Senate passes weakened wind power bill

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Wind towers at Lowell Mountain, as seen from Irish Hill Road.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wind towers at Lowell Mountain, as seen from Irish Hill Road. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle  3-27-13

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — A legislative push to give towns and regional planning commissions more say in the siting of industrial wind towers appears to be dead, following a preliminary vote here Tuesday in the Senate.

The vote came after a marathon, contentious and at times personal debate that started at the fall of the morning gavel and lasted past the noon hour.  The result is expected to hold when the Senate takes up the bill for the third and final time later this week.

Little remains of a bill that started out as a call for a three-year moratorium on wind and morphed into legislation to reform the permitting process by adding Act 250 criteria and by putting wind development on hold for roughly eight months of study.

What’s left in the measure passed by the Senate Tuesday is a $75,000 appropriation for the creation of a Joint Energy Committee that will evaluate recommendations due out next month from the Governor’s siting commission.

Presumably, the role of towns and the regional commissions in the siting process will be revisited when the committee meets.

The vote was seen as a defeat by the two senators representing Essex and Orleans counties, whose ridgelines are prized by wind developers.

“They stripped the meat out of it,” said Senator John Rodgers, a member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources that created the bill.

“They took the soup and left the broth,” said Senator Bobby Starr, who during the debate defended the bill as a “commonsense, down-to-earth proposal.

“All it’s asking for is for people to be heard,” he said.

After the debate was over and the vote was in, the region’s senior senator put his best spin on the results by saying a half a loaf was better than none.

A straight up and down vote on the bill was avoided when Senator David Zuckerman prevailed with an amendment that stripped out its key provisions.  It took the unusual route of being voted on twice.  Defeated the first time when Lieutenant Governor Phil Scot broke a tie by voting against it, the amendment was rekindled when Bennington Senator Dick Sears asked if he could change his vote.  His request led to a second vote by the full Senate.

During the debate, Senator Sears had spoken out against the bill and the intent to add Act 250 criteria to the siting process.  That would be an intrusion into the present permitting process, he said.  It would have the effect of “opening up a can of worms that doesn’t need to be open.”

And with his support the Zuckerman amendment passed by two votes, 16 to 14.

In a brief interview outside the Senate Chamber, Senator Zuckerman said he offered the amendment in the belief the bill was sending a “false hope message” to towns.  He said the veto power the bill gave them and the regional commissions could be taken away after eight months had passed and the legislation had sunset.

On the floor he said the bill was duplicating the work of the Governor’s siting commission, and raised the specter of global warming.

“We have a climate crisis on our hands,” he warned.

Stripped of what many believed to be its essential components, the amended bill passed easily.  If the outcome disappointed Senator Joe Benning, the legislator who a year ago spearheaded the call for a three-year moratorium, he didn’t show it during a brief interview after the vote.

He said that with a stronger vote to back it up, the bill would stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing before the House.

“It’s keeping the discussion alive and that is the most important thing of what this last month has been about,” he said.

If words could draw blood, the Senate floor might have become slippery.  Senator Dick McCormack could have been speaking about the debate when he called the issues surrounding the bill “a clash of non-negotiables.”

At different points along the way, the debate pitted one core value against another:  the public good versus local control; global warming versus protecting the environment; rural Vermont versus urban; and the urgency to develop renewable energy versus planning and evaluation.

Senators from the Northeast Kingdom led the way in charging that the most rural corner of the state was being picked on.

Early in the debate Senator Rodgers said Chittenden County didn’t want the Northeast Kingdom to stop the development of renewable energy.  With two wind farms already in place and a landfill taking a large share of the state’s waste, he argued it was time for some other region to step up to the plate.

“A nice landfill in Burlington could conserve diesel fuel and cut down on carbon emissions,” he said at one point.

The freshman Glover senator applauded the bill for giving small towns a voice and financial aid so they might be able “to compete with the deep pockets of developers.”

Senator Starr continued along that line when he characterized big wind as a runaway development that had pushed its way through his district like a bulldozer.

