As a deadline for protesters to clear out of the Wisconsin State Capitol by 4pm on Sunday came and went with no arrests, a group of several hundred people spent another night in the statehouse in Madison protesting Republican Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill. The bill would effectively remove the rights of public labor unions to collectively bargain in salary negotiations. But over the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear that this political standoff is about more than labor unions and balanced budgets.
While most of the opposition to Senate Bill 11 (pdf) has centered on the proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights of thousands of state employees, among the other proposals in the bill is one that would allow the Walker administration to sell off or lease the state's several dozen energy plants to private companies, with or without approval of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and with or without a competitive bidding process.
While news of the proposal to sell state-owned power plants is not itself new, some have more recently suggested that billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, Gov. Scott Walkers' financial and ideological backers, might directly benefit from the deal. The Koch brothers own Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in the U.S. with significant coal interests in Wisconsin.
The Koch brothers' political action committee gave Walker $43,000, his campaign's second highest donation, and helped fund a multi-million dollar attack ad campaign against his opponent via their major conduit for political influence, Americans for Prosperity (Although it had some problems with political influence throughout the day on Sunday when the hacktivist group, "Anonymous," brought down the Americans for Prosperity website in a denial of service attack. The site is back up and running at last check but once you get in the crosshairs of those guys, chances are good you will be again.)
The evidence is hardly enough to impugn the Koch brothers — and a Koch Industries' representative has denied any interest in purchasing any of the state-owned power plants in Wisconsin — but the story has another wrinkle. The Capital Times' Shawn Doherty reports that the man Gov. Walker put in charge of the office that would oversee the power plant sales was former State Senator Jeff Plale. Plale is apparently one of the two Democratic senators who broke ranks with fellow Democrats to vote against state employee contracts last fall. One month later, Plale was given the $90,000 job as chief of the Department of Administration's Division of Facilities.
This is not the first time a plan to sell-off the state's power plants has been floated, however. A similar plan was vetoed in 2005 by then-Governor Jim Doyle. But the rhetoric used in support of that plan sounded like it could have been lifted straight out of the Koch political handbook, with one Republican representative supporter reportedly referring to ownership of the power plants as a vestige of Wisconsin's "neo-Socialist" past.
For small government, ideological conservatives like Gov. Scott Walker and the Kochs, those power plants are symbolic of what they want to undo.
The real story here is bigger than allegations of some backroom deal that would have directly benefited a Koch Industries company that supplies coal to Wisconsin power plants. The real story is that the fight in Wisconsin is just one frontline where a well-organized, systematic effort to pull the country further to the right is developing. That effort, all in the name of personal liberty but mostly to the advantage of corporate interests, would not only limit the power of organized labor, it would also shrink government and loosen (environmental) regulations across the country — and that would benefit the Kochs way more than a couple power plants in Wisconsin ever could.