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55-cent charge on Vermont electric bills draws fire

The Vermont House gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation that would help Vermont electric consumers generate their own power and deduct it from their electric bill, but not before bitter debate erupted over a 55-cent charge on monthly electric bills designed to promote renewable energy.

Initial action came on a 99-39 vote after Rep. Paul Poirier said he would offer an amendment before the bill comes up for final passage to exempt low-income people from the 55-cent charge.

The charge, which would raise an estimated $2.4 million, is intended to replace a portion of the roughly $6 million the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant contributes each year to the Clean Energy Development Fund, which provides grants to support renewable energy projects in the state. The agreement under which Vermont Yankee makes those payments expires in March 2012, along with its state operating permit.

Lawmakers came up with the flat charge of 55 cents per electric meter per year.

Poirier, a Democrat-turned-independent from Barre, appeared before a meeting of Democratic House members on Tuesday and described an amendment that he said would exempt people making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level – an amount equal to $40,700 for a family of four – and raise the charge on those making more than that to 65 cents a month.

Poirier has been sharply critical of his former Democratic colleagues this year over their reluctance to raise taxes to avoid cuts in human services programs. Tensions rose again Tuesday as Poirier focused his ire on one lawmaker, Rep. Tony Klein, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and a key architect of the energy bill.

During an exchange in the Democratic caucus, Poirier asked Klein if he was supporting the amendment Poirier intended to offer and Klein said no.

“Why’d you call me last night and tell me you were?” Poirier asked.

Klein tried to answer him but Poirier cut him off. “Tony, Tony, Tony,” Poirier said. “You lied last year on the floor and you’re lying again.”

“That’s very inappropriate,” Klein said. “He only hears what he wants to hear,” he added as Poirier exited the room. He added that he expects an apology from Poirier.

Poirier did not immediately return a call seeking comment later. Klein said he believed the earlier incident Poirier referred to related to House debate on a bill related to the Vermont Yankee decommissioning fund.

The bill, on which final action is expected Wednesday, would double the size of a “net-metering” system property owners would be able to use. With net-metering, customers can make their own electricity, share it with their utility and subtract the amount of power the utility takes from their monthly electric bill.

The measure before the House would increase the maximum size of system eligible for net-metering from 250 kilowatts – the amount of power needed to light 250 1,000-watt light bulbs, to 500 kilowatts. Very small systems – those of less than 5 kilowatts – would be eligible for a simplified registration process, rather than the fuller review before the Public Service Board that larger generators get.