His constituents were complaining, he said, that they “are not being given a chance to be heard.”

Senator Diane Snelling of Chittenden County introduced the bill as a planning mechanism.  She said she “took to heart the concerns over global warming,” and defended the bill as being “very pro renewable energy.”  All the bill was asking for, she said, was a better way to site renewables.

One of the uncertainties arising from the debate was how much weight neighboring towns would have in the permitting process.  Senator Snelling said there was nothing in the bill that would allow a neighboring town to kill a project.

But others suspected the bill would give towns a veto power.  Senator McCormack was among the senators who argued that local control should not override the public good.

“It’s a question of state sovereignty,” he said, pointing out that local control is a power granted to towns by the state.

While Senator Snelling argued that the bill was “a workable proposal to get the best siting for energy,” others argued there was no need for it.

Senator Jeanette White of Windham argued that the bill was redundant and unnecessary.  She noted there were no projects waiting in the wings, and said she was uncomfortable with the bill because she believed it discriminated against wind.

Senator Benning became an advocate for changing the permitting process after he climbed Lowell Mountain and viewed how construction had transformed the mountaintop in preparation for the placement of 21 turbines.  When he came off the mountain, he decided, “We had a problem that wasn’t being addressed by our government.”

As part of his presentation Tuesday, he passed out a parcel of photographs that documented the destruction on Lowell Mountain.  And proceeded to argue that wind developers had gone to the Northeast Kingdom because of its rural isolation and lack of population.

He compared Newark’s town plan with a set of ordinances drawn up by the city of Burlington and pointed out their striking similarities.  Each, he said, wanted to preserve their landscape, natural beauty, and views.

Burlington and the surrounding communities within a ten-mile radius account for one-third of the state’s population.  But Newark, he said, had a population of 581.

Small towns like Newark, he implied, need protection because wind developers go where they won’t get a push back.  Or where resistance is least and likely less affordable.

Senator Mark MacDonald of Orange County said the Kingdom was like the leopard that wanted to change its spots.  He said among supporters of the bill were people from the Northeast Kingdom who had brought “cell towers to mountaintops, and Act 250 be damned.”

No great harm would come, he promised, if the bill were defeated.

Each side in the debate claimed to champion action to slow global warming.  Senator Richard Westman of Lamoille called it “the most important issue facing us.”

He supported the bill because he said it was making lawmakers struggle with the consequences of what has already been done.  And although he was not real happy with the bill, he called the debate surrounding it vital.

For Senator McCormack, the choice hinged on global warming.  The planet was in danger, he said, and push had come to shove.

“The very idea I would vote against a bill to regulate a troubling development — something I never thought I would do,” he said.

“I’m going to vote against this bill and break my heart.”

A final vote by the Senate could come as early as Thursday morning.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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Four vy for two seats in Essex-Orleans Senate race

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Left to right are Jay Dudley, John Rodgers, Bobby Starr and Bob Lewis. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 10-17-2012

In a campaign season that on the national level compels voters to choose between radical extremes, people who will elect the next two state senators from the Essex-Orleans district face the opposite problem.  It’s not easy to find important differences in what the four candidates stand for.

That was emphasized at the opening of Monday night’s media-sponsored debate at The East Side Restaurant in Newport.

Asked about industrial-strength wind power on the Kingdom’s ridgelines, the candidates were unanimous in their condemnation.

That included the only political novice in the race, Jay Dudley of Orleans.  In his day job, Mr. Dudley is the chief financial analyst for the state Public Service Board, the body that granted permits to the big wind projects in Sheffield and Lowell.  But Mr. Dudley is no friend to wind.

Vermont wind developers, Mr. Dudley said, “are going into wild, natural areas and blowing them to smithereens.”

The existing projects will offer a handful of highly technical jobs that probably won’t go to local people, Mr. Dudley added.

“I support a moratorium on industrial wind,” he said, “but ultimately we need to just stop it in its tracks.”

