In the Legislature: Local control in wind siting unlikely

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Regional and local planners are expected to be the big losers in a bill to open up the siting process for ridgeline industrial wind projects.

Scheduled to appear on the Senate floor, the bill was rerouted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Tuesday as negotiations continued behind the scenes to strike a compromise and keep it alive.

“Unfortunately, regional planning is one of those things we’re probably not going to wind up with,” said Senator John Rodgers of Glover during a telephone interview Tuesday.

One of the stated purposes of the bill was “to strengthen the role of planning commissions and local selectboard and planning commissions in the siting review process for energy facilities by giving greater weight to their recommendations and plans.”

But at the end of the day, that’s not likely what’s going to happen.

Senator Rodgers said that environmental groups and others who support Act 250 and advocate for growth centers oppose giving regional and local planners more say in the siting process.

Last week on the Senate floor, Senator Rodgers said a coalition of those groups helped kill a bill that would have given local authorities jurisdiction over imposing setbacks and screening for commercial solar projects.

The implications of the defeat were not lost on Representative Tony Klein, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, where the siting bill would go if the Senate passes it.

On Tuesday he said in a telephone interview he had not paid much attention to the Senate siting bill, but added that he expected it would meet the same fate as the solar bill did last week.

If the provision to give regional and local planners more clout in the siting process is stripped from the bill, what’s left?

Senator Rodgers suggested the bill still provides for greater public participation in the siting process.  But success in bringing it back to the floor may hinge on striking a deal with the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), which has opposed the bill.

Under an amendment recently attached to the bill by the Senate Committee on Finance, a developer for an in-state facility would be required to pay a fee, capped at $150,000, to cover any related costs incurred by the state in processing the application.

The fees reportedly would be split three ways among the Public Service Board, the Department of Public Safety, and ANR.

Opponents of big wind have criticized the state for using public money to evaluate the impact a potential wind site might have on the environment and wildlife.

The amendment also would require a wind developer to give regional and local planning commissions a six-month notice of his intentions to apply for a Certificate of Public Good from the Public Service Board, which regulates the generation and transmission of power in the state.

Because of the added fees, the Senate Committee on Appropriations gained a chance to weigh in on the bill.  And as a member of the committee, Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy said the delay could give supporters a chip to play.

Before the Appropriation Committee approves five new hires, Senator Starr said it should get something in return.  And that something is a reassurance the bill’s policy changes will advance.

“The best we can do is get assurances from someone that this is not just going to hang on the wall on the House side,” he said.  Or simply add five new state employees.

“If you’re going to give something out, you ought to get something back,” said Senator Starr, an opponent of ridgeline utility wind.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is not going to be a one-way street.”

Roughly two years in the making, the bill has some high hurdles to overcome.  A year ago the Senate killed a bill that would have imposed a two-year moratorium on industrial wind development.

Senator Joe Benning of Lyndonville, who spearheaded last year’s wind moratorium, said Tuesday the siting bill also faces a procedural hurdle.  Because it missed the crossover deadline, he said it would need permission from the rules committee to go forward.

Negotiations over the bill’s future are ongoing, he said.  And it would probably “take a couple days to see what’s in play.”

Other provisions in the bill would require an industrial wind developer to submit a public engagement plan to the Public Service Board eight months before filing for a Certificate of Public Good.  Guidelines for the plan would be drawn up by the Department of Public Service.

Rules governing public participation in hearings would also be loosened, and the board could grant party status to anyone who could show that a project would affect him or his property.

Hearing brings out support for a raise in the minimum wage

If testimony at a public hearing was any indication, Vermont has become a melting pot of people working for minimum wage or less.

Single mothers, college graduates, students working their way through college, caretakers, service workers, supermarket cashiers and at least two union officials testified that the state’s hourly minimum wage of $8.73 should be raised.

Held last Thursday by the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, the hearing asked speakers to register their support or opposition to legislation to raise the minimum wage.

Supporters won hands down.

Representative Helen Head of South Burlington, who chairs the committee, said at the outset there are three options before the Legislature to increase the minimum wage.  One would bring it to $12.50, while one supported by the Shumlin administration would raise it to $10.10 by 2017.

