This year’s massive energy bill hasn’t yet reached Gov. James Douglas’ desk, but supporters and opponents of the legislation are already putting a lot of energy into preparation for a likely July veto override vote.
That vote will determine the fate of a tax on the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, a proposed heating fuels efficiency program and a host of other energy issues.
It may also become a test of wills between advocates and Democratic leaders in the Legislature on one hand and Douglas and industry heavy hitters on the other.
The breadth of the bill, which does everything from providing solar tax credits to potentially lowering power costs for the poor, has meant that an equally diverse group of organizations have joined together to lobby Douglas and legislators to make it law.
But fears about the potential impact of the tax on the state’s business climate and future power rates has resulted in the governor being backed in his opposition to the bill by some of the most powerful businesses in Vermont.
Douglas said again Tuesday that he will veto the bill when he gets it. If he is out of state – he is likely to soon take a trip with business leaders to encourage trade with China – Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie stands ready with the veto message, Douglas said.
That veto will be sustained, the governor said.
“I hope and expect a sufficient number of the members of the House will understand what a bad thing it would be to approve this tax,” Douglas said.
With nearly two months before a likely veto session, he is not yet worrying about the veto override, Douglas said.
But “I expect I will chat with leadership” in the House about sustaining the veto, Douglas said.
The bill would use payments coming to the state’s existing electricity efficiency program, run by Efficiency Vermont, and new taxes collected from Yankee’s parent company, Entergy Nuclear, to support the new efficiency program to reduce the use of heating fuels such as oil and gas.
Supporters of the idea haven’t been idle. Monday, the progressive business coalition Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility held a press conference in Hinesburg to push for the bill.
“The energy bill seems to be going down in flames on the governor’s desk because he feels like it sends a bad message to Vermont businesses,” said Will Patten, the group’s executive director. “We disagree with him. We are Vermont businesses and we support the energy bill,” Patten said.
In fact, “we think we represent the future of Vermont businesses.”
Support of the bill by companies such as Ben & Jerry’s and NRG Systems Inc. is not just based on one of the bill’s goals of reducing Vermonters’ contribution to global warming pollution.
It is primarily because the bill can reduce the cost of heating businesses and homes, Patten said.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House will hold a meeting on the issue in the Statehouse today.
Rep. Joyce Errecart, R-Shelburne, said she doubts the required two-thirds of House members will vote to override Douglas’ expected veto.
“I don’t see how they can” gather that many supporters, she said. The 49 Republicans in the 150-member House will likely hang together on the issue, she added.
“That is what I expect. I haven’t heard from anyone who has questions” about the bill, Errecart said.
If every member was present, nearly all the Democrats, Progressives and independents would have to all support the measure for it to return to the Senate over Republican opposition.
Overriding a veto is not easy, particularly in the House, where the Democrats’ majority is slimmer. Crucial votes on the measure were close in both bodies. The Senate passed the measure including the tax by a 15-14 vote, while the House approved the conference committee compromise by a vote 85-61.
But supporters of the bill said they are encouraged, so far.
“I am very optimistic,” said James Moore of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “We have already heard from some legislators who were not supportive of the bill on the first vote and are now reconsidering now that they know more about it.”
Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, agreed.
“For one thing, many members are realizing that misinformation is being pumped out about the funding in this bill,” Symington said. The measure has “the potential to save Vermonter’s money and also create jobs.”
The bill is one of only a few left that have yet to be sent to Douglas. Symington and Dubie have to accommodate the schedules of their nonlegislative jobs as they work to complete the bills in the House and Senate, she said.
Increasing the tax paid by Yankee by $25 million over the remaining years of its current operating license is fair, Democratic legislators said, because the new generation tax rate sets the same rate as that offered to wind power producers in the bill and puts the nuclear plant on a fairer footing with other property-tax payers.
“We are simply treating Vermont Yankee in the same favorable way the bill proposes to treat wind generation,” Symington said.
But the two are not the same, because Yankee has long-term contracts that give Vermonter’s power at rates below that of the electricity “spot market” price, said Brian Cosgrove, a company spokesman.
“We are basically now providing a third of Vermont’s electricity at about 50 percent of what it would cost if they went out on the spot market,” Cosgrove said.
One of the best arguments his company can make in pushing for House members to sustain a veto by Douglas is that there were several iterations of the tax proposal before the current plan was settled on, Cosgrove said.
“We believe we have a very strong story to tell,” he said. “This tax has been brought back so many times it has more sequels than ‘Rocky.'”
Entergy has been joined in its opposition to the measure by companies such as IBM and Green Mountain Power.
William Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, said the group has encouraged its members to get in touch with members of the general assembly.
“We have certainly encouraged them to forward on their concerns about the bill,” he said. The benefits in it “can be accomplished through ways that don’t require new taxes or bureaucracy.”
There are other measures in the bill beyond the efficiency program that will be a loss to the state if a veto of the bill is sustained, said Rep. Robert Dostis, D-Waterbury, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Among them is an expansion of “net metering,” which allows customers who generate their own power to reduce their electricity bills by selling it back to utilities, as well as tax credits for businesses that install solar panels.
“That was the single thing the solar industry said they needed if we wanted to see solar panels on big-box stores and other businesses,” Dostis said. “There are people who are waiting for group net metering to install small wind projects in the state.”
Other provisions, like a potential lower rate for poor customers and expansion of weatherization programs, has prompted groups like the Vermont office of AARP and the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition to join the loose organization working on turning the bill into law.
Douglas said he would consider a new version of the energy bill, if crafting it did not mean the veto session would last more than one day.
But Symington said accommodating the administration’s concerns would mean gutting the bill.
“I am not willing to simply pass something simply to be able to claim we have done something,” she said. “Our intentions are to actually make a difference in what Vermonters are paying to keep warm.”
By Louis Porter
Vermont Press Bureau
30 May 2007
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