Reporter's Notebook: Take Sierra Club’s bad report card on Gov. Snyder with a grain of salt

Jan 9, 2014

Sometimes people don’t tell the truth. More often, they don’t tell the whole truth. Sometimes they do it on purpose to make their argument appear stronger. Other times they make honest mistakes. Sorting it out is my job as a reporter. Yesterday, the Sierra Club dumped a fair amount of work on my lap when it released an error laden press release giving Governor Snyder a failing grade on energy and environmental actions.

Here’s what I found that I think you should know.

The Sierra Club is a non-profit, non-partisan member organization. On Wednesday the Michigan Chapter released a scorecard evaluating Gov. Rick Snyder’s performance in his first three years in office.

They looked at three issues: energy, the environment and government transparency. They felt there were 36 decisions that were worthy of being included in the scorecard. Snyder failed miserably, scoring agreement on only 22% of his actions.

The point of the scorecard was to inform members and the voting public of Snyder’s record, because, the group reasoned, not everybody is super in touch with the day-to-day policy decisions in Lansing. That’s probably true.

But when you’ve got reporters on the conference call, who do get paid to watch and write about these issues, you should probably double and triple check your work, or risk losing some credibility.

One thing that stood out to me as at least a tad unfair was the Sierra Club’s inclusion of Snyder’s decision in the beginning of 2011 to grant air permits for two coal plants. Here are a few reasons why I say that:

  1. The Sierra Club was pleased when former Gov. Jennifer Granholm held up the permits, prompting lawsuits from both applicants, the City of Holland and Wolverine, before Snyder took office. They were ticked off when Snyder took office and granted the permits.  The club argues energy demand isn’t high enough to warrant the coal plants and so the state shouldn’t have granted the air permits.
  2. Judges in both lawsuits had pretty much said that the state had no standing to deny the permits; even the Attorney General at the time agreed. So Snyder’s administration didn’t feel they had much choice in continuing the lawsuits. On the other hand, I’m sure the Sierra Club would love to continue to appeal the cases – they had joined the case – and delay the permits some more. They argue that provisions of federal law backed Granholm’s decision. But because the permits were issued, we’ll never get to find out.
  3. Ultimately, neither coal plant will be built. Blame or thank Granholm for the delay, but changes in federal regulations and cheaper natural gas made it so the economics of building these new coal plants just won’t be worth it. So who cares anymore? Well, the Sierra Club, enough so that the group counted the air permits as two negative marks, instead of the single administrative decision it made with the Department of Enviromental Quality (DEQ) not to continue the court battle Granholm prompted.

The next logical journalistic step for a reporter is to offer Gov. Snyder a chance to respond to the scorecard  while I fact check some budget numbers I thought might be off. 

My hunch was later confirmed.

Snyder’s team of spokespeople was, I’d say, a little sassier than usual in its response.

“It’s unfortunate to have a fringe environmental group throw up a political gesture this early in the season, but it’s an election year so I guess we have to expect some of this right?” DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel asked. “It’s just disappointing to see a lot of good reforms reduced to gibberish in this effort at a scorecard. It’s too bad. But we’ll continue working with (The Sierra Club),” he added.

More important to me than the raised hackles, was the warning that they found multiple fact errors in the Sierra Club's scorecard.

While I do appreciate a good challenge, realizing I now really had to dig back through three years of decisions on somewhat obscure DEQ regulations, budgets and permitting processes, just to prove whether some group’s scorecard is even worth publishing, is not what I’d call a thrilling afternoon.  

To their credit, the Sierra Club did quickly acknowledge their mistakes, and even said thanks for the dialogue. A spokesman said my "investigative journalism” made the scorecard “a better and more accurate product.”

The Sierra Club reissued the press release to reporters and editors across Michigan last night, long after most media outlets had regurgitated the incorrect information from the press release. (Most of the major papers and TV stations have not bothered to include the corrections or rewrite their posts – I checked.)

So here’s where the Sierra Club screwed up its scorecard on facts. I've left out interpretational arguments between the Snyder administration and the Sierra Club that could really go either way.

  1. The Sierra Club claimed the budget for the Department of Natural Resources was cut by 13.5% in 2012. That’s not true. It’s important to know the bulk of the DNR’s budget comes from fees (hunting, fishing camping, etc.). But with or without the state’s General Fund contributions, the DNR’s budget has gone up every year from 2011 to 2014 with the exception of 2012, when it went from 320.9 million to 320.4 million because of the fees, not the General Fund – which is only a drop of less than a half a percent.
  2. The Sierra Club claimed Snyder signed a law that "Prohibits the DEQ from regulating sodium in groundwater discharges." That’s sort of not true. An earlier version of the bill did, but the final act says the DEQ can regulate sodium in groundwater discharge, up to 230 milligrams per liter.
  3. The Sierra Club claimed Snyder signed a law that put term limits on members of the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board. That’s not true. An earlier version of the bill did, but the final act doesn’t.
  4. The Sierra Club claimed Snyder signed a law that limited the Natural Resource Commission's ability to ensure Michigan’s natural areas are being adequately protected. An earlier version of the bill did, but the final act doesn’t.

After releasing a new press release, Snyder’s new score from the Sierra Club went from 22% to 25%.

It's not a big gain. That’s because instead of switching the inaccurate factors from “negative” decisions to “positive” ones, the Sierra Club just dropped the decisions they got wrong from the list entirely. If they had switched them instead of dropped the inaccuracies, Snyder would’ve scored 33% – still a failing grade.

A Sierra Club spokesman said they decided to drop the inaccurate factors from the scorecard because the legislative committee would have to evaluate them first to determine if they could consider them positive. It’s not a given, he said.

To me, the whole thing seems pretty lame now. Mainly because during that conference call with reporters Wednesday, Richard Barron, chair of the Michigan chapter's political committee made this clear:

“We don’t try to approach any of the scorecards we do with a pre-ordained result and then work backwards. We try to look at what people have done to try to take representative issues, important issues and votes, and we try to give them credit where they’ve acted in ways we believe is responsible and underline where they fail to do so; and we put it out for whatever it’s worth,” Barron said.

If the Sierra Club meant for their scorecard to be valued, they should’ve put more time and effort into researching the facts before they put it out. I’d argue, if their three factors for the evaluation were energy, the environment and government transparency, they should’ve considered including major changes to wetland regulations (I've been corrected. They did factor in SB 163 - which is now PA 98 of 2013) or, I don’t know, maybe made mention of the insane lame-duck session in 2012 that included the passage of right to work laws without much public input and a new emergency manager law less than two months after voters had repealed the first one Snyder signed.  

The lesson for voters, as always, should be this: Take everything you read with a grain of salt. It’s not always the full truth or the truth at all.