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Legislature updates solar energy siting bill in one day; governor to sign it

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Posted on June 10, 2016 |
By John Flowers



MONTPELIER — The state Legislature emerged from a marathon special session on Thursday with an amended version of a renewable energy siting bill that had been vetoed by Gov. Peter Shumlin on June 6.

The governor said on Friday that he would sign the bill, known as S.260, designed to give more local control over the siting of solar projects to communities that develop energy plans that are consistent with the state’s long-term renewable energy goals.

Shumlin had vetoed the bill — formerly known as S.230 — citing four specific problems with the legislation. Two of those complaints had to do with how the bill addressed wind power regulation. He asked lawmakers to reconvene on Thursday to make changes to S.230 so he could sign it.

Thursday’s special session was fraught with political twists and turns.

There were two bills under discussion. S.230 was the original bill that Shumlin vetoed; S.260 was a new bill that was almost exactly the same except for changes in about a dozen lines that would make it acceptable to Shumlin.

To take up the new bill and pass it in one day, legislative leaders would need to have members agree to suspend the normal procedures.

House Republicans initially declined to suspend the rules to allow for the new bill S.260 to be considered. They instead argued that the General Assembly should simply vote on an override of Shumlin’s veto of S.230. They noted a looming, major change to key leadership positions in both the House and Senate next year (the House speaker, lieutenant governor and Senate pro tem are all stepping down), and said it would not make sense to process a new bill.

But Democrats urged action on S.260, arguing that the new bill maintained the key provisions of S.230 while changing only 14 lines within the 43-page document. Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, had emailed those changes to all members of the General Assembly on June 6, the same day as the governor’s veto. Bray is chairman of the Senate House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that crafted S.230.

The Democrat-controlled Senate on Thursday quickly passed S.260 and sent it to the House, in which Democrats also enjoy a substantial majority. That’s when House Republicans declined to support suspending the rules to consider S.260. It takes a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules.

“The minority party plays an indispensable role in government,” said House Republican Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton. “Legislative rules are designed to protect the voices of the few, so that the majority cannot silence them. They serve all concerned parties and not special interest groups alone. Today’s events forced us to test these rules. Introducing a brand new bill, and expecting the House to pass it in a few hours, sets a bad precedent. We cannot support such abuse of power.”

House Democrats and Republicans were thus at a political stalemate. That evening, Senate Democrats essentially broke that stalemate by voting to affirm Shumlin’s veto. That took S.230 off the table, meaning that S.260 became the only option for lawmakers to consider at the special session.

With S.260 now front-and-center, Bray said that House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, told representatives that he was prepared to keep the House in session for as long as it took to have a vote on S.260. It costs approximately $50,000 for each day the General Assembly is in session, and it would take several days to get to a final vote if representatives followed the normal rules. Smith is not running for re-election to the House this year, but is vying for lieutenant governor.

“The choice was very clear,” Bray said. “It was S.260 now, or S.260 in four days.”

The number of representatives had thinned at that point in the evening to the extent that a suspension of rules passed, as did S.260, by voice vote at around 8:45 p.m.

Bray said he’s pleased with the passage of S.260.

“It preserves and maintains all of the essential things (that were in S.230),” Bray said. “It eliminates the opportunity for misreading or interpreting the law in a way other than the legislative intent.

“We owe it to the people we represent to fix something that is not as clear as it should be,” he added.

It calls on the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to defer to communities and their local siting priorities in energy plans that have been signed off by the state Department of Public Service. The PSB is a three-person, quasi-judicial board that rules on renewable energy applications.

S.260, according to Bray, also restores $300,000 in assistance for communities to draft their energy plans.

“The substantial deference that towns can earn through doing energy planning completely changes the balance of power between municipalities and the PSB,” Bray said.

Shumlin announced he would sign S.260 on Monday at 2 p.m. at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission on Seminary Street in Middlebury. He shared his views on S.260 in a statement issued after Thursday’s special session.

“This modified legislation will allow us to continue to lead the way on renewable energy while giving local communities more say as we chart a cleaner, greener energy future together,” he said. “I look forward to signing it.’

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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