Vermont Legislature: Wrangling a new energy siting bill
MONTPELIER >> After a game of political chicken that lasted late into Thursday evening, lawmakers passed a new version of an energy siting bill that incorporates what proponents say are "corrections" to the original legislation Gov. Peter Shumlin vetoed this week.
Lacking a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House to override the veto, legislators who wanted to do something about energy siting were left no other path but to pass a new bill.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, adopted an all-or-nothing stance, saying he would rather have no bill than see a new version pass with the revisions Shumlin requested, which largely involved scaling back new limits mistakenly imposed on sound from wind turbines.
Although the Legislature's attorneys said the new legislation merely clarifies the intent of the original bill, Turner complained that fellow legislators had, in adopting it, silenced the voices of Vermonters, and he asserted that any replacement legislation wouldn't have received sufficient vetting. He accused his political opponents of circumventing the legislative process.
"Where were the voices from Vermonters?" said Turner. "How come they never had a chance to weigh in on this one?" The minority party speaks for the people of Vermont, Turner said, while "the majority do what it wants when it wants to silence Vermonters."
The Senate approved S.260 early in the day, incorporating virtually all the language from the vetoed bill, S.230, but making the changes the governor and some others sought.
On the House side, however, there was a prolonged standoff.
Turner and his caucus repeatedly blocked a suspension of the normal rules for adopting legislation. The Senate, on the other hand, suspended the rules quickly in order to move S.260 forward in short order instead of putting the legislation through the usual process of multiple readings across several days.
The House voted twice on suspending the rules — the second time late in the afternoon — and failed twice to muster the three-quarters majority needed. But ultimately, House Republicans lacked enough votes to defeat the legislation itself — which would require only a simple majority — if the House persisted through several more days of the veto session, at a cost of roughly $50,000 a day.
That set up a GOP showdown with House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown. After having indicated several days ago that he hoped to wrap up the veto session in a single day, Smith let it be known Thursday afternoon that he was willing to keep the session going until S.260 made it through the usual process.
The House Republican leadership continued to hold out for an override vote, but in the evening the Senate made that a moot point by voting and sustaining the veto.
With the override option off the table, House minority leaders yielded to the inevitable, and the replacement legislation got its final vote.
Earlier in the day, Turner conceded the inevitable.
"There are 85 Democrats and 53 Republicans. We can't stop anything in this building. We don't set the agenda, we don't really have much control over what gets passed out of here. We can vote no but it's going to pass. Whatever they want is going to pass. Ultimately, it's going to pass, if they want it," said Turner.
Speaker Smith said the delays by Turner were unnecessary.
"This is unfortunate," Smith said mid-afternoon. "It would be something that I would expect out of Mitch McConnell and not out of Don Turner, and I'm disappointed." McConnell is the U.S. Senate majority leader.
Except for the restoration of a provision allotting $300,000 to train local and regional planners to comply with the law — which had been left out of S.230 by mistake — the changes don't significantly diverge from what legislators thought they'd already adopted, and would likely buttress the rules against possible litigation, attorneys for the Legislature told lawmakers.
The changes clarify the legislative intent of the bill lawmakers had already adopted, according to Aaron Adler, a lawyer with legislative counsel.
The legislation seeks to give communities more say in the siting of renewable energy projects such as wind turbines and solar installations, and to create new sound standards limiting allowable noise from future wind turbines.
The bill that passed during the regular session, S.230, would have required new large-scale wind turbines to meet the most-restrictive sound standards yet put in place by the Public Service Board for any turbine.
In their hurry to pass compromise legislation at the end of the regular session, lawmakers didn't know that standard was based on the noise output of a single, disproportionately small tower in Vergennes, said Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington.
She was one of six lawmakers who hammered out a compromise on the last day of the session.
"We specifically looked around the room," Ram said, "and said, 'Are there any small turbines that would cause problems with this bill?'" Nobody present knew of such a turbine, she said.
Compared to the 500-foot-tall turbines common in large wind projects, the 150-kilowatt Vergennes structure "looks like a homeowner-size (construction). It looks like something my neighbor has," said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison.
So-called industrial-sized turbines are built to produce around 20 times that much energy, Adler said.
The replacement bill creates two temporary sound standards that will apply until the Public Service Board can complete the rulemaking process to create a permanent standard next year. The temporary sound limits allow new wind facilities to produce no more noise than what's allowed by the most restrictive permit yet granted for a turbine in the same size category. There are two categories: less than 500 kilowatts and more than 500 kilowatts.
The Public Service Board, in a memorandum written shortly after the original bill's passage last month, said the wording would have amounted to a declaration of a public emergency because of wind turbine noise. Legislators said that wasn't their intention.
Nevertheless, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, denied that the bill contained any mistakes and said the supposed corrections actually represented intentional concessions to monied interests in the renewable energy industry.
"In my opinion, the Public Service Board should have stayed out of it. Their opinion is irrelevant," Rodgers said. "I see zero problems with the language in the bill, and I think it carries out our legislative intent."
Others said that, although neither S.230 nor its replacement accomplishes everything they'd like, constituents want more influence over siting decisions than they currently wield, and the bill adopted Thursday accomplishes that.
"My (regional planning commission), my towns, want to have an ability to weigh in, and this will set up a process where they can begin to weigh in, and that's important," said Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille. "I voted for (the replacement bill) because I thought that was our best chance to get a bill and start to create a process where the (planning commissions) and town planners could begin to weigh in."
Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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