Advocates for Renewable Energy See Opportunity in Budget Veto Threat

Jun 19, 2015

A show-down over budget politics is brewing between New Hampshire’s Democratic Governor and Republican controlled Legislature.

Renewable energy advocates hope they can use it as an opportunity to convince budget writers to reconsider funneling money away from renewable incentives to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

But this could be the best deal they’ll get.

For starters, why does Homeland Security need more money?

The answer is a certain nuclear power plant in Vermont that shut down at the end of last year.

“We receive just under $1.5 million dollars from Vermont Yankee,” says Perry Plummer, Homeland Security’s director. That money goes to drills and planning for some kind of nuclear accident.

“But quite frankly we’ve been reaping the benefits of that because when we do planning yes we do planning for a nuclear incident but also we use those same planning activities for all hazards,” says Plummer.

Homeland security springs into action during ice-storms, floods, tornadoes… but to a certain point a disaster is just a disaster when it comes to how the state responds.

And now, with Vermont Yankee shut down, next year that money goes away. If that happens and the funds are replaced, Plummer says “we’d have to lay off 22 to 24 of our 43 people.”

Raiding Funds

The legislature has proposed plugging this new hole in Homeland Security’s budget with some of the money that is supposed to go toward incentivizing renewable energy.  It pays for rebates on solar panels, wood-pellet boilers and solar hot water tubes, mostly.

There is plenty of precedent for this; the legislature has habitually raided what are called “dedicated funds”.  Last budget cycle they took $16 million dollars out of the Renewable Energy Fund, and used it for general government expenses, and in the House’s proposed budget the fund was totally drained, to the tune of more than $50 million. Despite insistence that they wouldn’t do so, Senate Republicans have proposed taking $720,000 next year, and $1.5 million a year after that.

So renewable energy advocates hired lawyers, who investigated whether taking money from dedicated funds is legal.

“And the consensus is that it is not constitutional. It violates the fair and proportional clause of the constitution as it applies to taxation,” says Charlie Niebling a consultant who works in the wood pellet industry.

With the Governor now threatening to veto the budget, folks like Niebling think this is one more chance to get that $1.5 million a year back.

“If homeland security is an important and basic function of state government, then we should find open transparent and legitimate ways to fund it, not a backdoor raid on this fund where there’s no connection between the use and the existence of the fund,” he says.

A Good Compromise?

But it’s a long shot.

Governor Hassan has been talking about funding for things like education and infrastructure.

Money to the renewable energy fund may not be a big priority in any negotiations that happen.

And some who would like to see the fund restored say going back to the negotiating table might not work out so well.

“I quite honestly think there’s a real risk of winding up in a worse position in the future than where they are right now,” says engineer and architect Harold Turner.

Turner says while it’s not great to lose $1.5 million out of the renewable energy fund, it’s better than the prospect of seeing the fund completely wiped out.

“Well if you defined a good outcome of a bill as one in which everybody is not happy, quite frankly you know you’ve reached a compromise that is a good compromise,” he continues

While there’s been noise about a lawsuit over these recurring raids of renewable energy dollars, someone has to pay the high-powered constitutional lawyers, and it remains to be seen whether getting back that $1.5 million dollars is really worth the trouble to anybody.