LOBBYING

Americans for Prosperity went gunning for RGGI

With New Jersey's departure from a regional climate program yesterday, Americans for Prosperity put a notch on its belt to register progress in its sprawling campaign against "central planning."

The conservative group focused the resources of its state chapter on rescinding New Jersey's membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) for most of the past year. It used a television ad to warn of "less freedom" and skyrocketing electricity rates, while mocking the existence of global warming in a radio spot.

"That's just an excuse to create a money-making cap-and-trade scheme that'll drive up electric rates," a woman narrator says of climate change.

The state chapter paid about $250,000 for the advertising, said Steve Lonegan, director of Americans for Prosperity in New Jersey. He said it was "very effective at elevating the issue."

The group also bused in activists to anti-RGGI meetings called "Taxpayer Action Seminars" and helped organize press conferences with state politicians who supported legislation to repeal the program.

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"It's been my No. 1 priority for a year," Lonegan said of ending the state's membership.

The effort in New Jersey is a window into the philosophy and actions of Americans for Prosperity, a group with links to energy giants Charles and David Koch, libertarian billionaires who seek to enforce a limited role for government.

Last year, Americans for Prosperity was active nationally in congressional races. It spent roughly $45 million on advertising and voter mobilization efforts during the midterm campaigns, according to a report by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. The group bused conservative activists around Ohio and other states campaigning against cap and trade.

Over the years, it has emphasized anti-climate change campaigns, including the Hot Air Tour and the Regulation Reality Tour, both of which pressured lawmakers to oppose climate policies.

"The entire campaign is full of lies, distortions, deliberate mischaracterization of both climate change science and of policies that would ... adjust greenhouse gas emissions," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace.

No Koch cash

The New Jersey chapter used worst-case scenarios in its advertisements, claiming that the program could double electricity prices by 2018, when the program is scheduled to end. That hasn't happened yet, and even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, suggested that electricity rates are unlikely to dip deeply because of the state's withdrawal. New Jersey also received $113 million in revenue over two years by selling carbon permits to utilities.

Still, New Jersey is fertile territory for concerns raised by Americans for Prosperity. It's a major emitter among states and might be vulnerable to claims of cap-and-trade "leakage" -- when businesses, jobs and emissions relocate to unregulated neighbors. In this case, that neighbor is Pennsylvania, an even larger emitter that did not join RGGI.

New Jersey also has some of the highest residential electricity rates in the country, at 16.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. Only Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are higher.

Americans for Prosperity doesn't limit itself to energy politics, nor to Democratic opponents. It attacked Christie's budget plan last year for having two disagreeable themes: "income redistribution and entitlement program expansion."

The group offered its own "Taxpayer Budget" that proposed cutting food-stamp programs, low-income health insurance -- "this is New Jersey's public option," it said -- and Medicaid for children. It also proposed eliminating RGGI.

The group's plan, the document said, would reverse Christie's "philosophy of egalitarianism driven by income redistribution through central planning."

Lonegan, who runs the New Jersey chapter, said he's responsible for raising enough money to run the chapter. The national group provides support for administrative oversight, policies and legal review, he noted.

"That's not as quantifiable as somebody writing you a check," he said. "There is a big value on all the oversight and management and legal review and administrative oversight."

Asked if he received funding from Koch Industries, Lonegan laughed.

"No I didn't," he said. "Believe me. I'd love to, but I did not. I'm responsible for my own in-state tuition. So unfortunately, I did not get funding from Koch Industries."

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