such decisions on siting of transmission facilities should be left to local, state and regional responses first. "We don't have a problem yet," he said. "Why create a solution?"

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis of California, whose efforts to cope with rolling electricity blackouts in his state have made him the governor with the highest profile in energy matters, dismissed Abraham's suggestion that the administration might as a last resort impose eminent domain to secure transmission sites. It was, he said, "a polite way of telling governors to do their jobs."

That, indeed, seemed to be Abraham's intent. Rather than requiring legislation giving the federal government authority over the placing of new transmission lines, he said, he expected that once the federal government identified the need, the states would take the matter from there and find the necessary sites. But he did add that "if they refuse," the administration reserved the right to seek congressional authority to step in.

Although Abraham and Davis swapped compliments on how cooperative each has been in dealing with California's energy woes, it's clear that tension continues to exist between the governor and the Bush administration, if not its energy secretary. Davis at one point took occasion to rib Abraham that when Bush visited him in California, he reminded the Texan that Texas and Wyoming, Vice President Dick Cheney's state, rated low among the states in energy conservation. Davis quoted Bush as telling him then, "I'm going to have to talk to Dick Cheney."

Abraham took pains to pair electricity conservation with the administration emphasis on increased supply, telling Davis, "We're all very proud of what you achieved, Governor." Davis picked up on the reference, observing that in Californians' reduction of 12 to 14 percent in electricity use during the state's power crisis, they learned that "it was not a huge sacrifice" to conserve.

He cited three simple ways the reduction was accomplished - by turning down home thermostats a couple of degrees, by putting computers on "sleep mode," and by turning off lights when not needed. But Abraham continued to drive home his point that conservation alone will not satisfy the nation's future electricity demands.

Abraham and the administration are already busy reassuring the edgy governors that they are confident cooperation will make it unnecessary to go over their heads to Congress for legislation giving the Feds power to locate new transmission lines in the various states. The wonder is that the energy secretary ever raised that red flag, considering how touchy the governors are about their own turf.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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