Monday, August 08, 2005

Charge $$ for Hurricane Forecast?

At one point, a freshman Republican Member of Commerce was asked how we would know whether hurricanes or tornadoes were about to hit if we did away with the weather bureau. He replied that we could just watch the Weather Channel - which, of course, depends on the National Weather Service for its own information.

-- Congressman John Dingell, News Hour, Sept. 27, 1996

Speaking of science versus ideology, as we were quite recently , Tom Zucco of the St. Petersburg Times today asks, "Will Bill Darken Weather Sites?"

He is referring to Senate Bill S-786, titled the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005. This proposed legislation was introduced last April by ultra-conservative Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA).

Santorum is famous -- or infamous, take your pick -- for ostentatiously praying at Terri Schaivo's bedside and flip-flopping the other day on Darwinian evolution. Many regard him as the kind of politician who will go anywhere and say anything to get reelected.

Santorum's newly proposed law would effectively deny Floridians, and the public at large, free access to tropical weather data, graphics, and long term forecasts. The net effect is you would have to pay a commercial service for the kind of weather forecast information you now get for free. The National Weather Service's public web site would be shuttered:
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the Senate's third-ranking Republican * * * has said the bill's intention is to keep NOAA [the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Adminstration] from competing with private companies. The main task of the weather service, he said, is to provide public alerts for emergency conditions such as tornadoes and severe weather, which the bill would require the agency to continue.

But critics say the bill would force NOAA to disseminate much of its data, which is collected at taxpayer expense, only to private companies. The result, they say, would be that the government's ad-free Web sites would go dark.

As proof, they point to a key sentence in the bill involving the cabinet post that oversees NOAA:

"The Secretary of Commerce shall not provide, or assist other entities in providing, a product or service that is or could be provided by the private sector."

That, say opponents of the bill, is akin to telling the U.S. Postal Service that Federal Express and UPS would have exclusive use of all the government's package delivery equipment, and that the post office could only deliver packages if it didn't interfere with the private companies.

The St. Petersburg Times bitterly editorialized against Santorum's bill two months ago. There, it was revealed that a commercial weather service bribed paid Santorum "thousands" before he introduced the bill.
AccuWeather is the Pennsylvania-based company that gave Santorum a $2,000 campaign contribution two days before he filed the bill (and thousands more before that). The company's mission statement: "To save lives, protect property, and help people to prosper, while expanding AccuWeather as a healthy and profitable business." Apparently it only wants to save the lives of those who can pay for its services, while building profit at taxpayer expense.

Americans already support the weather service with hundreds of millions of tax dollars a year. And guess where AccuWeather gets most of its data? Yes, from the weather service. So Santorum would have us pay twice for the information we need to save our property and maybe our lives.

Santorum's bill is written so broadly that it might shut down the weather service's Web site, which logged 9-billion hits last year when four hurricanes struck Florida in six weeks. He would even prohibit government weather experts from granting interviews that involve "weather data, information, guidance, forecast or warning to the public" if it would diminish the "market value" of any business.

Such restrictions were too much for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which warned that the bill could deny private pilots the weather information they need for safe operation. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is fighting the bill, too. In a letter to President Bush, Nelson warned that the bill would "restrict the public's right to access government information."

Unless we buy it, of course. The sanctimonious Santorum has no problem asking government to snoop in your bedroom or medicine chest if he gets a whiff of behavior that offends his moral superiority. Yet he turns up his nose at government fulfilling a clear moral obligation to help the public protect itself from inclement weather.

Santorum is in a tight re-election contest, so he needs all the campaign contributions he can connive to get. He should look elsewhere, however. This bill deserves the fate of a pile of wastepaper in a Category 5 hurricane.
Today's news, as reported by Zucco, is that Santorum's bill may be brought to a vote as early as September. "The bill," he writes, "did not get a hearing before the summer recess, but it is still pending before the Senate Commerce Committee and may find its way to the floor of the Senate after Congress reconvenes Sept. 6."

As the St. Pete Times notes, Florida's own Senator Bill Nelson is strongly opposed to the Santorum bill. Contact him and share your thoughts.

Or email Santorum directly and tell him how much you like the idea of paying extra for a 5-day tropical storm forecast after your taxes already helped to fund the National Hurricane Center.

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