04/05/12 – House Floor Session & Committee on Environment and Natural Resources
Another day, another small-room committee hearing, this time the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Of specific interest to me is, naturally, the second-to-last bill, H7592. The bill would create the East Bay Energy Consortium, intended to allow municipalities in the East Bay to go into the wind farm business, with an eye on Tiverton’s Industrial Park, but giving the consortium peculiar authority to write its own building codes and claim land through eminent domain.
In the meantime, it’s already 4:10, and the floor session isn’t yet in motion.
The House session is underway. First up is the State House visitor center bill. Unlike the Senate floor session, yesterday, there’s actually debate going on. Rep. Dan Gordon is troubled by a lack of due diligence, such as target demographics.
Rep. Bob Watson (R, East/West Greenwich) has introduced an amendment that specifies that no public funds will go to support “this folly of a visitors center to sell snow globes.” He’s arguing that, in these economic times, other priorities come first.
Rep. Nick Mattiello (D, Cranston) opposes the amendment, because there have to be public funds to fund start-up costs. He just described outside visitors as “a constituency that we can serve.”
Mattiello called refusing the visitors center “a race to the bottom,” something (I might editorialize) about which Rhode Island is an expert.
Dan Gordon (R, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton) supports the amendment. “How dare we” spend public money for this, with no business plan, while our constituents are suffering.
Rep. John McCauley (D, Providence) argued against the amendment, but it wasn’t clear that he had anything more than jokes about the previous visitor center’s owners retiring near Baghdad.
Watson got up to suggest that McCauley had displayed what a joke the issue is, and how lightly the representatives take their duties and the hardships of Rhode Islanders. It quickly devolved into back-and-forth shouting about who’s been a bad example for Rhode Island, with Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) ultimately cutting their microphones and shouting, “I’m in control, here.”
When all settled down, Watson renewed his argument, and a female voice shouted out, “Shut up!”
Gordon started to say something about “bringing it,” but Fox knocked it down.
Rep. Jon Brien (D, Woonsocket) argued that the fact that the center would be in a public space meant an amendment requiring no public funds for it would inherently kill the initiative.
Mattiello said no funds will be appropriated by this bill; they would have to be applied subsequently in a budget appropriation.
Rep. Karen Macbeth (D., Cumberland) pointed out that gift shops create a line between haves and have nots during field trips.
Brien says there is, in fact, a business plan that was submitted to the relevant committee. He stressed that it will also be a visitor’s center.
The bill passed.
As they move on to the next bill and the pace slows down, I’d make two points:
1. What a shame that there’s so much heat expended on a visitors center and so little on critical issues that slip into the law, at least as seen by a relatively new observer.
2. The shouting match on the floor devolved into accusations about who has had troubles with the law; it was an excellent illustration of the problem with having representatives who’ve had trouble with the law. As the quick resort to ad hominem shows, it hurts credibility.
With the poor audio in the room, the large number of legislators, and my lack of familiarity with the legislation, I’m not going to make much effort to act as stenographer. As a general question, though, I wonder how often bills come to the floor and fail. It doesn’t seem to happen often, which is an indication that much too much of the real decision making happens behind the scenes.
Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R, North Smithfield, Burillville) and a variety of bipartisan speakers have argued that the next bill, H7323, will just increase the energy bills sent out by National Grid.
Watson is arguing that National Grid isn’t the villain, even as an effective monopoly. He says “National Grid is a victim” of the General Assembly’s social engineering, mandates, and so on.
A quick review of the bill suggests that its purpose is to let National Grid spread out money lost to unpaid bills across its customer base, rather than mark it down as bad debt. Mattiello asserts that this finishes out legislation passed last year. He argues it will mean that people will be able to keep their heat on.
Bill failed by about 10 votes. So much for the cynicism I expressed above!
Another critical bill, this one to designate an official sailing education ship or something.
There’s no electric outlet in the gallery, so I hope my batteries don’t run dry. Another reminder of how old this building is.
On the sailing bill, the most interesting comment has (again) been from Watson, who suggested that it resembles the way the International Institute of Sport began.
Pretty sure the bill passed. Now on to a bill to give Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum up to $3 million of tax exemption.
Watson joked that his initial thought was that he’d love to make his house a museum of post-war period architecture (presumably WWII). But researching and visiting the house in question changed his mind, and he supports the bill.
