New governors from different political parties than their predecessors took over in more than half of the states around the Great Lakes. In most of those states, the governor’s seat went from Republican to Democrat. Some environmental groups are optimistic that the changes will benefit their causes. But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham spoke with journalists around the region who feel politics and state budgets will slow any change the new governors might want:
New governors from different political parties than their predecessors took over in more than half
of the states around the Great Lakes. In most of those states, the governors’ seat went from
Republican to Democrat. Some environmental groups are optimistic that the changes will benefit
their causes. But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham spoke with journalists
around the region who feel politics and state budget problems will slow any change the new
governors might want:
Five of the eight Great Lakes states have new governors. Four of those states went from
governorships long-held by Republicans to a Democrat governor.
For example, Republicans held the Illinois govenor’s seat for 26 years. That changed when
Democrat Rod Blagojevich took the office. The environment was not a huge issue in the
campaign. Under the Republicans there’s been an interest in acquiring large pieces of land for
parks and creating green corridors. And Blagojevich is even retaining the previous
administration’s director of the state Environmental Protection Agency. Still, some
environmentalists feel they’ll fare better under a Democrat.
At the Illinois capitol, Bill Wheelhouse is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Illinois Public Radio.
He says the change probably won’t be that significant…
“Environmental groups will see more friendly territory for some of their pet projects to some
degree. But, Illinois is not a liberal state. It’s not one that is concerned with ground-breaking
legislation on the environment or anything else. Politics is a business in that state and that can
never be forgotten.”
Despite that, the new governor, Blagojevich, has outlined a couple of areas he’d like to change.
One is charging businesses for pollution discharge permits, something that’s been free in the past.
It’s popular among lawmakers because it brings in more money for the state which is facing
budget deficits. Bill Wheelhouse says another issue Blagojevich has proposed is legislation
mandating that Illinois power companies use renewable resources such as wind and solar power.
“What it would do is in just a couple of years require that part of the energy portfolio of a utility
company include five percent renewable energy and that would increase, I believe, up to about
15-percent a decade down the road.”
Again, that kind of legislation wouldn’t cost the state any new money. That’s a plus.
Wheelhouse adds that even with Blagojevich’s fellow Democrats controlling both the House and
the Senate, any environmental proposal that doesn’t pay for itself is not likely to get very far,
because of Illinois’ budget deficit.
It’s the same story in other states. Illinois’ neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, also saw a shift
from several years under Republican governors to a newly installed Democrat. Jim Doyle is now
Reporter Chuck Quirmbach covers environmental issues for Wisconsin Public Radio. He says
the race for governor touched on the environment, but there was another more immediate issue to
“The overwhelming issue, the issue common to a lot of states is the state budget deficit here in
Wisconsin, but the environment was an important difference. It energized a lot of environmental
groups to vote for Doyle or this Green Party candidate who got about two-percent of the vote. So,
it was a significant difference. It may not have been the number one issue in the state, though.”
Quirmbach says while environmentalists are optimistic about a Democrat taking the governor’s
office, Governor Doyle will have to compromise with the Republicans who hold a majority in
both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature… and he’ll have to make compromises because of the
“The threat to the green agenda will be the economy and whether Doyle decides, ‘Well, putting
people to work might be more important than protecting certain wetlands or protecting the
environment from air pollution.'”
Across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin is another state that’s long had a Republican governor.
Michigan elected Democrat Jennifer Granholm, and in Michigan, the environment was a key issue
in the campaign for governor.
Sarah Hulett covers state government for Michigan Public Radio Network. She says the
Democrat governor quickly moved on an environmental issue which gets some Republican
support in Michigan.
“Right when the governor came in, Governor Granholm, she put together a land-use commission
— Smart Growth Commission, I think, is the name of it — made up of Democrats and Republicans
and involved the Republican leaders in both chambers in that. So, she’s off to a pretty good start
in terms of the environment, I’d say.”
But, like Wisconsin and Illinois, Michigan is facing budget problems and Hulett says the new
Democrat governor might find the environmental initiatives that cost the state will be a hard
sell to the Republican-held legislature.
“Well, the deficit is huge. And, so, that affects everything across the board. And, you know, the
environmental community is having to be patient with some of these initiatives.”
It’s a similar story in Pennsylvania where Democrat Ed Rendell took the governor’s seat from
Republicans. Rendell is friendly to environmental issues, but he, too, has to deal with a budget
deficit and he has to work with a Republican-controlled legislature.
So, despite conventional wisdom which indicates more enviro-friendly laws might come from a
Democrat in the Governor’s mansion, in those states where there’s been a change, the economy
might force those governors to put the environment further down on the list of priorities.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.