The third option calls for a livable wage, which has no fixed amount, although $15 an hour was the wage recommended by some speakers.

Young people, who overwhelmingly supported an increase in the minimum wage, dominated the crowd of about 70 people.

Anna Dirkse, who moved to Vermont to attend UVM, said she is working two jobs that pay little more than minimum wage.  She said she is single with no college debt, but she cannot afford to live in Burlington and raise a family on the income she’s making.

“I don’t turn the heat up every night, I don’t have many extras,” said Liz Owen, a college student working 30 hours a week in the food service industry.

Gail Mulcahy of Barre testified that the $8.85 she makes at Price Chopper does not constitute a livable wage.

A woman from Randolph, who described herself as a former teacher, testified that low paying jobs are built into the economy.

“These jobs will not go away,” said Judith Augsberg, adding that the people who work them deserve to earn a livable wage.  “There is no shame in these jobs,” she said.

Ms. Augsberg told the committee she had raised three children who went to college but cannot find a job in today’s economy that pays a livable wage.

Supporters of raising the minimum wage repeatedly spoke of the need of a wage that treats them with respect and dignity.

A college educated woman from Brattleboro with two kids testified she eats in soup kitchens whenever possible, has no benefits and has gone to work sick.

“I’ve always lived from check to check,” she said, adding that raising the minimum wage might help the next generation escape a similar fate.

One speaker testified that a livable wage would be one that allowed a worker to plan.  Another testified that those who have to get by on a minimum wage live precariously.

“I don’t want to go to a restaurant and be waited on by someone who is sick,” said one witness who called for increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour.  “A minimum wage is a poverty wage.”

Among those opposing any increase was George Malek, who heads the chamber of commerce in central Vermont.

He applied a supply and demand analogy to labor.  “When prices go up, the demand goes down,” he said.  And when costs go up for employers, they employ fewer people.

Increasing the minimum wage is “not going to create jobs,” he said.

Steven Duke, another opponent, warned the committee that a wage increase would only be passed on to consumers.  As an alternative, he recommended no state or federal withholding taxes for people working at minimum wage.

Shawn Spense raised similar objections by warning that 38 percent of employers would lay off workers if the minimum wage were increased.

John Bauer of Jeffersonville, who called himself a supporter of a livable wage, told the committee that most small businesses pay more than a minimum wage.  He testified that companies that employ more than 100 workers pay 66 percent of its help a minimum wage.

He further stated that when the federal government first introduced a minimum wage in 1936, it was seen as an economic stimulus.

Presently, a bill is making its way through the House that would require employers to provide workers with paid sick leave.

Some of the witnesses suggested that a livable wage would be one that included paid sick leave.

Cindy Perron of Barton testified she was working as a case manager for Northeast Kingdom Human Services when she was stricken with a blood clot, which kept her home.

“I can’t imagine what I would have done without the sick pay.  Now we have this opportunity,” she said, addressing the committee, “to make a difference.”

Some speakers accused the Legislature of pitting the sick pay bill and the minimum wage bill against each other.  Some said they had come to the hearing to convey their solidarity with the Burlington bus drivers who were on strike.

“With or without you, we are building a movement that will win economic justice,” promised Traven Leyston, president of the Green Mountain Labor Council, serving central Vermont.

But others hoped legislators would be receptive to their pleas.

“Please have that courage to raise up Vermont,” said Jonathan Leavitt of Burlington, after announcing the philosophy of pulling yourself by your bootstraps is no longer relevant in the twenty-first century.

Testimony on raising the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour will be heard this week by the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs.

Among those scheduled to testify are state Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan and Ellen Kahler, who heads the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Senate amends forest integrity bill by gutting it

A Senate bill that would have employed Act 250 to prevent forest fragmentation was scuttled last week on the Senate floor and replaced with a study.

The change came on an amendment submitted by Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy, which requires the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation to do a one-year study on forest fragmentation and report back to the Legislature in January.

The study will include recommendations and propose legislation, if appropriate “for how best to protect the integrity of Vermont’s forestlands and preserve large blocks of contiguous forestland.”

A roll call vote approved the amended version.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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