After 11 Hours, Lawmakers Reach A Resolution On Renewable Energy Siting

Jun 9, 2016

There was partisan bickering. There was procedural gamesmanship. And finally, after 11 long hours in the Statehouse, there was a policy resolution in Montpelier on Thursday. 

Update 9:39 p.m. A renewable energy bill vetoed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this week has been replaced by lawmakers with a substantially similar stand-in. The protracted veto session, however, won’t end the fight over wind and solar energy in Vermont.

Imperfect as it was, Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe was happy enough with the renewable energy siting bill lawmakers passed back in early May. 

“I think we’re all very frustrated that there’s a veto in the first place, because the bill stands on its own,” Ashe says.

Be that as it may, a bill that addresses the governor’s concerns is better than no bill at all, Ashe told his Senate colleagues Thursday. 

“We shouldn’t let the frustration of why we’re here cloud that judgment,” Ashe said. “We can make this very easy by suspending the rules and taking this up.”

The Senate gave overwhelming approval early in the day to a replacement bill that most lawmakers agree will accomplishes all the intents of the original, without making any substantive changes to the negative.

The legislation tries to give municipalities more say over the process used to site wind and solar projects. It also looks to put a cap on decibel levels for large wind projects. 

The new version clarifies sound standards for wind turbines that Shumlin says would otherwise halt wind energy development in Vermont. Shumlin also says technical errors in the original bill would have forced regulators to declare sound from wind turbines to be an imminent public health threat, a precedent Shumlin says Vermont should not set.

But the voting calculus wasn’t so simple in the House. And Republican lawmakers in that body said using the one-day veto session to pass a new bill was a corruption of process they could not abide.

"The issue today is the integrity of the legislative process." - House Minority Leader Don Turner

“The issue today is the integrity of the legislative process,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner.

Turner’s GOP caucus began the day with a commitment to doing everything in its power to block consideration of the replacement. And Republicans were in a position to do. The House needed a three-quarters majority to get the rules suspensions required to take up the new bill in the one-day legislative leaders had allotted for the veto session.

It was evident from the outset that critics of the governor’s veto didn’t have the votes needed for an override. And when it became clear that Republicans were ready to scuttle the replacement, and leave with nothing, House Speaker Shap Smith changed relaxed his commitment to a one-day veto session.  

“My view is, we come back tomorrow,” Smith said.

And the next day, and the next, and the next, Smith vowed, until Republicans exhausted all of their procedural roadblocks.

As the evening wore on, and Turner and his Republican colleagues came to terms with the reality of the end game, they relented. Instead of spending $50,000 a day to keep the Legislature in session for the four days they’d be there if Republicans continued to suspend rules, they allowed the replacement bill to proceed to a final vote.

Sen. John Campbell, right. The Senate gave overwhelming approval early in the day to a replacement bill that most lawmakers agree will accomplishes all the intents of the original, without making any substantive changes to the negative.
Credit Jeb Wallace-Brodeur for VPR

“I’m not up for spending that $50,000 a day when I already know the outcome,” Turner said. “The outcome is this bill is going to pass it the way they want it.”

House Republicans weren’t the only ones opposed to the process used to replace the vetoed legislation. Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth says the Legislature’s conduct on Thursday will fuel the perception that it pays no heed to the concerns of people concerned about sound from large-scale wind turbines. 

“To me that was not a balanced process of the sort we had all the way through the session where both sides, both sides, both sides were allowed to speak,” said Baruth, who supported an override of the governor’s veto. “That seemed to me to flesh out a caricature of us that people with problems with wind have long talked about.”

But Democrats weren’t the only ones eager to pass a replacement bill. And several Republicans said they supported the language passed in the replacement.

Update 8:56 p.m.

The Vermont Legislature is considering how to respond to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s veto of legislation that deals with the siting of renewable energy projects. Shumlin is concerned that sound standards in the bill could be construed in a way that would prevent most future wind development in Vermont. 

After a day-long standoff, House members agreed to suspend rules and take up a revised energy siting bill passed this morning by the Senate.

The bill passed on a voice vote, ending a day of maneuvering and gamesmanship in which Republican House members, wary of the revisions to a bill vetoed by Gov. Shumlin, used procedural motions to block consideration of the bill.  

More than 10 hours after they convened a special session lawmakers sent the bill on to the governor, who is expected to sign it.

Update 2:28 p.m.

House Republican leaders have successfully blocked consideration of the Senate bill designed to clarify sound standards in the energy siting bill legislation.

When the Senate bill came over to the House, Minority leader Don Turner refused to suspend rules in order to bring it to the floor. Turner said the new legislation had not been thoroughly reviewed and he argued that voting on the bill under those circumstances set a dangerous precedent for lawmakers in the future.

Listen to today's proceedings on VPR's live streams from the Statehouse.

If GOP leaders continue to block consideration of the Senate bill, the Legislature would have to remain in session for several days for Democrats to overcome the procedural issues that are being used by the Republicans. That’s an option that House Democratic leaders are currently considering.

Update 12:48 p.m.

The Vermont Senate has made changes to an energy siting bill vetoed by Gov. Peter Shumlin. The alterations are designed to clarify sections of the bill that Shumlin had objected to. The vote was 27 to 2.

Shumlin was concerned the bill inadvertently identified sound from large wind turbines as a “public health emergency.”

The governor was also troubled by a provision in the legislation that he said used sound standards from a small wind project in Vergennes as the new state standard for all future projects.

According to Senate Natural Resources Committee chairman Christopher Bray, the overall intent of the bill remains intact. Bray said it was important for lawmakers to address the concerns that the governor identified.

The bill now goes to the House, where Republican leaders have vowed to block consideration of the proposal by refusing to agree to the procedural rules needed to bring the legislation to the House floor for a vote.

From original post 10 a.m. After the opening gavel, senators immediately left the floor to attend party caucuses to discuss various strategies.

It takes three quarters of the senators present to override a veto. If the Senate votes to override, the motion will then be sent to the House for its consideration.

However, if the veto is sustained by the Senate, it's possible Senate leaders will introduce legislation to address the concerns that the governor raised in his veto message.

But the prospects for that approach are uncertain, because even if the Senate approves a revised bill, House Republican leaders have vowed to use procedural motions to block consideration of the legislation in the House.

This post will be updated.