Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look back at what made it, what didn’t and why it matters to you. For more analysis on the session that was, visit us at www.vermontpressbureau.com.
Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — Lawmakers Saturday capped off a 17-week session that will result in new laws affecting health care, taxes, energy development, agriculture and the environment. Here are two issues that dominated legislators’ time:
When Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service announced a $702 million merger proposal last July, the deal had no shortage of potential flash points.
But no one could have imagined then that a $21 million windfall mechanism triggered by the proposal would have turned into the marquis political issue of the 2012 legislative session.
The issue began to bubble up early on, when Rep. Cynthia Browning, an Arlington Democrat, drafted a short amendment that would have required the utilities to issue checks totaling $21 million to the CVPS customers that bailed the company out of a bad hydro deal in 2001.
The utilities, by contrast, wanted to satisfy the obligation by investing in weatherization programs.
The rhetoric didn’t really start cranking, however, until March 27, when the Shumlin administration signed on to a memorandum of understanding endorsing the utilities’ payback plan. That’s when many rank-and-file lawmakers learned for the first time that not only did Green Mountain Power intend to satisfy its obligation via efficiency projects, but that the utility would recoup it windfall-related investments in the form of higher rates.
Support for the Browning amendment suddenly gained steam, earning 72 co-sponsors in the House. A similar effort began to gain traction in the Senate, where lawmakers sought not only to require checks or bill credits, but also to keep the utility from recouping the $21 million in rate base.
The issue hit its climax in the penultimate week of the session, when the Senate approved by a 27-3 vote an amendment that would have required to the Public Service Board to reject any merger proposal that didn’t include checks or bill credits for CVPS ratepayers.
In the end, however, the Shumlin administration and House Speaker Shap Smith effectively squelched the uprising. Smith had warned in severe terms against interference in an open regulatory docket.
Critics of the windfall plan, who couldn’t in the end get even a nonbinding resolution, leave Montpelier with one small concession. A letter written on Statehouse letterhead and signed by 61 lawmakers as of Monday morning will be sent to the Public Service Board later this week.
The letter strongly urges the board “to order the return of ratepayers’ money through a credit to electric bills.” No matter how the $21 million is returned, the letter says, lawmakers “hope and expect that the board will prohibit the utility from reverting these funds in future rates.”
“It doesn’t mandate anything but it was the only option left,” said Rep. Patti Komline, a Dorset Republican. “All we can hope is that the Public Service Board is listening, and that they do the right thing.”
Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre Independent, said he thinks the issue could play heavily in some local elections. Windfall critics might not have triumphed in Montpelier. But Poirier said the people who voted against their amendment might have a tough go of it on the campaign trail.
“I can think of at least 15 members that this could be a tough campaign issue for,” Poirier said. “Voters care about this issue.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin last week signed into law a bill that will give Vermont governors greater power over the state’s education system.
The current structure creates a buffer between the state’s public education system and the governor’s office, because the state Board of Education and an education commissioner appointed by the board oversee the department and the public education system.
Advocates of the current system — who lobbied against the bill – said it’s an effective way to insulate schools and students from rapidly shifting political winds.
But Shumlin said it also impedes governors’ abilities to enact reforms in one of the biggest and fastest-growing areas of government spending.
The legislation transforms the commissioner of education into a secretary-level position appointed by the governor. Compromises in the legislation sought to allow the board to retain some of its authority, though the panel will, by all accounts, lose much of its sway over the public school system.MORE IN Vermont NewsSpringfield Select Board endorsed the proposed memorandum with the developers of the $170 million... Full StoryVermont State Police are still trying to determine whether a fatal shooting in Danby was an act... Full Story
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