In response to the moderator’s specific question, how wind projects should be sited, John Rodgers of Glover said, “somewhere out in Nebraska would be good.  They have no place on our ridgelines.”

“Vermont does not need the power,” he added, noting that a wood-fired power plant in Ryegate shut down this summer because there was no market for its electricity.

Bobby Starr of North Troy, the only incumbent in the race, said the only people who make money on wind projects are the developers and the landowners who host the towers.

Consumers, he said, will have to pay for power that, even after government subsidies, will cost ten to 12 cents per kilowatt hour to produce, while the wholesale cost of power is about six cents.

All the towns within view of a proposed project should have a say in the permitting process, Mr. Starr added, and share equally in any payment the developer offers to the town that would host it.

“How come we don’t put them on Lake Champlain?” said Bob Lewis of Derby, a state representative who hopes to move up to the Senate.  “We have a lot to do on this issue.  We need to know the truth.”

Policy differences did emerge on the subject of drugs — specifically the prescription painkillers that, the candidates agreed, have become a bigger problem than illicit drugs.

Painkillers are the number one problem, said Mr. Lewis, who has retired from a career in law enforcement.  In Montpelier, he said, “we worked to give law enforcement the tools they needed.”

He supported a bill that would have given a police task force the right to monitor online the prescriptions filled at the state’s drugstores.  Presently, he said, police have to visit pharmacies in person to view such records.

The Democratic majority rejected the bill, he said, because “people were upset about access to their personal information.  We could get a lot more done if we just gave them the tools.”

“I disagree that we should let police look at every person’s prescription records,” said Mr. Rodgers, a Democrat.  “What’s next?  They can listen to your confessions in church, or when you talk to your lawyer?”

After 30 years of struggling with the problem, Mr. Rodgers added, “I think we would learn that enforcement is not the answer.”  He called instead for an emphasis on education and keeping young people in school.

Mr. Dudley, a Republican whose campaign puts a heavy emphasis on economic development, seemed to agree with Mr. Rodgers.  The root problem with drugs is people’s economic circumstances and high unemployment, he said.  “Economic development would be an important cure for a lot of these social ills.”

He blamed the plight of poor Vermonters on “this notion in Montpelier that we can have a zero-growth economy without any real effect on people.”

Mr. Starr agreed that “we need to keep children busy — keep them in school, hopefully, until they’re 18.”  Raising the age at which children can leave school from 16 to 18 is something he’s tried to accomplish in the Senate, Mr. Starr said in an earlier interview.

But Mr. Starr seemed to side with Mr. Lewis on the issue of prescription monitoring.

“It may not be good, John, to track these,” Mr. Starr said.  “But you can’t allow druggists to pump out prescriptions to these people.”

Mr. Starr and Mr. Dudley differed on a couple of points.  In his opening remarks, Mr. Dudley suggested that a major reason to vote for him is that he is not a Democrat, and so wouldn’t add to that party’s “super-majority” in the State House.

Among the consequences of that dominance, he said, would be a new sales tax on services — for work done by people like plumbers, electricians and mechanics.

In his regular visits to Montpelier, Mr. Starr said, “I haven’t heard one word about that.”

For the first and only time in Monday’s debate, Mr. Dudley invoked the rule that let him speak out of turn to respond to a direct challenge.  He said he’d heard House Speaker Shap Smith say that a sales tax on services would be on the agenda for the next session.

Mr. Starr said that was news to him.  Such a tax was discussed, but not adopted, during the last session.

And in his closing remarks, Mr. Dudley said his own campaign is self-financed.  “My only interest group is you,” he told his audience.  “My only debt is to you.”

While Mr. Starr and Mr. Rodgers might claim to be independent, Mr. Dudley continued, they depend on the Democratic Party for financial support.

“Nobody does anything for Bobby other than Bobby and his immediate family,” Mr. Starr responded.  “I don’t take directions from Montpelier, and I certainly don’t take any of their money.

“I usually get the job done without a lot of fanfare,” Mr. Starr concluded.  “I always left that up to Vince.”

