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State Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.

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Nuke advisory panel bill stalls in Senate

Lawmakers cite lack of clarity for bill that would have added more local representation to VNDCAP

BRATTLEBORO—A bill that would have bolstered Windham County’s representation on the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel has stalled in the state Legislature.

H.144 was controversial in part because it would have booted longtime Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, from the advisory panel while guaranteeing seats for three Windham County lawmakers.

MacDonald is vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where H.144 remained when the Legislature adjourned on May 19. But another committee member, Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, said the bill stalled mainly because lawmakers were uncertain about its necessity and intent after receiving mixed messages.

“Really, the reason that it hit a stone wall was the lack of clarity,” Degree said.

The process has left advisory panel Chairwoman Kate O’Connor frustrated.

“It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she said.

The citizens advisory panel began meeting in September 2014, about three months before Vermont Yankee stopped producing power. The state Legislature founded the panel to focus on decommissioning issues, with 19 members representing a variety of interests including the Vernon plant’s ownership.

In addition to advising the state government, the panel also is supposed to “serve as a conduit for public information.” To that end, the panel hosts regular reports from state regulators, plant administrators, and others involved in the decommissioning process.

The proposed buyer of Vermont Yankee, NorthStar Group Services, made its first local presentation at a December VNDCAP meeting. And this Thursday, federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials will attend an advisory panel meeting to take public comment on the sale to NorthStar.

But in January, O’Connor proposed a VNDCAP shakeup with two key elements.

First, the panel’s two legislative representatives no longer would be affiliated with the Senate and House Natural Resources and Energy committees. O’Connor proposed the change partly because the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee disbanded as part of a reorganization at the start of the 2017 legislative session.

O’Connor also proposed adding a third legislator to the advisory panel, and her plan called for each of those lawmakers to be from Windham County.

Among the VNDCAP members who were present at the January meeting, no one voted against O’Connor’s plan. MacDonald and several state officials abstained.

The House approved H.144 on March 2. As O’Connor and a majority of VNDCAP members had requested, the bill said the advisory panel would feature the House member representing Vernon as well as another House member and senator, both of whom would reside in Windham County.

But the Senate Finance Committee received the bill the next day and came up with a different plan. The committee’s version of H.144 called for only two legislative representatives on the decommissioning advisory panel — a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, and a member of the House Energy and Technology Committee.

One effect of that arrangement would be to preserve MacDonald’s place on the panel, since he serves on the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

MacDonald has made no secret of his unhappiness with O’Connor’s reorganization plan. He contends the advisory panel is too sympathetic to plant owner Entergy — a claim O’Connor has denied — and he also thinks his frequent criticism of Entergy “might be the reason they want me out of there.”

He also thinks there are plenty of local representatives on the panel. MacDonald said the Senate Finance Committee “was surprised at how parochial and narrow the group was” when debating the advisory panel’s realignment.

Degree didn’t use those words in a May 22 interview. But he did raise other objections to the House’s version of H.144.

For instance, he said the committee didn’t feel it was appropriate to add more legislative representation to the decommissioning advisory panel. He also noted that, under O’Connor’s plan, the panel would have been “an unbalanced board — you had more House members than Senate members.”

Senate Finance proposed just enough of a tweak to keep the panel’s membership in step with current legislative committee names. But after a brief Senate debate on April 18, the bill was recommitted to the Finance Committee and never moved after that.

Degree said there wasn’t enough time at the end of the session to take more testimony on H.144 or to work out a compromise with the House.

“At the end of the day, we couldn’t find a happy medium between what the advisory committee wanted and what the House had passed, and what we felt we needed to do to keep the panel current,” he said.

Degree added that MacDonald disclosed his involvement in the advisory panel and didn’t attempt to exercise any undue influence on the H.144 discussion. MacDonald in January said he wouldn’t participate in any votes on the bill.

“Mark was very professional in how he went about this particular issue,” Degree said.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington and the Finance Committee’s chairwoman, agreed with that assessment and also noted MacDonald’s long history with Vermont Yankee.

“He does know the issues,” Cummings said. “And he does look out for the people.”

H.144 could come up for more debate in the 2018 session. O’Connor said she’d like another opportunity to address the Senate Finance Committee on the matter.

“I do understand why they don’t have a full understanding of what the panel does, because it’s really not in their orbit,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s part of the problem.”

O’Connor said she’s fine with the Senate committee’s decision to not mandate Windham County residency for each of the advisory panel’s legislative members. But she still believes that, “at a minimum, it’s important to have the state representative who represents Vernon on the panel.”

While there’s no question that Vermont Yankee decommissioning is a statewide issue, “ultimately, the people in the state who are really most impacted are the people in Vernon and the people in Windham County,” O’Connor said. “We have been living with that plant in a very personal way.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #410 (Wednesday, May 31, 2017).

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