BRATTLEBORO – It should come as no surprise that energy was a hot topic at a Democratic gubernatorial forum here Monday night.
The debate came just hours after Gov. Peter Shumlin vetoed a bill concerning renewable energy project siting. And the event was held a short drive from the site proposed for a controversial 28-turbine wind power project in the towns of Windham and Grafton.
Each of the participating candidates – Matt Dunne, Peter Galbraith and Sue Minter – made a case for better planning and more community input for proposed renewable energy projects. Minter also lobbied to “change the culture of the Public Service Board,” which approves such projects.
But only Galbraith, a Townshend resident, continues to argue that large-scale wind turbines should not play any role in the state’s renewable energy mix. And he was the only candidate at Monday’s debate to be openly critical of Shumlin’s veto of S.230.
“Come on,” Galbraith said. “Even a mild step, we couldn’t take to protect our communities? To me, that is unacceptable.”
Galbraith, a former Windham County senator and onetime U.S. ambassador, was a relatively late entry into a Democratic primary race that also includes Minter, a Waterbury resident who most recently served as state transportation secretary, and Dunne, a Hartland resident who has been a Google executive.
Two other Democratic candidates who have filed for the governor’s race – Cris Ericson, of Chester, and H. Brooke Paige, of Washington – did not appear at Monday’s debate. Brandon Batham, Windham County Democratic Committee chairman, said he “chose not to invite candidates who have run without the Democratic Party label at any point within the last five years” – a category that applies to both Ericson and Paige.
Running on the Republican gubernatorial ticket are Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman, a retired businessman.
Renewable energy likely would have figured in the Brattleboro forum regardless of the day’s news. But Shumlin’s veto may have brought the issue to the forefront.
The bill was aimed at “identifying areas suitable for renewable energy generation” and giving regional and town officials a chance to have more input than the current state permit process allows. But Shumlin, while saying he agrees with the core principles of the bill, took issue mainly with a provision that sought new sound standards for wind turbines.
The structure of that provision “will make it impossible to continue to sensibly site renewable wind power in Vermont,” Shumlin wrote in his veto message. He pledged to work with legislators on a compromise when they reconvene Thursday.
At the Monday debate at Brattleboro’s American Legion post, all three candidates said they support Vermont’s official goal of obtaining 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2050. There was some disagreement, though, about how to get there.
Galbraith believes there is no way to properly site industrial wind turbines in Vermont, arguing the environmental cost of such projects is too high. “The ridgelines are the most pristine places in the state. They are ecologically the most valuable,” Galbraith said. “And the roads that go up destroy wildlife habitats, they do damage to our water systems, and they tear communities apart.”
Galbraith said he’s in favor of hydropower and supports the state buying TransCanada’s dams along with Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, a proposal that’s being studied by a special working group formed in April.
He also wants the state to push harder for energy conservation. “Dollar for dollar, the best way to reduce our carbon footprint is through conservation and efficiency,” Galbraith said.
While Dunne and Minter also discussed stronger conservation programs, they said they support further development of wind turbines in Vermont. But they said the way in which such projects are reviewed for permits must change.
“I have been very concerned about the process that has really pitted developers against communities,” Minter said.
As governor, Minter said, she would “like to change the culture of the Public Service Board and some of the rules of procedure so that we have greater access and voice (for communities) within the Section 248 process” for energy project review.
Both Minter and Dunne also advocated detailed, statewide planning to find better places for renewable energy generation. “I think we’re finally in a place where we can talk about the state as a whole and have a discussion about where we can build things and not build things, so it doesn’t become a fight every single step of the way,” Dunne said.
He added that “if getting to 90 percent (renewables) by 2050 tears the state apart, we do not win.”
Energy issues aside, Monday’s debate covered a wide variety of subjects including health care, the economy, poverty, housing and governmental ethics. The event was co-sponsored by the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, so schools were another prominent topic.
None of the candidates called for an outright repeal of Act 46, the controversial 2015 law that pushes for larger, consolidated school districts throughout Vermont with the goal of finding efficiencies and increasing educational equity.
But each said they have problems with law. Minter pledged to be more “flexible as governor” when it comes to school mergers and noted that she would be appointing members of the State Board of Education, which approves merger plans under Act 46 that residents then vote on.
“We have an extreme decline in enrollment statewide, and we do need to have these difficult conversations,” Minter said. “But if there’s one thing I learned traveling around, it’s that every district is very different.”
Dunne expressed a similar sentiment, saying he opposed the “cookie-cutter approach” of Act 46’s merger standards. “What it threatened was that secret sauce that makes Vermont schools so great, which is the community engagement and the ability for teachers to have small class sizes to be able to work with students in an intimate way,” he said.
Both Dunne and Galbraith said they want to get rid of the penalties that Act 46 imposes for increases in school spending above state-prescribed amounts. Galbraith went a step further, arguing that some of the burden of funding the state’s education system should be shifted from property taxes to income taxes.
Galbraith argued that the source of education funding – not the amount – is the state’s main problem.
“Sure, there are fewer students. But that’s not a crisis,” he said. “We are providing better services (for students), and that’s what we can continue to do. We need to keep the resources for education.”
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