Legislative Churning

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Legislative Churning

Posted by Karen Horn on 6 May 2016

There is the integrity of the Vermont legislative process that is a “beacon to America” lauded in the resolution honoring Speaker Shapleigh Smith today. That is certainly true. Vermont’s track record is inspiring on many levels– it serves the citizens well and functions more often than not. 

Then there is the game of Jumanji that is the end-of-session battle over certain pieces of legislation, where each move changes the game board and unleashes new and unanticipated catastrophes from players who, in some cases, you didn’t even know were playing.

S.230, the renewable energy facility siting bill, is a classic instance of legislative Jumanji. A total of 160 Vermont towns have now signed a resolution that calls for a more significant say in the Public Service Board’s (PSB’s) Certificate of Public Good permitting process. The bill includes a path to securing approval of municipal and regional energy elements that will then translate into receiving substantial deference from the PSB in their permitting deliberations. It includes language providing for preferential treatment of solar facilities located on “preferred sites,” including those designated in municipal plans. It includes provisions requiring the PSB to establish sound standards for industrial wind projects and, depending upon whom you listen to, puts in place a moratorium on construction of wind projects until those standards are in place.

S.230 passed the Senate on March 31 by a margin of 22 to 3 and passed second reading in the House on April 26 by a margin of 142 to 0. The bill, with recommendations of amendment, was sent back to the Senate on April 27. On May 4, the Senate returned the bill to the House with yet further proposals of amendment. After some heated discussion in the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, those proposals of amendment were rejected and the House appointed a committee of conference. The Senate, on their part, declined to appoint conferees, instead proposing yet further amendments to the controversial portion of the bill (when sound standards for wind turbines would take effect). On May 5, the House sought to regain possession of the bill they had sent to the Senate. Each of these steps was preceded by vigorous debate on the floor of  whichever chamber had possession. Are you still with me?

Then the conversation and decision-making essentially went underground.The Governor purportedly got involved. Citizens affected by industrial wind proposals who spent all session in yellow vests tracking the bill through various committees and guilelessly declared victory a few times, developers, utility representatives, your advocacy staff, local officials from affected towns and even legislators only got pieces of the conversation. Threats of the legislation’s evisceration, death, and potential gubernatorial vetoes abound. The legislature goes home on Saturday.

Will there be a bill at all? Will municipalities have any more direction in planning for renewable energy than they do today? Will legislators seeking re-election be able to show anything for their efforts to address the issue of siting renewable energy facilities? We have another day to find out.