Liberal, Irreverent

Monday, March 28, 2011

Vermont Progressive Party News

Legislative Update: NRC's VY License Extension

This past week, Rep. Sarah Edwards of Brattleboro and a group of Windham County legislators representing communities in close proximity to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant issued a resolution at a press conference.  They expressed deep regret at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) failure to delay action on the Vermont Yankee license extension, especially pending lessons that will be learned from the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan.  They called for the NRC to rescind the issuance of a 20-year license until the catastrophe unfolding in Japan is better understood.  President Obama and the NRC issued statements supporting a wait and see approach, yet the NRC went ahead and issued the license, contradicting its own advice. 
The plant, owned by the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation, is the same vintage (1972) and design (Mark 1) as the besieged reactors in Japan.  The NRC originally announced it would issue a 20-year license extension for the plant the day before the earthquake and subsequent meltdown began in Japan, and they put the final stamp of approval on a few days later.
 Vermont Yankee has some of the same vulnerabilities and weaknesses as the Japanese Fukushima plants. As far back as 1972 the industry has known that there is a significant weakness in the Mark 1 reactor: if a Mark 1 reactor's cooling system failed, the fuel rods would overheat and, as a result, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would burst, spilling radiation into the environment.

In addition, a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission said in 1972 that the Mark 1 system should be discontinued because, among other concerns, the smaller containment design is more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup of hydrogen, which may be the case at Fukushima Dai-ichi.

Legislators cited NRC Chairman Jackzo’s comments from last Monday: "Today everybody is worried about the spent fuel pools. Until this (the Japanese crisis) is resolved we are not going to ultimately know what the most important factors are in terms of what needs to be addressed."  Vermont Yankee uses the same sort of pool to cool the highly radioactive spent nuclear-fuel rods as the ones now in danger of releasing radiation at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. The VY spent fuel pool is located up seven stories and has no containment other than a reinforced metal roof.

The legislators were joined by Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland.  Dr. Makhijani is a national expert on nuclear energy and has served as a consultant on energy issues to utilities including the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Edison Electric Institute, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and several agencies of the United Nations.

Legislative Update: Chronology of shifting excuses

Three weeks ago, Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barry City), one of the more progressive members of the House, approached our caucus and asked if we were interested in working together to raise important questions about revenue and the budget. They were. 

They attempted to launch a discussion before the tax bill and the budget reached the floor, because by then it's usually too late. Besides, any amendment to increase spending during the budget debate can't include new taxes or it gets ruled non-germain (the budget bill is a spending bill, not a revenue bill). They decided to approach the chairs of House Appropriations and House Ways and Means to see if they would be willing to meet with any and all members of the House to discuss what many of us believe is a painful situation for our state. 

As this idea was explored, House leadership returned with a different proposal: a joint hearing with the Appropriations and Ways & Means committees where only members of the House could testify. This handed control to leadership but sounded like a good idea, so they agreed. 

A week later this hearing was scuttled. Instead the three at the head of the revenue discussion (Reps. Pearson, Donovan and Poirier) were invited into the tiny Ways & Means committee to testify.

A day later the tax bill came out without increasing taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters. Folks said next year could be even worse and we had better hold off on raising taxes now. Of course H.401 doesn't take effect until Jan 2012 anyway.

During floor debate they tried to amend the tax bill to ask the Vermonters who will save $190 million this year thanks to the Bush tax cut extension to share some savings with Montpelier. No dice. Leadership especially disliked the idea that our amendment would be retroactive to Jan. 2011. 

By late last week the House was debating the budget. While House Approps should be commended for restoring half of the cuts to many important programs, we need to find a way to keep other cuts from happening. This is the fourth year in a row. We have cut 10% of the state workforce. When is enough enough?

To restore these cuts Rep. Poirier suggested a floor amendment that used $11 million in rainy day funds to draw down another $10 million in federal funds and make important programs whole. 

This time leadership said you can't use the rainy day funds, because it was irresponsible. At the same time, leadership commented in caucus how much folks care and how proud of the budget they are. Hey, these are tough times. 

Faced with a certain loss over the rainy-day strategy, Rep. Poirier went back to the drawing board, found unused money in the tobacco fund and returned with an amendment that didn't rely on new revenue or rainy day money. 

This time the objection was zeroing out the tobacco fund. Democratic leaders suggested this was like "burning the furniture" to stay warm. Hard to understand since the tobacco fund earns about $30 million a year. It's like burning the furniture if Ikea makes a monthly home delivery. 

In the end, attempts to start the conversation early where thwarted just like the attempts to responsibly amend bills on the floor. But hey, several democrats offered vote explanations telling voters that despite their "no" votes, they feel your pain. And if the budget and tax package they support isn't corrected in the Senate, you will have a lot more pain for them to feel in the coming year.

From the Media: Vt. House gives initial OK for $24M in tax hikes

"Sen. Tim Ashe of Chittenden County said that when the miscellaneous tax bill makes its way to the Senate, he will seek to amend it to get the state to do a better job collecting taxes from the seven Vermonters who reported incomes higher than $1 million in the 2009 tax year and paid nothing in state income taxes."

From the Blog: Tax Amendment Fails

"Taking this cue from leadership, several others who voted against the amendment did so hoping that it would be brought up at some future time. You can read their comments here. None of those explaining that their "no" votes are really "yeses" voted against those tax cuts for those wealthiest of Vermonters in 2009."

From the Media: Universal health care bill passes, 89-47

"All Vermont residents would be eligible to receive an “essential” health benefit package; health insurance companies would be effectively cut out of the game and relegated to a peripheral role in the new system; and cost containment measures would be designed to push the system toward fiscal sustainability. All this would be accomplished under an ambitious, three-year timeline."

From the Blog: Leading With Retreat

"How big a majority is needed before abandoning the idea that you lead with retreat? If the Republicans were down to one member in the house, would we still be watering down legislation to try (and fail) to get that one vote?"

Vermont Progressive Party
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