MONTPELIER – The vote Thursday was 138-8 on the House’s energy bill. Masquerading behind that peaceful, easy vote was a contentious off-stage fight.
A series of negotiations in recent days narrowly averted a very public fight on the House floor that would have featured Democrats disagreeing with Democrats on the value of wind power.
That’s just what Democratic House leaders wanted to avoid. This issue, after all, was a priority for the legislative session.
The same sort of uneasy peace also prevailed over the Senate’s energy bill Thursday, which passed by a 27-3 vote after a controversial surcharge on heating fuel was removed. Senators promised that another funding source for an energy efficiency program would be found later. As in the House, the vote didn’t reveal the dissension in the ranks about a proposed charge on heating fuels.
In the House, the contention was over establishing a new system for taxing wind projects based on their power output. Two committees had come to different conclusions on this piece of the legislation. The House Natural Resources Committee set the rate at three-tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour. The House Ways and Means Committee put it at twice that – six-tenths of a cent.
That set the stage for a showdown. Leaders forged an agreement on just over a half-cent, but that angered a number of pro-renewable energy legislators who said it would discourage wind development in Vermont.
Rep. David Zuckerman, a Burlington Progressive, was preparing Wednesday to offer an amendment on the floor that would move the rate closer to three-tenths, and would have set off the floor debate Democrats wanted to avoid.
“I think we would have had the votes,” Zuckerman said.
He backed off his amendment only after legislative leaders offered renewable energy advocates assurance that while the House would be voting on a rate of 5.25 tenths of a cent, the Senate would come up with something lower.
The peace pact fell into place Wednesday afternoon when a group of renewable energy advocates and legislative leaders gathered in the office of Senate Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin.
Andrew Perchlik, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said he came away from that meeting satisfied that while the House would vote on the 5.25 rate, by the time the legislation is done, the rate would be lower.
Within hours, the House was voting on that rate, with relatively little opposition.
“We feel pretty confident that that will be fixed in the Senate,” Perchlik said. “We were not promised a certain rate, but we were promised we’d get a good hearing in the Senate and we’d get a better rate. It’s going to be closer to three than to five.”
Wind developers want their property taxes to be based on output rather than the value of their equipment because that value is too difficult to predict, making it harder to plan a project, Perchlik said.
House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, said the two committees were coming at the issue with different missions – one to look out for environmental and energy needs, the other to look out for taxes.
“My focus was on working out a compromise,” she said. “I believe in working things out.”
“The speaker requested that there not be a fight,” said Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the champion of the higher rate.
Obuchowski said he was willing to settle for 5.25 and to have an independent analyst study the appropriate rate. He said he didn’t know renewable energy advocates had been assured of a lower rate.
Wind-power supporters claim he is anti-wind, but Obuchowski said he thinks a rate of three-tenths of a cent doesn’t look out for the taxpayers because it doesn’t bring in as much tax money as a project would warrant.
Rep. Joyce Errecart, R-Shelburne, vice chairwoman of the House Natural Resources Committee, disagreed. “This is no tax break here,” she said. “This is tax simplification.”
The Senate agreed by a 25-3 vote Thursday to remove the funding source from their energy bill amid opposition to a 1 percent surcharge on heating fuel. The money would have paid for a new utility designed to help Vermonters improve the efficiency of their homes and businesses. The bill as passed establishes the utility but leaves the funding up in the air.
Sen. George Coppenrath, R-Caledonia, stood up on the floor as the body was about to vote and asked, “Is it my clear understanding that there is no financing (for this bill)?”
After senators announced the heating fuel surcharge in February and before the bill came out of the Senate Finance Committee last week, opposition to it mounted in the Senate.
“We’re not going to allow the discussion over funding to hold up the works,” Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
“The search for funding sources continues, and it’s our hope to have that ready before this bill leaves the building,” said Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Gov. Jim Douglas questioned the moves by legislators in each chamber to vote out bills knowing they don’t match their intentions. “It seems to me they ought to do what they believe is right,” he said. “I thought it was curious.”
James Moore, energy policy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said that although he’s following two pieces of legislation that lack key parts, he’s satisfied the House will find appropriate solutions for the Senate’s bill and the Senate for the House’s bill.
“We’re confident the Senate will strengthen this bill to make it more supportive of wind power. We’re confident the House in return will work with senators to find a funding source to help Vermonters reduce their oil use,” Moore said.
By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
6 April 2007