Opinion: Rules suspension not justified in solar siting bill fix

Democracy depends on order. To ensure order, government operates under a set of rules. The Vermont House and Senate have their own rules, and it is reliance on these rules that gives the citizenry faith and confidence in the legislative process and outcomes. The rules are deliberately designed to protect the minority by providing an inviolable process for moving a bill into law. An important part of that process is the time to deliberate and debate before voting. Without these rules, the majority could impose its will on the process and the citizenry — an outcome democracy can not abide.
The Vermont legislature recently reconvened in a special session to take up Governor Shumlin’s veto of S.230, a bill relating to siting of renewable energy projects. Before putting the veto to a vote, legislative leaders instead introduced a substitute law (S.260) designed, they said, to fix the problems with S.230. Under the rules, three days would pass allowing testimony, discussion and debate before the bill could be voted on. In this case, the majority wanted everyone to go along with this fix and agree to pass the new law in one day — in direct defiance of the rules. This action raises the question: Under what circumstances should we disregard the rules?
In times of crisis, we understand that urgency is both necessary and appropriate. When tropical storm Irene struck Vermont, we applauded our government for suspending certain environmental protections and procedural rules in order to act speedily in defense of Vermonters’ safety. Circumstances presented a “do or die” choice, and our government rightly chose to do what was necessary at the time.
But outside times of crisis, when government makes a plea for expedience, it’s time for citizens to be most vigilant. Demagoguery is dangerous to democracy. The argument that everyone should submit to the will of the majority just because mistakes were made in drafting a law is not a strong one. In the case of S.230, no real crisis exists. It could have been fixed later.
Blaming those who will not submit to the majority is defiance of democracy itself. Blaming those who will not abandon the rules is arrogance of the highest order. If there is a failure in S.230, it is the failure of the majority to properly manage the process, and changing the rules does not forgive that failure.
Paul Ralston
Editor’s note: Paul Ralston is a former Democratic state representative.

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