Pipelines and floods: What’s government’s role?

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October 28th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Nebraska’s Governor calls a special session to take on a big oil company, and hundreds line up to shout down the government’s handling of the Missouri flood. Robyn Wisch checked in with Nebraska Watchdog’s Joe Jordan for an analysis of this week’s news in today’s edition of Your Government at Work.

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RW: So we’ve had two pretty big stories this week: The first: Governor Dave Heineman made a surprise move and called a special session to deal with pipeline legislation – after first resisting the idea. And then we have hundreds of farmers and landowners along the Missouri lining up to give the Army Corps of Engineers a piece of their minds. Let’s start with the Governor, what prompted the turnaround?

Gov. Dave Heineman made a surprise move Monday and called a special session to deal with pipeline legislation. (Photo courtesy State of Nebraska)

JJ: Robyn, I think if I knew the answer to that, I’d be in a different plateau as a reporter. Maybe it’ll take a psychiatrist to figure this one out. It’s the $64,000 question. People are absolutely baffled that Governor Heineman decided to do this for a couple big reasons.

For one, just a half a dozen days ago or so, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood said he didn’t think there was a need for a special session, that any legislation that got through, if something got through, would open the state to a huge lawsuit down the road filed obviously by Trans Canada. The second point is just two months ago, Governor Heineman told me, and I’m sure he told others as well, that he was opposed to calling a special session. In his words: ‘I’m not going to spend $10,000 a day just to have a debate.’ Well, when the Legislature goes into special session on Tuesday that’s exactly what they’re looking at: $10,000 a day to run the session and there’s going to be a debate because right now there is clearly no consensus.

RW: And how much pressure do you think the Governor came under to call the special session? Obviously, there’s been protests, there’s been pressure from environmental lobbyists and activists. What kind of pressure do you think he was feeling?

JJ: Well, there certainly was pressure from people that are opposed to the pipeline. But at the same token, there’s pressure from the other side: major corporations in this state, the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, labor unions that want this pipeline to get built because they’re convinced it would provide jobs and economic development.

So I don’t know if one side was able to outweigh the other in terms of pressure trying to apply to the Governor. Usually his decisions are closely politically calculated, doesn’t do anything “willy nilly. But again, no one can really put a handle on it.

We raised the question the other day in Nebraska Watchdog, is he getting ready to run for U.S. Senate. Personally, I don’t think that’s the case. But if he was going to run for U.S. Senate, having a special session, letting people at the state legislature hash this thing out and come to a conclusion or no conclusion, would be to his advantage, he could at least say later on, I tried but they couldn’t come up with something.

RW: And let’s turn to the story of the Army Corps taking a verbal beating on Monday night at their first public hearing in Omaha. Hundreds lining up to vent their frustrations. We’re going to take a listen to a piece of your interview with Jody Farhat, who heads the Missouri River Basin Management Center, where she defended the Corps’ plans for 2012. (Watch Joe Jordan’s interview below)

RW: And here’s Todd Binder, a farmer from Big Lake, Missouri, who testified Monday night, and basically said that logic isn’t going to cut it:

Todd Binder: So, 113 out of 114 years are okay for 16.3 million acre feet of water, is that correct? 113 out of 114 times I run a red light, I make it. See the logic? This comes down to common sense.

RW: A lot of frustration there. What do you think people weree expecting from the Army Corps that they obviously didn’t see?

JJ: I guess what they were hoping for was some way, shape or form for the Corps to indicate that next year they can do things differently. I think people are just hurt and frustrated. Many people saw their livelihoods and their homes wrecked by this flood. And those are emotions that are still obviously very raw, and the Corps pretty much had to stand there and take it at the hearing that was held in Omaha. And they’re standing it and taking it at hearings that are being held in several other states throughout the basin.

Rulo, Nebraska bridges pictured on June 15, 2011. The Big Lake area, where Todd Binder farms, is in the upper left. (Photo by U.S. Army Corps)

So on the one hand, the Corps is pretty much up against the wall there, and really can’t make an argument. People are going to be upset, and the Corps is not going to be able to make them feel any better.

In terms of where we go from here, when the Corps stands there and says we don’t think there’s going to be a major flood in 2012, it’s extremely doubtful, but if there is, we don’t see ourselves doing anything different than we did in 2011, that just infuriates people, who think government should be able to do something about this. The Corps’ point is that they’ve done everything they can and they can’t control Mother Nature.

RW: So what I thought was kind of interesting about this week was taking a look at people’s mindsets. With all the calls for smaller government and less spending, these are two pretty direct calls for government intervention. What do you think that says about what kind of role they’re expecting government to play in their lives?

JJ: In part, I think it’s sort of when problems hit people between the eyes and in their own backyards. It’s easy to look from a distance and see a problem that doesn’t affect you, and say government shouldn’t have a role in that. It’s a little different when it does affect you and you’re not sure where to go for help, and maybe government is the only vestige you can find to give you a helping hand. And then you go to government and say you’ve got to do something because no one else will, sort of the help of last resort. And if the government’s not going to step up, then I think people get upset, because they don’t know where else to turn.

RW: Well, we’ll keep watching these stories and see how they turn out. Joe Jordan, with Nebraska Watchdog, thanks for joining us.

JJ: Thank you, Robyn. I appreciate it.

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