State's energy policies under fire from lawmakers

February 2, 2004
By David Gram

MONTPELIER - With some of their members upset about the Douglas administration's energy policies, Vermont lawmakers are expected to continue this week trying to have their own impact on those issues.

The House is to take up a resolution approved 11-0 by its Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Friday that asks Vermont's congressional delegation to find some federal money to help the state buy a stake in a series of hydroelectric stations along the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers.

"It can't be anything but helpful to get some money from the federal government," said Rep. David Zuckerman, a committee member and Burlington Progressive.

Meanwhile, Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, chairman of the Senate Institutions Committee, said he would seek a resolution declaring a moratorium on a major power line upgrade planned for northwestern Vermont.

Illuzzi said he wants time for the Legislature to consider whether Vermont's Environmental Board - along with its Public Service Board - should have a say in siting utility projects like wind-powered generation or the high-voltage power lines proposed by the Vermont Electric Power Corp.

Illuzzi, a Republican who represents Essex and Orleans counties, echoed comments made recently by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee that the Department of Public Service has been too quick to support projects like the power lines and a proposed power increase at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

"The reason that you're seeing resolutions and legislation in this arena is that the Public Service Department has simply failed to represent the public on the issues," Illuzzi said.

DPS Commissioner David O'Brien has argued that the VELCO project is needed to improve the reliability of Vermont's power grid. The administration also has hailed an agreement in which Vermont Yankee's owner, Entergy Nuclear, will pay the state up to $20 million for cleaning up Lake Champlain and for other projects in exchange for its support of the power increase at the Vernon reactor.

Complaints about the administration's energy policies came to a head Jan. 23, when the Senate passed a resolution calling on the DPS to withdraw its 20-year energy plan, which critics say fails to address several key energy issues facing Vermont.

Gov. James Douglas this past week called that "an unnecessarily partisan act on the part of the senators."

Illuzzi, a Republican and one of the administration's most vocal critics on energy policy, was away from the Statehouse that day and did not vote on the resolution condemning the department's plan. Two other Republicans voted to support the resolution: Washington County Sens. William Doyle and Phil Scott.

In other Statehouse business this week:

*    Legislation aimed at reducing workers' compensation rates paid by Vermont employers, which has been the subject of testimony before several committees in recent weeks, will get a public hearing.

before House and Senate panels Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Pavilion Auditorium in Montpelier.

The Douglas administration has been pushing for benefit changes designed to lower rates. Opponents to the changes say insurance companies have been raising rates due to recent losses in the stock markets, and that injured workers shouldn't be asked to pay for the insurance companies' investment losses through reduced benefits.

*    The House Health and Welfare Committee plans to take two mornings of testimony, Wednesday and Thursday, on end-of-life care. Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre, said he hoped for a wide-ranging discussion of the topic. He reiterated earlier statements that a bill that would allow doctors to help patients die would not be acted on this year.

*    The Senate is expected to take up legislation sought by Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz calling for random audits following elections to ensure that Vermont's vote-counting machines have worked properly. The move comes amid growing national concern about the ease with which computerized voting systems can be manipulated - possibly to change election outcomes.