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Electrical code changes tied to donor group axed

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

It was an easy conclusion to leap to. A recent Wisconsin State Journal report on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal, since aborted, to deep-six building codes requiring electrical safety devices prompted immediate allegations of pay-to-play.

“Gov. Walker appears to be prepared to sell off our electrical safety codes to a well-known campaign contributor,” according to a news release attributed to Rep. Fred Clark, D-Sauk City. Clark was referring to the Wisconsin Builders Association, an industry trade group that backed the changes. One of the article’s readers sighed, in a posted comment, “Money runs everything, I guess.”

In June, Walker authorized his Department of Safety and Professional Services to study eliminating the requirement that all new and most remodeled homes include three devices — arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs), ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and tamper-resistant receptacles — meant to improve electrical safety and reduce the risk of fires.

This drew a shocked reaction from electrical inspectors and others who argued that these devices have saved lives at minimal cost. (The state determined that changing the rule would have a “minimal” economic effect but require an estimated 600 hours of staff time.)

In a July 31 letter to DSPS, Tim McClintock of the National Fire Protection Association called the proposed changes “a dangerous disservice to the citizens of your state.” He said that home fires related to electrical problems claimed 472 lives in 2009, and included a link to a 2007 television news report about the electrocution death of a 6-year-old Wisconsin girl that a GFCI could have prevented.

McClintock said his letter, cc’d to Walker’s office, received no response.

But after the State Journal made the issue public, and people began alleging favoritism to a campaign contributor, Walker’s office pulled the plug on the plan.

“After reviewing some of the concerns raised with the proposed modifications to the rule, Gov. Walker directed DSPS to forgo any changes to the current rule,” according to an email attributed to Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie.

Jerry Deschane, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Builders Association, confirmed that his group suggested the changes, after surveying members about problematic rules. He said the concern was over the reliability of the devices, which can shut off power at the wrong time. (Defenders counter that they sometimes shut off for good reasons.)

Even after the State Journal article appeared, Deschane, one of the association’s registered lobbyists, was optimistic. “I hope they’ll agree it’s a significant concern and make the changes we’ve asked for,” he said before the governor changed course.

DSPS spokeswoman Angie Hellenbrand called the Builders Association “one of the ones who brought this to our attention,” without identifying any others. She referred inquiries about the proposal to Deschane.

That’s right — a state agency spokesperson, asked for details on proposed rule changes, deferred comment to an industry lobbyist.

State records show that Wisconsin Builders Association members have given $464,868 to political candidates and committees in Wisconsin since mid-2008, through the group’s conduit and political action committee. Of this amount, $169,798 went to Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Deschane denies that contributions either helped or hurt his cause, saying the issue came down to a dispute over product reliability versus safety: “This has nothing to do with politics.” Werwie, the governor’s spokesman, batted down a question about the money link with an economical “not true.”

Yet the turn of events mirrors those from April 2011, when the Walker administration appointed Jerry Deschane’s son Brian to an $81,500 job, overlooking his lack of a college degree and two drunken driving convictions. Despite denials that the group’s monetary contributions played any role, the blowback was so strong that the job offer was rescinded.

Could it be that the money given by the Builders Association added enough weight to the criticism over the electrical code proposals to sink them? That would sure be ironic.

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