That was the evening’s only reference to the man who is chiefly responsible for this year’s spirited Senate campaign.

Senator Vince Illuzzi created a vacancy in the district when he decided to run for state auditor, his first try at a statewide office.

That ended a long run of elections in which Mr. Illuzzi and Mr. Starr pretty much walked into office without serious opposition.

Mr. Starr is running to retain the seat he has held for eight years.  He moved to the Senate after a career in the House that began in 1978.  During most of his political career he ran — and drove for — his own trucking firm.

Mr. Lewis was appointed to the House to fill a vacancy five years ago.  The biggest reason he wants to move to the Senate, he said in an interview, is that “you have a lot more clout in the Senate than in the House.  You can get more done.”

Mr. Lewis worked as a state trooper and, later, a game warden.

Mr. Rodgers was part of the fifth generation on a family farm in Glover.  He runs his own small contracting firm.  That kept him so busy in the summer and fall of 2010 that he did little personal campaigning in his bid to retain his seat in the House.  He lost in his two-member Orleans-Caledonia district by a single vote, to fellow-Democrat Sam Young.

Mr. Dudley worked in commercial lending and small business development with area banks for 17 years before he joined the Public Service Board.  His lack of political experience put him at a disadvantage Monday night, when the candidates were asked to name their most important public accomplishment over the past five years.

Mr. Dudley spoke of his 18 years on the Barton Planning Commission and Zoning Board, ten years as chairman.  In that role, he said, “we structured our bylaws in a way that was fair, and had the interest of the property owner first and foremost.”

Mr. Rodgers said he was on the House Institutions Committee when local voters turned down a proposal for a free-standing technical education center in Newport that would be entirely state funded.

“Many legislators thought this area would never get it together,” Mr. Rodgers said.  “The majority on my committee wanted to drop the tech center.”

But Mr. Rodgers said he fought to keep the idea alive, and the center was ultimately established at North Country Union High School.

Mr. Starr cited his successful efforts to find state funds for all new school buildings on the western side of Orleans County.  “Our children were going to school in buildings they shouldn’t have been in,” he said.

Reaching back well over five years, Mr. Starr also mentioned the Northeast Dairy Compact, which he created with the help of economist Dan Smith.

He had to sell the idea in five other New England states and in Washington, Mr. Starr said.  Before it was killed by Congress, he said in an interview, it brought $150-million to distressed dairy farmers in New England and New York State, of which $50-million came to Vermont.

Mr. Starr said he hopes to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee if he’s returned to Montpelier.  He served for years as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

As for Mr. Lewis’ major accomplishment, he said, “There is no question that number one is my family.”

Beyond that he spoke of his work on the Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.  “I’m very proud of the bills I sponsored for sportsmen that became law,” Mr. Lewis said.

Asked about a single-payer health care system, three of the candidates agreed that they had not been given enough information to make up their minds.  Only Mr. Dudley took a firm stand against a single-payer system.  He cited the Canadian system, which, he said, tries to control costs by rationing and delaying services to its patients.  That was the only comment of the evening that drew angry grumbles from some members of the audience.

“I support a market-based approach,” Mr. Dudley said.

In general, however, the two Republican candidates took moderate positions, which placed them miles to the left of the Tea Party, while the two Democrats emphasized their independence.  It may be that Mr. Starr spoke for all of them when he made this comment on national politics, in an interview:

“The middle of the road is gone.  You’ve either got to get into the ditch on one side or across the yellow line on the other.  Usually the best part of the road is in the middle.  I see myself as a middle-of-the-road guy.”

The full debate can be viewed on NEK-TV, Comcast channel 15, on Wednesday, October 17, at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., Thursday at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., and Friday at 2 p.m.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.


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Three seeking Illuzzi’s seat

Pictured is Vince Illuzzi at an energy meeting at Barton's municipal building in 2010. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Tena Starr

copyright the chronicle June 13, 2012

So far, at least three people are in the running for the Orleans-Essex Senate seat that Vince Illuzzi has held for 32 years.

