Earlier this month, the citizens of Decorah, Iowa, voted against establishing a municipal electric utility— by three votes. The “no” campaign, financed exclusively by Alliant Energy, outspent the grassroots “yes” campaign 5-to-1, according to state campaign disclosure reports.
Iowa has experienced a “municipal electric utility drought” since 1974. This is in part due to the expensive and involved process to present a municipalization case to the Iowa Utilities Board. In Decorah, however, the impediment to our city’s right to municipalization was Alliant Energy’s meddling in our local democratic process. Alliant’s involvement started last year, when a local grassroots organization, Decorah Power, declared its intentions to explore municipalization.
Alliant’s marketing team started placing full-page ads in the local newspaper, rented a billboard, and ran a targeted digital ad campaign touting the company’s longevity in the community. At the beginning of this year, when it became clear that Decorah was heading for a referendum, Alliant leaders stepped up their game. They hastily hosted a community meeting to share results of a feasibility study they had commissioned to “educate” the citizenry on municipalization.
Their consultant, Concentric Energy Advisors, claimed it would cost the community over $50 million to municipalize and that rates would increase by 30 percent. Decorah Power’s independently commissioned study by NewGen Strategies and Solutions revealed vastly different numbers — $7 million and 30 percent lower costs.
Alliant leaders hired a “community liaison” to infiltrate the community and eventually run the “no” campaign. They bought more billboards, digital ads, yard signs, and started running frequent soundbites on the local radio stations. The “no” campaign sent several postcards to Decorah residents repeating the outrageous numbers from the Alliant-funded feasibility study. It paid employees from other parts of the state to campaign in Decorah and hired locals to go door-to-door and spread the unfounded messages that municipalization would reduce reliability and increase electric rates. The campaign was rooted in fear and divisiveness. And it worked.
When you stop to think about it, what we experienced in Decorah is absurd. Leaders of an out-of-state, regulated monopoly used money they earned from our electric bill payments to run a deceptive campaign against our right to municipalize — a move that could have saved our community up to $5 million per year according to the NewGen feasibility study.
Some argue that corporations have the right to protect their interests. I disagree. The institution of the corporation is a social construct. We the people created corporations to solve specific problems and benefit the public, for example to build a bridge or a turnpike. According to Reclaim Democracy, corporate charters "were granted for a limited time" and "corporations could engage only in activities necessary to fulfill their chartered purpose." Since the inception of this construct, corporations have taken on a life of their own, like rogue robots in science fiction movies. But we the people gave the corporation its rights and we can revoke them.
Our democracy is under assault, and with it the rights of the people who live in our society. Experiencing this assault in our small northeast Iowa town shed light on the issue in a new, personal way. If we want to reclaim democracy before it’s too late, we must enact legislation that limits corporate personhood and speech and gives power back to the people. This starts with campaign finance reform, an effort many of us support.
I encourage all Iowans to learn more about the issue of campaign finance reform and find ways to enact change, especially at the state and local levels. Because next time it might be your city — and your rights.
Tabita Green is an author, entrepreneur, and community organizer living in Decorah, Iowa. Contact: tabita [at] tabitagreen.com.