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Editorial: S.260: The rest of the story

The late conservative radio personality Paul Harvey used to a have a program called “The Rest of the Story” in which he introduced a story and then he told the “story behind the story.”
The governor’s veto of the so-called solar-siting bill, S.230, and the subsequent passage of S.260 last Thursday would have made great fodder for Harvey’s program.
The story is relatively simple: rushed legislation at the last hours of the session yielded approval of an important and timely piece of legislation, but alas it was not fully vetted. In careful reading of the bill’s language, the governor’s team (and the Public Service Department and Public Service Board) had the time to spot potential problems and recommended to the governor four minor changes (read John Flowers’ story here.) Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison County, who chaired the committee who conceived S.230, agreed that the proposed changes by the governor would make the bill clearer and remove any vagueness in the wording. Improved clarity was the sole purpose of the rewrite, Bray said, along with sticking in the $300,000 in funding that was mistakenly omitted.
Out of a 43-page bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the House, 10 lines were changed.
It would seem the Legislature might be able to convene, review those relatively simple changes, and go through the necessary processes to make a good piece of legislation better.
But, then, there’s the rest of the story.
The typical process would be to first vote on the governor’s veto. If sustained, then either the legislation would have to wait until next session to be brought up again, or the Legislature could call for a special session and spend days (at $50,000 per day cost to taxpayers) proposing, vetting and approving new legislation — all for changes in 10 lines that most agree clarified, and did not change, the legislative intent of the bill.
Or the Legislature could do what it did: draft a new bill (S.260) with those clarifications and vote on it.
House Republicans objected out of principle: To follow that course, legislative rules had to be suspended and the minority party had to essentially accept what the majority prevailed upon it. There was little time to dig into why the changes were being made, and there was contradictory information on the need to make those changes; that is, Legislative Council issued a statement saying the wording in S.230 was adequate to prevent the kind of misinterpretation alleged by the governor. If that were true, legislators grumbled, why was the governor so intent on making the changes?
That’s where doubt and the perceptions of this governor’s personal integrity creep into the picture. While many said they couldn’t put their finger on anything specific, it just didn’t feel right to a number of legislators on both sides of the political aisle. That was particularly true among Republicans, whose leader, Rep. Don Turner, took the opportunity to do a bit of grandstanding for political affect. In the end, and after an 8-hour standoff, Republicans exacted a face-saving compromise, approved a suspension of the rules, passed S.260, and went home.
Was it the right call?
We argue it was. The Legislature has spent the past two years working on this piece of legislation. It faced weeks of scrutiny, compromise and changes. Hours were spent taking testimony from town officials, those in the renewable energy industry, and affected citizens. It’s not unusual that controversial legislation is tweaked right up until the final moments of the session, but in this case, last minute changes that were needed to win over the governor’s signature prevented the opportunity for the usual vetting of a few of those changes. That a few tweaks were needed to clarify the legislative intent is not surprising to anyone who works with the written word.
Nonetheless, former state representative Paul Ralston makes a good case elsewhere in these opinion pages that “democracy depends on order,” and that rules are an important part of the legislative process.
No one disagrees, but it is also fair to ask: at what cost and to what purpose? The question at the heart of this issue is did the changes proposed by the governor alter, in any way, the legislative intent? If they did not, as Sen. Bray and a majority of the Legislature agreed, was it necessary to spend multiple days at significant cost to review the 10 lines that were changed?
To that end, it is important to note that the process also allows for a suspension of the rules. And in this case, that allowed a good bill to become better, and to advance the public good.
— Angelo Lynn

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