Saint Albans Messenger; January 24, 2017
Industrial wind, Act 46, budget discussed
By TOM BENTON
Messenger Staff Writer
SWANTON — The Swanton Chamber of Commerce hosted the first of several legislative breakfasts at the Swanton Village Municipal Complex on Monday morning. The breakfasts are an opportunity for Franklin County residents to question their senators and House representatives, and to enjoy a free breakfast.
The audience’s questions touched on familiar local issues: industrial wind, Act 46, state spending. The audience also raised the question of how President Donald Trump’s policies might affect state funding.
Fairfield resident Sally Collopy began the questions, asking if there was a possibility of introducing a bill giving greater deference to town votes.
“When you look at these town votes, it’s pretty clear people are not happy with how things have been done,” she said. Collopy is one of the foremost opponents of the proposed Swanton Wind project, and has participated in legislative processes to regulate wind projects in Vermont. Swanton residents voted 731 to 160 against the project in a nonbinding Nov. 2015 vote, despite support for similar projects from former governor Peter Shumlin’s administration.
Franklin County legislators, seated before an audience of local residents at yesterday’s legislative breakfast, Monday in Swanton.
TOM BENTON, St. Albans Messenger
“You guys know as well as anybody, the state has a strict adherence to a public good process,” said Senator Dustin Degree. But Degree said he personally supports deference to towns, using wind projects as an example and saying there is a difference between a “small transmission line” and a largescale energy project.
St. Albans City Representative Kathy Keenan said ensuring fair say for towns in the state’s process of renewable energy regulation depends on finding an independent party, outside of public opponents, industry advocates and state officials. Collopy made the same point at an official conference on wind sound regulations before the Public Service Board in Montpelier.
Swanton Representative Marianna Gamache, one of the loudest legislative opponents of the state’s industrial wind policies, said, “We have a new administration that takes a different view of these projects. The Shumlin administration made it very clear to me that towns will never have a complete say… because it does not meet state goals. [But] it is the breadth and scope that is being rejected,” she said, not industrial wind itself.
Gamache served on the House Energy Committee during her last term, but was not assigned to the committee this term. “Just because I’m no longer on the committee doesn’t mean my feelings about it have changed,” she said.
Fairfield resident Penny Dubie, another outspoken opponent of Swanton Wind, asked if it was possible to propose a bill incorporating renewable energy siting into Act 250, Vermont’s Land Use and Development Act. Keenan pointed out that Section 248, the Vermont Statute requiring the Public Service Board’s regulation of proposed energy projects, was designed to work like Act 250.
“But unfortunately, it hasn’t done that in the past few years,” she said.
On the topic of committee assignments, Senator Carolyn Branagan pointed out “your two Franklin County senators sit on three of the four money committees.”
“But we don’t like spending money,” Degree quipped.
Swanton Representative Brian Savage pointed out, however, that this is “the first time in a long while” that no Franklin County legislator has served on the House agriculture committee, which he said is “very concerning.”
He congratulated Degree, a St. Albans resident in his second term as a state senator, for his new position as Senate minority leader. In that position, Degree essentially leads the state’s Republican senators on the Senate floor.
“Yeah,” Degree said reticently. “Congrats.”
An audience member asked if there was the possibility of modifications to Act 46, the school district consolidation law. Bills have been introduced, legislators confirmed, but the session is only two weeks in. It’s hard to tell which bills will survive, and in what form. However, Degree pointed out that Governor Phil Scott’s priorities are “pretty big changes” from those of Shumlin, including in regard to education.
There were questions about careless government spending. Keenan pointed out that Scott has already moved to consolidate multiple agencies for stronger efficiency, and said his proposal for a new committee on information technology (IT) is “sorely needed.” “We’ve been spending a lot of money without any coordination on where it’s going,” she said.
Her fellow St. Albans City Representative, Corey Parent, said each state agency has previously been responsible for designing and implementing its own IT projects. Parent said millions of dollars have been spent that “just maybe haven’t turned out the way we’d like,” and that the creation of an IT committee could be a solution.
Parent is the ranking member on a newly created energy and technology committee, which will oversee the state’s IT projects.
Another audience member asked how the state will benefit from online retailer Amazon’s incoming sales tax, which it will begin paying on Feb. 1. Parent and Degree estimated it would bring several million dollars into Vermont, but that it would be more of a supplemental income than a significant income. Branagan said the conflict over online retailers paying sales tax has been a “long battle.” “This is a tax that is owed,” she said.
Then the Trump question was raised: how will President Trump’s financial policies affect the state of Vermont? Republican and Democratic legislators concurred: no one knows, and that’s scary.
Parent pointed out that 60 percent of state funding comes from the federal government, the “largest chunk.” He said the Shumlin administration had been skilled at retrieving federal funds for state projects. Degree said that even with Republican Governor Phil Scott as the head of the state, and even if the legislative body produces the near-perfect budget it could not during the Shumlin administration, the legislature may have to “slash and burn” the budget in October depending on the distribution — or lack thereof — of federal funds.
“It’s scary how dependent we are,” he said.
The next legislative breakfast will be held in February in St. Albans. Specifics have not been determined.