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By Dave Umhoefer August 4, 2011

Candidate Nancy Nusbaum says State Sen. Robert Cowles supported selling state power plants to the "biggest donors" without oversight or bidding

Two Democrats working to knock off Wisconsin state senators in recall elections on Aug. 9, 2011, are reviving the short-lived controversy over Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to sell off state-owned power plants.

In a strongly worded TV ad, Nancy Nusbaum and Fred Clark pair up to accuse their respective opponents, GOP senators Robert Cowles and Luther Olsen, of an abuse of power -- or at least an attempted one.

"Power. We gave it to senators Robert Cowles and Luther Olsen, then they tried to sell it," intones a narrator in the ad. "Supporting the sale of Wisconsin’s power plants, not to the highest bidder, but to the biggest donors. No bid contracts, no oversight, an invitation for corruption."

Two contested races, a high-stakes election and a provocative claim -- in other words, right up our alley.

Because the case against each is slightly different, we are looking at them in separate items. You can find the Clark vs. Olsen analysis here.

So, did Cowles support selling the plants to the biggest campaign donors with no oversight?

Walker’s budget-repair bill, proposed in February 2011, would have allowed a no-bid sale of up to 37 heating and cooling plants, primarily at University of Wisconsin campuses. Walker said the sale would avoid costly plant upgrades at taxpayer expense.

The clause immediately triggered accusations that Walker was setting up a deal to benefit Koch Industries, which the Journal Sentinel reported was the largest corporate contributor to Walker in the 2010 campaign. At the time, Koch Industries denied any interest in the plants.

The power-plant controversy all but died out amid the massive protests over Walker’s move to curtail collective bargaining for most public employees.

In fact, the power-plant sale provision was removed from the bill in the chaotic endgame that allowed Republican senators to approve the collective-bargaining changes without the Democrats who had fled to Illinois to block a quorum.

Let’s look at the three components of the claim:

Supporting the no-bid sale approach.

Cowles is not a member of the Joint Finance Committee and never had a chance to vote on the version of the repair bill that included the no-bid language. And records show that version never came to a vote in the full Senate in February because the Democrats were AWOL. The Assembly, which went first, passed the bill when it included the no-bid language.

Furthermore, in March, shortly after the Legislature passed the stripped-down repair bill lacking the power-plant action, Cowles took the lead in explaining he and other Republicans had asked that it be taken out.

In 2005, Republicans also pushed for sale of the plants, trying to insert it into the budget. When the matter came up at Joint Finance -- which at that time included Cowles -- he opposed adding it into the budget. (It ultimately went in over their objections but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle).

It’s worth noting, however, that Cowles had the chance in February to amend Walker’s budget-repair bill -- or push for an alternative being shopped around by Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center.

Schultz was talking about requiring deeper concessions from public employees than Walker's budget-repair plan but preserving more of workers' collective bargaining rights. Schultz’s plans, however, could not have come to a vote unless the Senate Democrats returned.

Schultz told us the no-bid aspect of the power plant sale would have been removed in his alternative budget plan.

So where did Cowles come down on Schultz’s plan?

The state Democratic Party, responding on behalf of the two Democrats, pointed us to a Cowles comment about Schultz’s plan in a Feb. 26, 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story.

"I'm prepared to vote for the bill as it is," said Cowles, referring to Walker’s bill -- which included the no-bid clause.

But the rest of the quote is: "If something like this (plan by Schultz) happens, I could vote for this too because it gets you 80% to 90% of what you want."

Supporting a sale of the plants to the "biggest donors."

This is an apparent reference to campaign donors.

It’s true that Koch or Wisconsin utilities who have given to Walker and Republicans could have emerged as buyers and purchased state plants. And they may have had an easier road without a formal bidding process.

But contrary to the dramatic accusation in the TV ad, the language in the bill didn’t select any winners, much less winners who are fat-cat campaign contributors. The bill would have authorized the no-bid sale, but who the ultimate bidders -- or buyers -- would be in that scenario can’t be known.

Supporting the sale without any oversight.

The original bill drew criticism in part because it went beyond the 2005 attempt by Republicans to sell the plants. That earlier effort would have required bids, and called for Public Service Commission review on whether the sale is in the public interest.

The 2011 plan submitted by Walker did not include those steps.

But amid the criticism, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee beefed up the oversight, requiring that any proposed sale forwarded by Walker’s administration first go through the committee. Cowles was not on the committee during the current term and, as we noted, did not have a chance to vote on the provision at all.

Let’s review.

Democratic challenger Nusbaum in the heat of a recall race accused Cowles of "supporting the sale of Wisconsin’s power plants, not to the highest bidder, but to the biggest donors. No bid contracts, no oversight, an invitation for corruption."

As evidence, they cite part of a quote by Cowles.

Some viewers -- perhaps most -- may assume from the ad that Cowles actually voted to sell the plants to a big campaign donor. The ad is misleading on that score alone. It would have allowed a no-bid process for the sale, but did not designate any specific buyer.

Beyond that, the ad has other problems.

Cowles never even had a chance to vote on the plan in 2011, apparently backed taking it out and has a history of opposition to slipping the plan into the budget. These are readily available facts on a very high-profile issue, making the ad’s claims -- and its implication of a scandal -- ridiculous.

Thus, we rate the claim from Nusbaum against Cowles as Pants on Fire.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

YouTube, video of Clark-Nusbaum ad, July 25, 2011

Interview with Gillian Morris, Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesperson, August 2, 2011

Interview with Sen. Luther Olsen, Aug. 1, 2011

Interview with Sen. Robert Cowles, Aug. 1, 2011

Interview with Darin Renner, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Aug. 1, 2011

Interview with Jeff Renk, assistant senate chief clerk, Aug. 1, 2011

Interview with Craig Summerfield, Cowles campaign manager, Aug. 1, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Walker devoted 20 minutes to Koch call. Why?" Feb. 23, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Potential sale of state-owned plants on hold," March 8, 2011

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, 2011 summary of budget bill section on power plants (page 21-23),  March 10, 2011

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, 2005 summary of power plant provisions inserted in budget (page 81),  October 2005

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Budget-repair bill would enable no-bid sale of power plants, "Feb. 25, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Energy facilities sparking interest," July 2, 2011

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Candidate Nancy Nusbaum says State Sen. Robert Cowles supported selling state power plants to the "biggest donors" without oversight or bidding

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