John Rodgers of Glover, a former state representative, Bob Lewis of Derby, a current representative, and Jim Guyette of Newport said this week that they are seeking the job that Mr. Illuzzi plans to leave this year in order to run for state auditor.

Republican Tom Salmon, who is currently auditor, is not seeking re-election.
Mr. Illuzzi, also a Republican, wasn’t saying much this week about his decision to run for statewide office.

“I’m not prepared to get into it right now,” he said on Monday.  He said he will be filing his nominating petitions, and he will have a statement later in the week.

The deadline for filing petitions for office is Thursday, June 14.

Mr. Lewis said he filed his petitions for the Senate seat on Monday.  “Basically, I will be announcing my candidacy in the near future,” he said.  He said he’s planning a press conference for early next week.

Governor Jim Douglas appointed Mr. Lewis to fill out the remaining term of Loren Shaw, who voluntarily gave up his seat.  He has since been elected in his own right and has been in Montpelier since March of 2008.  He serves on the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
Mr. Rodgers had initially planned to run for the House seat that he lost to fellow Democrat Sam Young by one vote in 2010.  In the general election, Mr. Young beat him by three votes.  That narrowed down to a single, critical vote in a recount.

Mr. Rodgers was a four-term incumbent, and the defeat came as a surprise.

He said he decided to run for the Orleans-Essex Senate seat instead when he heard that Mr. Illuzzi might not be seeking re-election.  “It’s something I’ve considered for a long time,” he said.  “I need another challenge in my life.”

He said he’d already had his paperwork done for the House seat when he shifted course and decided to run for Senate.

Mr. Rodgers said he’s been getting a lot of encouragement and many people have offered to help him.  And he’ll need all the help he can get, he said.  “It’s a huge area.”
Although Mr. Rodgers is well known in the southern part of Orleans County, he acknowledges that he’ll have a lot of work to do in the Newport and Derby area.  “And in Essex County, I’m fairly unknown,” he said.

Mr. Rodgers believes that he and the area’s other Senator, Bobby Starr of North Troy, would work well together since their political philosophies are similar.  “I’m a Democrat, but I’m a conservative minded Democrat,” he said.

He said he’s a “regular working guy” who thinks independently and does not necessarily follow the wishes of party leadership, but can work across party lines, a talent that Mr. Illuzzi was known for, and one that’s increasingly rare in partisan politics.
“I can get along with everyone,” Mr. Rodgers said.

He said that in 2010 he made a “calculated risk to not campaign,” a risk he won’t take this time.  “I’ve got a lot of ground to cover now.”

In a statement, Mr. Guyette said his reasons for running are simple:  “First, there is no economy and very few job opportunities in this area.  It seems to me the current local and state politicians have been unwilling to help improve the lives of residents when it comes to pocketbook issues.”

The area consistently has the highest unemployment, underemployment and poverty rates in the state because of bad economic policies, Mr. Guyette said.

“So how can we fix things?  To start, let’s look at new economic policies, infrastructure improvements, creating a natural gas pipeline, scrapping Act 250, changing local permit reforms, and putting a very tight legal leash on the activities of out-of-state groups who tend to have too much say in economic and job development issues.  I believe if I’m given the chance to be your senator, we can take steps to make drastic improvements in these areas.”

Mr. Illuzzi has made rumblings about running for statewide office before, but this is the first time he has actually decided to throw his hat into the ring.

At the moment, one question is whether he will run for auditor as an independent or as a Republican.

Another is whether he can continue with his job as Essex County state’s attorney.

Kathy Scheele, director of elections at the Vermont secretary of state’s office, said that’s a question with no clear answer right now.

There’s nothing in the law that prevents somebody from submitting petitions for more than one office, Ms. Scheele said.  “If they were to win, that would be a question for the General Assembly, the attorney general, or the courts to weigh in on.”

Mr. Illuzzi was first elected to the state Senate in 1980 when he was 27 years old.  In recent years, he’s run largely unopposed and has secured the Democratic nomination as well as the Republican.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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