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Legislature plays defense on permit reform

05/19/03 12:00AM By Timothy McQuiston
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(McQuiston) Permit Reform. Few would argue that Act 250 doesn't need a reformation. After more than 30 years, the development control law has gotten out of control, or so many in business believe. The general public agrees that at least it needs a tune-up. I've even heard a preacher in the pulpit complain about Act 250.

But Act 250 isn't the only problem. There are local permits, water permits, and, from the businessperson's point of view, a bad attitude at the Agency of Natural Resources. Staffing shortages haven't helped either.

So with general agreement that something should be done, Governor Douglas had something of a mandate to make changes. Even the Democratic Senate seemed willing to take up the cause. They worked with the new governor on property tax relief and opposed raising the income tax. Next up would be Act 250. Make the process simpler and more predictable. Consolidate the environmental appeals process. No problem.

So, why has permit reform become a disaster? Nobody who does know is saying. And when I say nobody, I mean the Douglas administration. You see, despite the collegiality of the first few weeks of the current legislative session, Governor Douglas himself decided to preach from the pulpit on this one. The bully pulpit. He took his permit reform plan on the road instead of to the Senate.

Taking it to the people is a tactic usually reserved for a plan that's losing legislatively. Take for example President Bush stumping across the country in support of his tax cut plan. Congress initially balked at the size of the tax cut, so the president took it to the people. A compromise plan passed Congress last week.

But Governor Douglas didn't go to the Senate first. He went on the offensive. Now, if someone is playing offense, the other side is going to play defense. That is exactly what the Senate did. Senate leader Peter Welch bristled at the political attack. Now the plan looks like a hopeless mess.

Perhaps the governor figured that dismantling the Environmental Board and having all permit appeals, including for Act 250, go through the more legalistic Environmental Court, would meet stiff resistance in the Senate anyway. So why not go to the people first? Well, for one thing, it's a breach of political etiquette. For another, the state Senate is now talking about raising the income tax. So take that.

But politicians have a great way of compromising even when, as the governor put it, a line in the sand has been drawn. The session isn't over yet. A conference committee to sort out the differences has been appointed. For the business community, we'll just have to keep the faith that a reasonable compromise with real permit reform will get done. Start praying.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business magazine.
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