Feds reimburse state $4 million for post-Irene work by Guard
Vermont will be reimbursed $4 million from the Federal Highway Administration to pay for work done by the National Guard on its roadways during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
More than 500 miles of roadways and bridges were damaged during the storm, and Vermont National Guard and units from several other states were called in by the Agency of Transportation to help with the cleanup.
“One hundred percent of that $4 million is paid for by the Federal Highways because they recognize that the National Guard was out there building roads, doing heavy construction, taking the same risks that our Agency of Transportation and private contractors were,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin at a press conference Wednesday, flanked by Brian Searles, VTrans secretary, and Michael Dubie, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard.
Shumlin said the $4 million frees up funding for other repairs needed after the storm. The reimbursement also sets a new precedent for the Federal Highway Administration, which typically does not reimbursed states for National Guard work during emergencies.
Vermont’s initial request was denied, but the Federal Highway Administration accepted an appeal filed Feb. 7 after the state successfully showed that the National Guard worked under the state’s direct supervision on roadway repair. Typically, the National Guard focuses more on security and traffic control following emergencies, as opposed to cleanup, according to Searles.
“This response, this operation was different, and it was different enough for the folks at Federal Highways in Washington to actually change the guidance to other states on these issues,” said Searles.
~ Erin Hale
Fracking ban gets preliminary approval
The Vermont Senate gave its first nod Wednesday to a bill that would ban the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — for natural gas.
In a 27-1 vote, the Senate shifted course from the House, which passed a three-year moratorium rather than a ban.
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy recommended a ban.
Proponents of the bill say “fracking” has the potential to contaminate groundwater, and the science is unclear as to its environmental and health effects.
The American Petroleum Institute published ads this week in local papers pushing for a moratorium rather than an outright ban.
The ads show outlines of workers with a line reading “Shouldn’t we know the facts before we make a final decision.”
The Senate Committee on Agriculture heard testimony from the industry Wednesday morning on the potential benefits to farmers who lease parts of their land to drilling companies. The leases can yield millions of dollars for farmers.
Sen. Sara Kittell, chair of the Agriculture committee, said her committee does not intend to offer an amendment to the bill.
~ Alan Panebaker
Shumlin offers Clean Energy Development Fund proposal
The Vermont Department of Taxes recommended Wednesday an increase in a generating tax on Vermont Yankee that could make up for money that has been going to the Clean Energy Development Fund.
The tax would net approximately $12 million annually for the state and replace revenue from expiring agreements with Entergy.
Under two agreements between the state and Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, the state has received about $6 million annually to fund renewable energy projects.
The agreements expire this year, and whether the plant’s owner will continue to pay into the fund is not settled. The Vermont Public Service Board is currently considering whether to issue a new license to the plant, and the state is appealing a federal court decision that found a state law that required legislative approval for Vermont Yankee’s continued operation was unconstitutional.
The Vermont Department of Public Service wants the company to keep making payments to the fund, but Entergy has told the Public Service Board it will put its periodic payments in escrow until it has assurance it can keep operating and that the state will not raise its tax.
In a recent order, the Public Service Board said that Entergy must live up to its obligations in its certificates of public good but that it would not rule on specific obligations, such as payments to the fund.
Under a bill that passed the House, $6 million would be split among the education fund, the Clean Energy Development Fund and a special fund to help Windham County deal with the plant’s closure.
Molly Bachman, general counsel for the Vermont Department of Taxes, told the Senate Committee on Finance that the idea is for Vermont Yankee to shoulder the same burden of the budget as it has in the past.
Sen. Randy Brock, a member of the committee, said the increase in the generating tax, from $5 million to around $12 million, doesn’t seem like the same tax liability.
“If you’re doubling the tax, how is the burden the same?” he said.
Considering the pending litigation with Entergy, the new tax could mean another potential lawsuit for the state, according to Deputy Attorney General Scott Kline.
“There is a risk associated with a bill that would increase a generating tax at this time,” Kline said.
Neither Kline nor legislative counsel would get into the details of a potential legal challenge or recommend approval the amendment.
Sen. Dick McCormack, a member of the committee, said sticking taxpayers with legal fees is not something he would look forward to.
Entergy is currently requesting the state be ordered to pay it more than $4 million in fees from the past litigation.
On the other hand, McCormack said, “The idea of the state holding back on protecting the interests of the people because we’re afraid of a lawsuit undermines our democratic society.”
Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said the new proposal, which could result in more money for renewable energy developers than the House bill would, is a step in the right direction.
However, unlike the past agreements, there’s no guarantee the money will go to renewable energy, she said. That’s up to the Appropriations committee to decide how it gets divvied up.
The tax rate of $.0025 per kilowatt hour would be less than the rate for wind energy generation.
~ Alan Panebaker
Midwives insurance carvout passes House
In a 76-46 vote, the House passed a bill that would require insurance companies to cover midwife services for two years even if they do not have malpractice insurance.
The bill adds a legislative “fix” to a law enacted last year that requires insurance companies to cover home births.
After last year’s law went into effect, some families found their insurance company would not cover midwivery services despite the mandate. Insurance companies would only cover midwife services for in-network providers, and those midwives would have to have malpractice insurance.
The Vermont Medical Society opposed the amendment and in an open letter to the House of Representatives said the bill could allow patients who have a bad outcome to sue other doctors, hospitals or the state.
The letter states, “if midwives carry their own insurance, it will reduce the risk that their liability will be shifted to other insured health care professionals, facilities or the state.”
Midwives claim the insurance is too expensive, and there are not enough of them in the state to form a group to get a cheaper rate.
In 2014, they will be required to have malpractice insurance for their services to be covered.
~ Alan Panebaker