Senate Committee Uses Rare Tactic to Halt Power-Plant Bills

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Hopes of stopping the proposed Burrillville power plant were halted in their tracks by a rare vote to reject opposition legislation from a Senate committee.

On June 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee delivered a quick and relatively orchestrated rebuke of House (H8240) and Senate (S3037) bills that would have allowed residents to vote on a tax deal between the Burrillville Town Council and Invenergy LLC, the owner and developer of the proposed natural-gas power plant.

In a hearing room crowded with power-plant opponents and leaders of several construction unions who support the project, members of the committee repeated their stances from a June 8 hearing that the bills set a precedent that would allow residents across the state to challenge every project agreed to by elected municipal officials.

“I think that we would be flooded with every local issue that is controversial; we would then be asked to legislate it out of the community,” Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, said.

Lombardi also held up a resolution passed by the Burrillville Town Council opposing the legislation and supporting a veto by Gov. Gina Raimondo, who promised to veto the bills.

Lombardi cited the 1996 Rhode Island Supreme Court case, Warwick Mall Trust vs. the State of Rhode Island, that protects tax treaties established by governing bodies from local referendums.

“Basically, the Supreme Court found that quite contrary to the requests being made here, that approval by an electorate of a decision regarding taxes violates the constitution of the State of Rhode Island,” Lombardi said.

Sen. William Conley Jr., D-East Providence, described the effects of the legislation as “horrible tax policy and horrible public policy.”

The 7-2 vote of “recommendation of no passage” by the committee is unusual because bills that are deemed unfavorable by leadership in the General Assembly are typically left to languish or "die in committee" and expire without a vote when the legislative session ends. In this case, the rare no-passage vote kills the bills and staves off an expected high-profile campaign by environmental activists and residents who oppose the power plant to pressure Raimondo and lawmakers to advance the legislation.

After the vote, Burrillville resident Jason Olkowski, one of the organizers of the opposition movement, said he and others will focus on challenging the application for the power-plant project being reviewed by the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB). Specifically, they will look at the polluted well that Invenergy plans to use to cool the nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant.

A public meeting is scheduled with Raimondo in Burrillville on July 18. Twelve state agencies and state and local offices will issue advisory opinions to the EFSB by Sept. 12. Several of those groups are expected to hold public meetings. The Office of Energy Resources will host a public hearing July 21 on the climate-change impacts created by the proposed power plant.

The EFSB is expected to rule on the application by the end of this year or early in 2017.