MONTPELIER — Gov. James Douglas Wednesday made good on his word and vetoed the energy bill passed by lawmakers this year, saying there are ways to reduce the use of heating fuels and Vermont's contribution to global warming without levying a tax on the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
"Unfortunately, despite my frequently voiced concerns, both public and private, an unnecessary and shortsighted tax was added to the bill. That tax is not in the best interests of Vermonters or the long-term economic and environmental security of our state," Douglas said in his veto message.
In an unusually long statement on a veto, Douglas outlined a plan to enact administratively several of the other less hotly debated measures in the bill and put together new legislation making other provisions into law.
And Douglas made several references to other ways to improve the efficient use of heating oil and gas in Vermont, although he did not offer many specifics.
"There is also an opportunity to pursue improved fuel efficiency without creating a poorly contemplated, cumbersome bureaucracy funded by an arbitrary tax," Douglas said in his statement.
The veto came as Democrats were preparing for former Vice President Al Gore to put his support behind the bill.
Gore has agreed to endorse the bill and will appear on a video conference today that will be broadcast in six communities around the state via Vermont Interactive Television, his office confirmed Wednesday.
"It's a real indication of the validity of what we're trying to accomplish here and how important it is that someone of Al Gore's stature would try to learn about what we're trying to accomplish," said House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho.
Since losing his bid for the presidency in 2000, Gore has made global climate change his cause. He won an Oscar earlier this year for his documentary film, "An Inconvenient Truth," and he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Legislative leaders said earlier in the day the bill would mean very little without the tax and the heating fuel efficiency program it would support.
"Politicians love to take credit for making progress when progress is not made. I am simply not willing to make policy that way," said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin. "You can design all the efficiency systems in the world, but if you don't have the courage to invest the money now to save it tomorrow you aren't doing anything.
"You are either going to show courage and pass a bill that can actually work or have to face incredibly unhappy defeat," Shumlin added. "There are times when you can play politics and there are times when you have to do the heavy lifting."
Symington said a bill without a so-called "all fuels" efficiency modeled on the state's system for electricity would have much less meaning.
"That is the section of this bill that provides the greatest opportunity for saving money. It is that simple," she said. "The funding that is in the bill is quite targeted and moves towards tax fairness in a reasonable way for Vermont Yankee."
The legislative proposal would increase the power generation tax on the plant's parent company, Entergy Nuclear, to as much as $25 million a year and use some of the money to fund the efficiency program until the plant's current license expires in 2010. That is fair, according to lawmakers, because the generation tax that was negotiated with the state is less than Yankee would pay under the property tax it is designed to replace.
Douglas has opposed the tax, saying it could send a message that would harm economic development in the state. Instead, administration officials have argued for a market-based approach founded on tax incentives and private investment with some government support.
"The governor has, in the absence of legislative interest, asked his administration to outline an alternative fuel efficiency program that produces more advantages for Vermonters and is progressive in the sense that it provides additional assistance to low- and moderate-income residents and does not involve new taxes and new government bureaucracies," said Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for the governor. Douglas will likely "outline his ideas in the near future," Gibbs added.
Ever since Douglas made it clear he would oppose the bill earlier this year, legislators vowed they will work to override a veto and make the measure into law without his signature.
"With time, more and more Vermonters and legislators are learning about the benefits of this bill," Symington said.
A veto override, which requires the support of two-thirds of the lawmakers present, is almost never an easy task. That is especially true in the House where the Democratic majority is slimmer than in the Senate.
According to information gathered in the state archives, there have been only six successful veto override votes since 1836.
In his veto message, Douglas said he would put in place as much of the 23 other sections of the bill as he could administratively. Those include measures designed to further renewable energy development, "smart metering" that charges electricity customers based on when they use power, energy planning and weatherization.
In addition, he will work with lawmakers to pass new legislation putting in place other components of the bill, including measures to encourage renewable energy development on farms and giving customers more information and options to purchase renewable power.
Supporters of the efficiency program discovered that the Connecticut General Assembly has passed — and Gov. M. Jodi Rell this week signed into law — an energy bill that includes a similar heating fuel efficiency program.
That measure, which caused little stir in a bill that included controversial sections on energy market deregulation, would use increases in the gross receipts taxes on heating fuel to support the program, up to $10 million annually.
"We tried with our bill to look at the future, to lower costs," said Connecticut State Rep. Joe Mioli, D-Westport, who co-sponsored the bill. "Sometimes $1 today is worth $5 tomorrow. I hope we are right."
Supporters of the Vermont program said they hoped the state would follow Connecticut's lead.
"The Connecticut energy bill and the Vermont energy bill both create business opportunities. The difference is that Gov. Rell has signed their bill, and our governor, who likes to talk about business but not follow that with action, is going to veto the Vermont energy bill," said James Moore of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and a leading lobbyist for the efficiency program.
"I think we have an incredible opportunity here. Vermont can be a leader or a follower, but it would seem if the state of Connecticut has figured out they can save Connecticut residents money, reduce their dependence on foreign oil and create jobs and it would seem to be a pretty simply conclusion for our governor to reach as well," he said.
Gibbs said that while the Connecticut bill is interesting, it may not directly relate to Vermont's goals.
"Reviewing the work of other states informs our own public policy, but ultimately Vermont is always going to do what is in the best interests of Vermont. One size doesn't fit all," he said.
"While we are already a national leader in energy conservation and efficiency and our emissions are a tiny fraction of those emitted by other states, we will continue to do more to combat climate change," Douglas said in the conclusion of his veto message.
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