Bringing ‘Green’ values to Jefferson City

BY PAM DROOG JONES, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Is environmentalism “Jewish”? The St. Louis area’s Jewish legislators in the Missouri General Assembly resoundingly respond, “Yes.”

Representatives Steve Brown (District 73), Jill Schupp (District 82), Rachel Storch (District 64) and Jake Zimmerman (District 83), and Senator Jeff Smith (District 4), approach green issues in a variety of ways. They sponsor and/or co-sponsor legislation, promote green initiatives they’ve seen or heard about, and communicate with constituents about environmental issues. All five legislators agree, however, that taking care of the earth and its inhabitants is vitally important to them — as Jews and as Missourians.

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Green legislation

Caring about the earth and its inhabitants encompasses many different areas — conservation, climate change, recycling, energy sources, air and water quality and much more — and legislation sponsored or co-sponsored by the area’s Jewish representatives and senator in the current session of the Missouri General Assembly reflects that.

Senator Jeff Smith is the sponsor of omnibus legislation, the 2009 Green Bill (SB 430), which includes four primary provisions (see accompanying article). The bill’s “Green School Grants” would provide funds to public school districts to help them obtain a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification for new or renovated buildings. “Studies say kids learn better in environments with fresh air and natural lighting,” Smith says. Citing the state-of-the-art Alberici Construction headquarters building at Page and 170, he notes, “Absenteeism there has been reduced by 50 percent, so just think of the tremendous benefits of reducing student absenteeism thanks to greener schools.”

Last year, Smith’s efforts on behalf of the environment earned him the Green Leader Award from Missouri Votes Conservation. “I think we have neglected as a state to be role models for citizens for a long time and now we’re trying to get up to speed,” Smith says.

Over in the House, Rep. Rachel Storch sponsored HB 312, to give tax credits for qualified research expenses. “It’s a bill I’ve been working very hard on the last couple of years which would establish a tax credit for research and development in agricultural biotechnology,” Storch says. “It would promote life sciences in Missouri and fits in with several environmental initiatives.” Storch also is a co-sponsor of two other environmentally progressive house bills.

Rep. Jill Schupp is a co-sponsor of Storch’s HB 312, and both are co-sponsors of HB 1003, which, like Smith’s SB 430, establishes Green School Grants for public school districts to help schools gain LEED certification.

Rep. Steve Brown is the sponsor of HB 921, which says the Public Service Commission must provide public gas and electric utilities an opportunity to earn a profit on energy-efficiency programs. “The PSC tells utilities what rates they can set,” Brown says. “But this bill allows a utility to set a slightly better rate if it implements conservation programs which would lead to lower energy use by consumers.

“Conservation really has to be a large part of the discussion of energy policy. And in order for that to happen, the public utilities need to promote conservation and in return, make a little more profit. After all, they are in business.” Brown also is the co-sponsor of two other energy-related house bills.

Like Brown, Rep. Jake Zimmerman also has an interest in public utilities and energy conservation. He has co-sponsored HB 882, which “works energy conservation into utility building practices,” Zimmerman says.

“Right now utilities have an incentive to sell you more power. But with this bill we’re saying if they want to, for example, sell you an air conditioner that will save energy, we want to make sure they will get compensated for it so they can make a profit, instead of selling you more power.”

Commitments and committees

Although she first was elected to the Missouri Legislature in 2005, Storch is serving on the House Energy and Environment Committee for the first time this year. Her interest in renewable energy was triggered by the Eisenhower Fellowship she won last year to study renewable energy in Brazil.

“I chose Brazil because it is energy-independent because of its use of sugar-based ethanol,” Storch says. “I was really interested to see another country’s model for getting to energy independence and to try and bring home any aspects of what they had done that we could replicate here or aspire to. So when I came home I asked to be on the Energy and Environment Committee and luckily I got a spot.”