Newberry’s speaking… “I’m not sure this is the time” to be authorize tax exemptions, given the current debate, with Providence trying to get money out of non-profits.
Now on to the casino bill.
Rep. Russell Jackson is introducing it, explaining the amendment that the senate made (see the Current’s archives). Jackson’s saying the study required in the legislation “had already been done”; something about a “small discrepancy.” He said the existing report studied gaming in Newport, which is just plain wrong.
Watson: “This exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the thinking in this room.”
“This is not a destination casino; it’s a dump.” “It preys” on disadvantaged people. He described the giant, ugly sign “SLOTS” as soon as a visitor gets off the bridge. “It might as well say ‘Porn shop.'”
He says the state should turn away from gambling as a source of economic development.
“This is bad. This is immoral.” He’s not against gambling, but he’s against going into the gambling business (before they’ve helped the municipalities).
Gordon says the communities of the video slot parlors have been saying “no” to their expansion. He wants the state to find something new, not a model that’s failing in Connecticut.
Peter Petrarca (D, Johnston, Lincoln, Smithfield) got up and shouted, with a very scrunched-up, angry face, that it was “disgusting” of Watson, as a Republican, to deny people the option of gambling.
Charlene Lima (D, Cranston) makes a similar argument, saying they shouldn’t prevent the people from voting for a casino.
Joe Trillo (R, Warwick) supports chasing gambling revenue. “These moral arguments are really, really old.”
Rep. Peter Martin (D, Newport) says the town council wants it.
Gordon: We keep following failed strategies.
Passes with four against.
Now, on to the hearing mentioned in the title of the liveblog.
Two bills passed. The second with another last-minute amendment.
All other bills held for further study.
Several bills postponed, so maybe I won’t be here all night.
Rep. Lima is introducing 7590, which assists a local arborist in Cranston that appears to have had its license revoked.
Nicole Poepping, Dept. of Environmental Management Legislative Liaison, is describing the purpose of the Right to Farm Act. It sounds as if she’s arguing against the bill, on the grounds that it complicates the enforcement of farm rules and regulations by putting tree management (which “may have nothing to do with farming”) into an inapplicable category.
“This is about degrading a definition.”
Rep. Larry Ehrhardt asked if eliminating “mulching” from the bill would alleviate DEM’s concerns. Poepping said the definitions are too difficult to nail down.
In response to a question from Rep. Maria Cimini having to do with this particular Cranston business’s loss of license, Poepping’s pointing out that this bill doesn’t just affect one company.
Sean McAteer, lawyer for the company, is arguing that the business is clearly “agriculture… which is more than just farming.”
Rep. Lisa Tomasso asked if the company grows anything. The answer is that it does, but in small amounts.
Ehrhardt notes that the committee only has about a paragraph of the full law before them. [Note: inexpensive laptops might help that problem… I could look the laws up for him, if he wanted.]
Sounds like the underlying issue is that a resident is challenging the ten-year standing of the business as “agricultural.”
Rep. Teresa Tanzi asked how much of the business’s land is actually used to farm. About 20%.
Tanzi suggests that the Right to Farm law is meant to protect open space.
Up next, Richard Nicholson, New England Tree Service. (A lawyer.) His point is that this doesn’t expand any rights, but allows the business to continue its activities.
He’s claiming that an abutter wanted the business to buy his land for twice market value, insinuating that the challenge of its business is retaliation that will put 80 people out of businesses (if I heard right).
Tanzi asked if they want the legislature to be the police. The lawyer explained that he doesn’t know what the specifics of the complaint are beyond the claim that it’s not agriculture. The committee members are very interested in the specifics.
Lima is back up for rebuttal. “Not one neighbor has a complaint” except one person, who moved in after the business. Has made “vile threats” including against Lima, apparently.
Lima claims the man’s threats included an allusion to his connections at DEM. “Poof, the license is revoked.”
“You can’t give somebody a license and then change the rules of the game.”
Cimini expressed a desire to hone the language down so that it doesn’t open any doors.
Now to 7696, from Rep. John Carnevale. It sets some standards for small wind turbines for private construction.
He’s describing the units as very small, but some municipalities may not want a statewide regulations. Sounds like no other state has them, but he argues that some counties that are the size of RI do.
“They have 50% less noise than an air conditioner.”
Rep. Ehrhardt is calling the bill “a mandate” that requires municipalities to accept such wind turbines. His town has explicitly banned them.
