By one thin vote, the Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to taxing some of Vermont Yankee’s profits to pay for an energy-efficiency program.
Critics of the tax, which passed 15-14, took turns calling it arbitrary, capricious, predatory and unnecessary.
The tax on the nuclear power plant’s unexpected increase in profits is the most controversial part of a larger bill that supporters say will help Vermonters use less heating fuel and encourage development of renewable energy.
The overall bill passed 18-11. The legislation faces another vote in the Senate today before a conference committee will work out changes made to the House energy bill. The Vermont Yankee tax is among the many changes that were made.
Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, lobbied his fellow senators hard in recent days to support a bill he called the toughest global-warming legislation in the nation.
“I’ve never had an issue I feel more strongly about than this,” Shumlin said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Opponents of the Vermont Yankee tax worked hard to quash that piece of the bill. “Our task was to educate people in the Senate on very short notice about the problems this bill has,” Vermont Yankee spokesman Brian Cosgrove said. “The vote shows we did a pretty effective job.”
No senators questioned the worth of the energy-efficiency utility that would be funded by the Vermont Yankee tax, though some House Republicans and Gov. Jim Douglas have raised concerns about how well the program has been planned.
Two taxes were the focus of the debate on the Senate floor – one on Vermont Yankee and another to determine the value of wind power projects.
Sen. Douglas Racine, D-Chittenden, spoke out against the Vermont Yankee tax. “I don’t particularly like nuclear power, but that’s not what this debate is about,” Racine said. “I think it’s the wrong tax.”
He said only a small amount of money is needed to get the energy efficiency utility organized and persuade Vermonters of the program’s benefits before finding a way to fund it.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said the tax would hit one of Vermont’s cleanest sources of energy in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. “In large part, nuclear power has played an important role in clean energy,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to replace these sources. In the long-term Vermont ratepayers will suffer.”
Shumlin disagreed. “Anyone who says this is going to affect rates in the future I believe is being deceived.”
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, countered the argument that the tax would break a deal the state made with Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp. over how much the company would pay for the right to store radioactive waste at the Vernon plant. Vermont Yankee, he said, has broken numerous deals over the years with the state including promises of dirt-cheap power, that the federal government would take the waste and that the plant would be decommissioned after 40 years.
“For someone who has broken deal after deal after deal after deal to come in and tell us we’re breaking a deal,” MacDonald said.
Supporters applauded the Senate vote, while opponents argued it sends a bad message.
“Despite the fact that every corporate lobbyist in the Statehouse was twisting arms to kill this bill, the Senate passed landmark global warming legislation,” said James Moore, energy policy coordinator for Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
“Senators who voted for this predatory tax showed no regard for the reputation of this state, the welfare of working Vermonters or the future cost of electricity,” said William Driscoll, vice president of the Associated Industries of Vermont representing manufacturers.
Senators also argued over another piece of the legislation that would establish how to tax wind power projects. Instead of being charged traditional state property taxes, wind projects would be tax-free the first three years they generate power, then would be taxed three-tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour produced.
Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said the amount was intended to give wind developers predictability while also enticing them to build turbines in Vermont. The rate makes Vermont competitive with other states, she said.
Sen. George Coppenrath, R-Caledonia, objected to giving wind developers a tax break, saying it would come at the expense of property taxpayers. “I stand here very concerned we are trying to have the property taxpayers of the state of Vermont … significantly subsidize wind developers and taking money that would ordinarily go into the education fund,” he said.
Cummings defended the tax, saying without a low enough rate, wind developers won’t come to Vermont, and the state would have nothing to tax. She also said the rate is likely to change in negotiations with the House, which set a rate of just over five-tenths of a cent.
Roll call The Senate voted 15-14 on a tax on some of Vermont Yankee’s profits.
VOTING YES: Claire Ayer, D-Addison; John Campbell, D-Windsor; Bill Carris, D-Rutland; Jim Condos, D-Chittenden; Ann Cummings, D-Washington; Ed Flanagan, D-Chittenden; Harold Giard, D-Addison; Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington; Sara Kittell, D-Franklin; Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden; Mark MacDonald, D-Orange; Richard McCormack, D-Windsor; Richard Sears, D-Bennington; Peter Shumlin, D-Windham; Jeanette White, D-Windham.
VOTING NO: Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille; Don Collins, D-Franklin; George Coppenrath, D-Caledonia; Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans; Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia; Hull Maynard, R-Rutland; Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle/Chittenden; Hinda Miller, D-Chittenden; Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland; Alice Nitka, D-Windsor; Douglas Racine, D-Chittenden; Phil Scott, R-Washington; Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden; Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans.
ABSENT: William Doyle, R-Washington.
By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
2 May 2007
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