MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin has vetoed a controversial energy siting bill, triggering a special legislative veto session on Thursday where lawmakers can try to override his rejection or look to fix the portions he finds unacceptable and send it back.
The legislation, S.230, was passed by lawmakers on the final day of the legislative session last month after last-minute wrangling by House and Senate negotiators and the Shumlin administration. It seeks to provide local communities with more say over the siting of renewable energy projects if they craft their own energy plans that are approved by the Department of Public Service. It also seeks to create sound restrictions for wind generation projects.
The governor, a Democrat, said the bill would hurt the state’s renewable energy progress, which he said has created more than 17,000 jobs in Vermont. He told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview Monday that will he will not be “the governor who signs a bill that significantly damages that progress.”
In a statement announcing the veto he pledged to work with lawmakers to fix the sections he finds objectionable.
“Last-minute provisions added to S.230 would have the effect of putting the brakes on this progress and costing Vermonters jobs, two things I will not do. I very much support giving communities more say as we plan for our renewable energy future together. That is the core of S.230 that I would like to see become law. I stand ready to work with the Legislature on a modified bill in the coming days to make that happen,” Shumlin said.
Under the legislation, regional planning commissions are supposed to help local municipalities craft energy plans for DPS approval. Municipalities that create local energy plans that are compatible with the state’s energy goals would be able to receive “substantial deference” during the approval process.
The bill was a main focus for advocates concerned with noise generated by wind turbines and those that believe local communities have too little say in the siting of renewable energy projects. Supporters of more regulation for energy projects were frequently at the State House during the legislative session lobbying for more stringent requirements.
The bill calls for $300,000 in funding for the RPCs to assist municipalities, but it does not provide a source for the money.
Shumlin, in his veto message to lawmakers, outlined four problems with the bill that triggered the veto, including the funding. He said those issues were identified after consulting with “legal experts at the Public Service Department and the Public Service Board.”
According to the governor, language in the law would invoke a provision in statute and make Vermont the first state in the country to declare a public health emergency around wind energy “without peer-reviewed science backing that assertion up.” He also faulted a temporary sound limit set in the bill for wind turbines as more formal rules are pursued that he said was based on a small, 150 kilowatt project.
“That standard, a complex and variable formula that would require no sound higher than 10 decibels above ambient background, could have the clearly unintended effect of pushing wind projects closer to homes where the background noise is higher,” the governor wrote.
Another concern highlighted by Shumlin is a provision that requires notice of certificates of public good for energy projects on parcels of land to be filed with land records. He said that “could create problems for residential solar customers when they go to sell their home.”
When considered together, those provisions in the bill will “make it impossible to continue to sensibly site renewable wind power in Vermont,” according to Shumlin.
“Signing S.230 as drafted would take us backwards and take an important renewable energy technology off the table. I cannot support that action, and therefore I am vetoing S. 230. I believe, however, the limited number of issues identified in the bill can and should be remedied by the Legislature during a veto session scheduled for June 9. My Administration will do whatever we can to assist the Legislature to make the fixes necessary to produce a bill that I can sign,” Shumlin wrote.
Lawmakers will return to the State House Thursday to deal with the veto, but so far there is no consensus on how to act. Shumlin is hoping lawmakers will pass a fix that satisfies his concerns rather than try to override his veto with a two-thirds majority vote.
“The underlying bill is a great bill and I strongly support, so what I’m asking my team to do is work with legislative leadership to come up with fixes for this bill, which aren’t that difficult,” he told the Vermont Press Bureau. “We’ll have language and we hope that the rules can be suspended so we can get it passed.”
“There’s no reason why it can’t be done in one day and I think Vermont taxpayers deserve to get it done in one day,” Shumlin added.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said he wants lawmakers to pass a revamped bill that rectifies the problematic sections. But, the Senate’s course of action “is going to have a lot to with where we go in the House,” he said.
“I think that we ought to do the fix and adjourn and the fix probably is about eight lines of statutory language out of about 43 pages in the bill. If we do that I think we could adjourn quickly and go home,” he said. “We don’t really have to have an override vote unless people want to make a point instead of make progress on the legislation.”
Smith said overriding the veto won’t do anything to correct the issues.
“Overriding the governor’s veto isn’t really going to get us very far … because we will be sending the governor back a bill that doesn’t really have the money to do what we want it to do. That seems like a false promise to Vermonters,” he said.
Passing a fix on Thursday will require a suspension of the rules, however. Minority Leader Don Turner said Monday his caucus will not support that, meaning any changes to the legislation would require at least two days.
“We’re very disappointed that the governor has chosen to veto this bill. We’ve done a lot of research on his reasons for vetoing this bill and our legal counsel has a different interpretation,” he said. “Once again the governor is showing that he will choose his donors in the renewable energy business over Vermonters.”
Turner said the Republican caucus would “be solid to override the governor’s veto,” but is unlikely to get that chance. He said he believes the Senate will reject an override which will end the effort before it gets to the House.
The vetoed bill will first land in the Senate. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, who sent word to his Senate colleagues Monday to plan on returning to Montpelier Thursday, said he does not plan to pursue a fix.
“There was some discussion about possibly introducing a different bill or a clarification of that bill. However, I don’t believe there are enough votes there to suspend the rules to introduce something different. There are, of course, many people who don’t believe there is anything wrong with the underlying bill,” Campbell said.
Without a rules suspension, the veto session would stretch into at least two days, and possible longer, Campbell said, which he is not willing to do.
“Every day that we’re there is $60,000 to taxpayers. I think that is significant,” he said. “If you tell the legislative body … we’re going to come back and spend a day or two days to fix this that two days is likely to go into three days or four days. There’s also no guarantee that the bill you’ve worked on will not also be vetoed.”
Campbell said he wants lawmakers to vote on a veto override on Thursday and adjourn. If lawmakers override the veto lawmakers can correct the issues when a new biennium commences in January, he said.
“My hope is to come in and … deal with this on that day and that we leave one way or the other,” he said.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Burlington Electric both came out in support of the veto Monday and called for a legislative fix.
“The Burlington Electric Department supports the governor’s veto of S.230 and his plans to work with the Legislature to pass a modified bill that would continue the state’s progress on renewable energy project siting,” General Manager Neale Lunderville said in a statement. “Tweaks and compromises to the bill in the session’s waning hours spoiled otherwise solid legislation. These last-minute additions would create harmful public policy that could have serious unintended consequences if allowed to become law.”
Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director for VPIRG, said the bill as passed “would create a functional moratorium on wind for a year.”
“We support the bill that the Legislature thought they were passing on the last day of the session. We are interested in working with them to actually make that a reality this Thursday. Unfortunately, the language that was added a few hours before they adjourned has some unintended consequences if it goes into effect,” he said. “The bill can be fixed fairly easily and the Legislature should do that.”
The Legislature last held a veto session in 2009, when majority Democrats orchestrated veto overrides of the state budget and a same-sex marriage law. Former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas had rejected both measures.