Cimini asked if local inspectors are qualified to inspect the turbines as required. Carnevale said that it’s just a standard structural inspection.
Michael Puyana is speaking in favor of the bill on behalf of the RI Tea Party, explaining that it “keeps things in the hands of the individual citizen.”
Bob (something) says he’s a former high school teacher who now has an interest in wind turbines. Apparently, he has one at his house in Johnston. The town let him put it up, and then he worked with the town to create regulations.
His bedroom is 35 feet from the turbine, and it’s only woken him up once, during a bad wind storm, in four years.
He gets about 40% of his energy from it, and it paid for itself within 16 months. With technology, he says, the roof-top versions aren’t significantly different from the old antennas we all used to have on our houses. (Remember that, kids?)
“My wind turbine has no smoke stacks. There’s no oil in it.” He’s never had to perform any maintenance; his neighbors like the atmosphere that it creates.
Rep. Spencer Dickinson is asking technical questions about start-up costs and efficiency.
Today, the same unit would probably cost about $7,000. If the blade is barely moving, it’ll power a lightbulb. In a 12-mile-per-hour wind, it spins his electric meter backwards with the surplus.
The witness is arguing that certain areas will find it to be a waste of money.
Steven Fowler, a third-year engineering student, is testifying. He works with a wind blade manufacturer, and he’s testifying to the strength and other specs of the blades.
I’m sure this wind-turbine-blade-lesson is relevant, but Rep. Tomasso looks like she’s in the classroom at the beginning of Ferris Bueller (“anyone… anyone”) and Rep. Donna Walsh, who is running the meeting, is trying to urge the student along by conducting circles with her pen and saying, “uh-huh, uh-huh.”
On to the next 7803, which has to do with soil erosion.
Russell Chateauneuf, from DEM, is up. It’s nice to see a new range of lobbyists and bureaucrats by going to different committee hearings, but there’s definitely a wisdom (and luxury) in the large news organizations’ having beats for their reporters.
Now to 7911. Tomasso introduced it, but it comes from the governor’s office, so up now is: Director of Policy Brian Daniels.
The bill would integrate renewal energy with “workforce development strategies.”
Nobody had any questions, but Tomasso asked a very broad question (“explain what you mean by…”), and Daniels is offering what sounds like a prepared answer to a prepared question.
Jeffery Broadhead, Executive Director of the Washington County Regional Planning, is in favor of the bill.
Abigail Anthony is testifying for the bill. A quick Internet search shows her to be a Ph.D. student in the Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Department at the University of Rhode Island. Small state… as a side-job, I worked in the office of that department while a student at URI. That’s actually where I got my first, fatally addicting hit of Excel chart making (helping out with research papers). Pushers.
Not surprisingly, this committee gets a much younger set of witnesses than I’ve seen elsewhere. It also gets a lot more pre-written, read-out-loud technical testimony including a lot of names of organizations with long names.
Rep. Dickinson asks if RI’s high energy prices are going down.
Anthony says “we don’t have a lot of control” over the price of energy, but we can reduce demand. She’s giving a technical explanation that, essentially, using less energy allows suppliers to run only their less expensive generators. She says it’s a subtle, gradual effect. [A cynic might wonder what effect paying extra for wind energy has relative to it.]
Now, 7592. Rep. Gallison, the sponsor, isn’t hear, so Walsh is explaining that the bill would establish the East Bay Energy Consortium.
In brief, it allows the East Bay towns to go into the wind farm business, with a farm intended to be in Tiverton.
Up first is Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, Newport City Councillor and chair of the consortium. This late meeting is keeping her from a surprise party that she’s not supposed to know about it.
She’s explaining that the initial intent was for the towns to take responsibility for the millions of dollars of liability. This bill would skirt that by creating a quasi-governmental organization that can sell tax-free bonds.
My understanding of the issue is that the tax-free bond thing requires the group to have eminent domain power, for some reason, if it can’t tax or police. (So there you go.)
Napolitano: “When was the last time a piece of property was taken by eminent domain?” She notes that the airport hasn’t exerted eminent domain, despite all the battles. She assures everybody that the board hasn’t been looking into any private property (although a water district might have property in its sights).
So, yes, the consortium would be able to take land, but they assure everybody that they won’t.