Storch learned Brazil’s sugar-based ethanol experience can’t be duplicated here for many reasons, including history, soil and climate conditions and land availability. “But I was impressed that they had a long-term, coordinated governmental strategy that has contributed to their environmental policies related to ethanol,” she says. “They bring all the players to the table: government, the auto industry and the ethanol producers, to make sure that they have both a supply and demand for ethanol, internally in Brazil, and now they’re coming together to try to market it to the world as a commodity.”

As a result, Storch says she’d like to see more coordination in this country in the long and short term between all of the parties that have a vested interest in energy independence. “I have great faith in the capacity of America to push through technological advances, whether we’re using second generation technologies related to ethanol or whether we’re doing more with wind and solar and other renewable energy sources,” she says. “I feel like the paradigm is shifting. We have already begun to see mandate-type legislation in this area, which is probably necessary for us to make the big strides in terms of renewables. That certainly was part of the strategy in Brazil.”

Storch says environmental issues are very important to her constituency. “I represent an urban progressive district so there’s a lot of attention paid to alternative energy and renewable energy sources and related issues,” she says. She keeps constituents informed through an email newsletter.

Zimmerman also says he frequently is contacted by constituents about environmental issues. “Plenty of them are activists,” he says. “The legendary environmentalist Kay Drey lives in my district. If I were not progressive on environmental policies I surely would hear about it.” Zimmerman sends out publications and surveys and holds town hall meetings, and quickly responds to constituents’ emails and phone calls.

Schupp also communicates with constituents through an email newsletter. Each issue contains a user-friendly, easy-to-implement “Green Tip of the Week.” In addition, as a member of the Creve Coeur Climate Action Task Force, she was involved in that community’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory and hopes to take the concept statewide.

“The City of Creve Coeur has been a great leader in doing positive things for the environment,” Schupp says. “Now I’m hopeful that the state can take the baseline created by Creve Coeur and work with universities to develop a broader program to help communities throughout the state measure and control their greenhouse gas emissions, and create green jobs.”

Smith, now in the third year of his four-year Senate term, sends constituents a comprehensive Legislative Report each session. “I learn from them all the time,” he says. “In fact, it was a constituent who got me interested in the Green Building Tax Credit.” A passionate conservationist who commuted by bicycle for 10 years, Smith also created a working group of architects, designers, environmental engineers, homebuilders and others who contributed to SB 430. “The group still gets together,” Smith says. “Our office generally serves as a clearinghouse for a lot of ideas about environmental policy.”

Roots of Environmentalism

Brown says his interest in environmental issues derives from his work with the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federation. “Learning about Middle Eastern politics taught me how dangerous and wrong it is to rely on that part of the world for so much of our energy. It’s a national security issue,” he says. “But there’s also a huge environmental aspect involved. There could be great economic benefits as we retrofit to a more green-based energy system. The economic development surrounding that is very important.”

He also attributes his interest to simply growing up in a Jewish household “where discussions about world issues and government and politics were the norm,” he says. “I truly believe it’s a Jewish tradition to have an understanding of what’s going on in the world and how everything is interconnected.”

Smith, too, points to his Jewish upbringing as being responsible for his interest in conservation. His mother and grandmother, he says, taught him waste was wrong and decadent. “Every washrag in our house was an old towel or T-shirt. I learned from a very young age that resources were limited,” he says. “I like to think it’s a Jewish thing.”

Zimmerman, on the other hand, says he “always was a greenie. I was the kid stomping around the house saying, ‘We have to recycle more!'”

All five legislators mention tikkun olam — repairing the world. “If you take it literally, that gives us a responsibility to our environment, to make sure we leave clean air and water for our children and grandchildren,” says Storch.

Adds Schupp, “Tikkun olam means making sure we will sustain this earth we have been given, this gift. Absolutely, I feel those are the values I bring to this seat and to this place,” she says. “This is holy work, work for the greater good and I want to make sure I never forget that.”