Special Interest Legislation Needs to End

Guest Perspective

By Patty O’Donnell

As an involved Vermont citizen and legislator, I have watched with growing alarm the pride, willful ignorance, and just plain hubris of our “leadership” and their followers. I also accurately predicted what would happen if they continued to pass unconstitutional “feel good” laws. Passing laws that make special interests happy but violate the Vermont or U.S. Constitution or federal law is an expensive exercise in political immediate gratification. This reflects immaturity – something that we expect from teenagers, but when it manifests in adults, leads to failure.

To please some well-connected special interests, the Legislature passed a campaign finance law knowing that it was constitutionally questionable at best. Several years later, in 2007, it did so again with a law about data-sharing. Well-founded warnings were ignored. Both laws were struck down after years of expensive appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court as infringements on our cherished right to free speech. When I first took the oath of office, I never dreamed I was joining a body that would become a serial challenger to the First Amendment.

Perhaps after losing two such ill-considered court challenges, these reckless lawmakers thought they would become third-time lucky. So they flouted federal law and their own agreement to let the federal government oversee safety, and voted to close Vermont Yankee.

Not surprisingly, Vermont lost in federal court, again. And to me the amazing thing is that they still haven’t learned! The Attorney General has once again decided to embroil Vermont in a legal battle to fulfill his own personal and political agenda. By appealing a Judge’s very clear determination regarding the federal authority over the Vermont Yankee power plant, Attorney General Sorrell is proving that he is willing to take this fight to the highest court, regardless of what it will cost Vermonters. The Attorney General is once again acting on his own interests in the spirit of claiming he is doing what is best for Vermont. But if he listened to the people who work, live, and pay taxes in this state, he would hear their cries of desperation as they are forcefully dragged into a fight they don’t want to be a part of.

Every time the Legislature passes a law that pleases special interests but violates the constitution or federal statutes, Vermont loses. We lose time and money that could have, and should have, been used by those legislators to develop and pass laws truly in the public interest. With the Vermont Yankee lawsuit, Vermont is on the hook not only for the Attorney General’s Office staff time, but also potentially for Entergy’s $4.6 million in attorney’s fees, with a judge due to decide soon.

At a recent legislative hearing, it was suggested that the Attorney General’s office be asked whether legislation keeping energy prices artificially high might actually violate state law favoring least-cost power. Not one member of the party in control volunteered to even ask the question, presumably out of fear that to do so would seem to show disloyalty to the sacred cow of subsidized renewable power. I am proud to say that my successor as the representative from Vernon, Mike Hebert, stepped up and volunteered.

When our Attorney General adopts a “you win some, you lose some” lackadaisical attitude about losing a string of million-dollar cases, I wonder if he would feel the same way if it were his money. As a legislator, I fought daily against the Monopoly money illusion: it’s not real; it’s all just a game. In my day-to-day world, I know too many people who are working two and three jobs and are still crushed by the “High Cost of Everything,” including state taxes and electricity.

Vermonters deserve better. Our legislators need to change, or be exchanged.

The author is a businessperson and a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives from the Town of Vernon.