Tomasso is saying that her constituents are still being affected by an eminent domain grab for a reservoir that never appeared. “Eminent domain is a dirty word.”
Napolitano’s counsel, Thomas Moses is saying that an amendment is being prepared that the consortium representative of a city or town will have veto power over an eminent domain decision within that town. [But what if the town isn’t part of the consortium? The bill doesn’t limit the consortium’s power to member communities. In fact, it explicitly provides for operations outside of them.]
Moses has explained that the type of bonds that they’ll be selling will not imply any responsibility of the state or the municipalities. They’d be solely funded by revenue from selling energy. (Of course, the group will also have to have an agreement to sell its energy for guaranteed profit to National Grid.)
There is no agreement, yet, with Tiverton for the wind turbines.
Ehrhardt has asked questions about the business model, and now he says he’s disturbed by a passage that exempts the group from regulations of the PUC. (Having looked at the bill, I’ll say that’s actually pretty far reaching.) But Moses suggested that the exemption is duplicative because the consortium will be covered through its agreement with National Grid. But more language will be in the amendment.
Rep. David Bennett says there’s too much info, so he’ll save his comments for further study.
Tanzi said they’re proposing to set a very low bar for eminent domain, even in the amendment. She suggested that the vote be required to be unanimous and town council approved. Moses says giving the town veto power would moot the power for the purposes of tax exemption.
Now Tiverton Town Council Member David Nelson is expressing some concerns with the bill, particularly eminent domain, and even that it would “chill competition.”
He’s suggesting making eminent domain more difficult. He’s also pointing out that “payments in lieu of taxes” are determined by the consortium if the town doesn’t come to agreement.
In its current form, he doubts that the consortium would pass the council.
In response to a question from Tomasso, Nelson says the town council received the bill for review two days before it was submitted to the General Assembly.
Nick Raby (?) from Bristol, a retired energy engineer, is “totally against every aspect of this bill.”
National Grid prices have gone down by 26% since 2009, partly because the state is becoming more efficient and partly because most of RI energy needs are filled with natural gas.
He says natural gas could go down so far in price that energy companies stop bothering to meter it.
“Clean, green natural gas.”
He thinks “the financing for this thing” comes from “incentivizing for renewable energy.” The GA has made the business of renewable energy “so inviting to opportunists” that they’re enabling them to “steal from their neighbors.”
He says the small groups involved in the programs will make a fortune, but the other 90% of the state will have to pay for the incentives.
He uses as an example a group that creates solar energy and sets its own price at 33-cents per kilowatt hour, versus 7 for regular energy.
The power purchase agreements, he says, are inflated and added to other consumers.
Andy Shapiro from Apex Wind. He’s an architect and is on a wind planning committee.
He’s describing the history of the project, with several entities (two of them fire districts) having been trying to negotiate lease rights to the same parcels.
“It’s been, up ’till now, a very pleasant experience,” because the competitors have been cordial.
Apex is willing to finance its project right now, without any state, local, or federal funding source.
He says he’s been waiting the four hours to testify because, though he agrees with much of the proposal, he opposes the eminent domain provision. He “has not been convinced” that “as serious a right as eminent domain” does not set “an incredibly dangerous precedent.”
He notes that Apex has experienced some pushback against wind development, and throwing an eminent domain story into the mix will galvanize further backlash.
He says that not one single turbine in production required the right of eminent domain. “EBEC must find a better financial solution.”
Ehrhardt clarifies that Apex is looking to do business on this same parcel. Shapiro included other sites, as well
Shapiro thinks Deepwater is a very negative example of what wind power should be in Rhode Island… the price, the lawsuits, etc.
Ehrhardt asks for a benchmark price of land-based wind. Shapiro 9 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour.
Some tension between representatives Tanzi and Dickinson when the latter asked about tower height and number. Shapiro says 8-10 towers at just under 500 feet.
Gerald Felise, who owns various properties and lives in Tiverton, opposes the legislation.
Felise began to read a long statement, that he also handed out, but Walsh asked him just to summarize it.
One important point is that EBEC would have statewide authority. It would “unfairly compete” with private energy companies.
Felise argues that the take for Tiverton will be losing money off of property taxes. He also notes that he owns 650 abutting acres.
“The legislation gives them the right to condemn private property anywhere in the state.”
Ehrhardt asked about the extent of Felise’s plans for the property. It apparently involves wind, solar, geothermal, battery storage.