A bright idea in the states' rights fight?

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2010 - 9:09 PM

Bill would allow Minnesota firms to make and sell incandescent light bulbs after a federal ban kicks in.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl has a message for the federal government: Keep your laws off my light bulbs.

The retired teacher from Grove City -- along with state Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican candidate for governor -- has drawn a new weapon in the battle to beat back the hand of the federal government: incandescent light bulbs, the kind that have been around for a century.

A handful of GOP lawmakers have launched a legislative crusade to let Minnesotans keep buying conventional light bulbs after the federal government orders lights-out on selling old bulbs in 2014. The backers have re-ignited a long-simmering debate about the environmental merits of energy-efficient bulbs while at the same time putting Minnesota, along with a growing list of other states, headlong into a states' rights showdown with Washington.

"I want Minnesota to take a stand; we have the right to do this," said Urdahl, a fourth-term Republican. "If a lawsuit is the result, so be it."

Urdahl is pushing legislation that would allow Minnesota companies to produce and sell conventional bulbs in the state after the federal government prohibits their sale. He's got no big beef with the new energy-saving variety; he's got three in his kitchen.

"The real problem I have with this ban is it's another instance of government creeping even further into our lives," he said. "Our Founding Fathers would be dismayed if they knew Washington is reaching so far into our lives as to control the light bulbs we use."

Urdahl has an unlikely foe in this lighting battle: Republican George W. Bush.

In 2007, then-President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which imposes new efficiency standards beginning in 2012. The legislation will prohibit the sale of widely used incandescent bulbs, ranging from 40 watts to 100 watts. By 2014, the plan is to move consumers toward compact-fluorescent light bulbs, which are more energy efficient and last longer.

Urdahl said he believes the federal legislation violates states' rights allowed in the 10th Amendment. The U.S. Constitution allows the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. Under his reading of the law, Urdahl said, light bulbs made in Minnesota solely for Minnesotans would be exempt from federal commerce laws because they aren't shipped over state lines.

"I agree with the premise that the state has the right to make these determinations, not the federal government." Emmer said.

Bachmann took aim at law

This is not the first time a Minnesota lawmaker has flipped on the light bulb issue.

In 2008, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann introduced a bill in Congress titled the "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act."

The legislation sought to repeal the nationwide phase-out of conventional light bulbs.

Teasing to the states' rights fight to come, Bachmann said the government has no business telling consumers what kind of light bulbs to buy.

Urdahl said he modeled his legislation after a similar measure that is making its way through the Arizona Legislature.

Arizona state Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, introduced the bill this year to provoke a fight with the federal government over states' rights and interstate trade.

He has framed the proposal as a new take on a Montana law that tried to ensure that guns made in that state, and not sent to other states, are not subject to federal regulations, such as gun registration.

According to news reports, Antenori purposely chose a weapon far less politically divisive than guns.

"It's kind of like the Montana gun bill, but not as angry," Antenori told the Arizona Republic. "You can't get too [angry] with light bulbs. You don't shoot people with light bulbs."

Next target: toilets

If this idea tanks, Antenori is reportedly readying another legislative weapon in his states' rights fight: low-flow toilets.

Along with the states' rights issue, Urdahl renewed the Arizonan's argument that the new bulbs contain potentially harmful amounts of mercury.

"Most of us agree those curly-Q bulbs have poor light quality and are difficult to dispose of because they contain toxic mercury," he said.

Environmentalists and those who sell light bulbs said Urdahl and other critics are painting an outdated or incomplet picture.

Todd Reubold, spokesman for the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, said switching to more efficient, long-lasting light bulbs is the least consumers should do to reduce harmful emissions by power companies.

"Here we are talking about light bulbs when we should be talking about power plants," Reubold said. "We tend to focus on these small issues when we lose track of the larger ones."

Steven Witzig, an owner of Water and Energy Solutions in Brooklyn Center, said the mercury concerns are overblown.

Consumers can recycle burned-out bulbs at many retailers and local government drop-off sites, he said.

Tim Witzig, another owner of the company, dismissed concerns that the new bulbs are slow to turn on or sometimes give off strange-colored light.

That can be true among the bargain bulbs, but not the ones that sell for $2 to $5 each, he said.

"Now, you can't tell the difference," Tim Witzig said. "You flip the switch, they turn on."

The cost savings from much lower energy use mean the bulbs pay for themselves in a month or two, the Witzigs said.

The fate of Urdahl's bill could be dimmer than his 100-watt ambitions. The bill is not scheduled to get a hearing this session, so he might try to attach it as an amendment to another bill. Even if it passes, nothing would happen unless someone starts to manufacture light bulbs in the state.

Urdahl said he's hopeful the bill would inspire someone to start a light bulb company.

"We're looking to help people get back to work, so this could be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to bring a new line of jobs to Minnesota," he said.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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