Douglas pushes Senate to pass permit reform bill

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(Host) The battle over permit reform has intensified at the Statehouse. Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch accused Governor Jim Douglas of playing politics with an Act 250 permit reform bill. Douglas denied the charge and urged the Senate to pass out a comprehensive bill this year.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) It’s clear that Senate Democratic leaders and the governor are engaged in a high stakes fight to win public support on the issue of permit reform. Douglas is backing a bill that’s expected to be on the House floor for debate later this week.

It consolidates all appeals to an expanded Environmental Court, it makes agency permits binding in Act 250 review, and it redefines which groups can appeal decisions made at the local level.

In the past few weeks, the governor has used a number of high profile speeches to urge the Senate to take action on the bill this year. On Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch said he was amazed at the governor’s comments because the House hasn’t even voted on the bill yet. Welch says the House has reviewed the bill for over three months and he says it will be very difficult for the Senate to consider the legislation in just a few weeks:

(Welch) “So if the debate now – on an issue as vitally important to Vermont’s future to our environment and to our economy – on permit reform goes on a political fast track and is considered for political reasons as opposed to the substantive policy problems that have to be addressed, then Vermont’s going to lose. A short term political victory is a long term substantive disaster.”

(Kinzel) Welch says the Senate Natural Resources committee has been working hard on legislation that reforms the local permitting process. That bill is set to be debated this week in the Senate. Welch insists that the Senate is not going to rubber stamp the House plan just for the sake of passing an Act 250 reform bill this year:

(Welch) “And what I’m saying is, we’re not to pass that bill or any bill just because the drumbeat of political warfare is being beaten by the governor.”

(Kinzel) Douglas denied that he’s playing politics with this bill and he urged the Senate to take this issue up as soon as possible:

(Douglas) “But I remain concerned that Senate Democrats do not intend to pass a permit reform bill this year and they’re using some unfounded excuses to defend their inaction. The tone of their remarks indicates that they don’t understand the difficult problems our people are facing with the permitting system and what’s needed to resolve these challenges.”

(Kinzel) Douglas says he believes there’s still time in this session for the Senate to consider the Act 250 permit reform bill. Senator Welch says he wants all of the appropriate committees in the Senate to have an opportunity to look at this legislation because he has serious concerns about it. Welch says he’s not sure that a final bill can be ready by the time the Legislature is ready to adjourn.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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