A Banana Republic in Southern Vermont?

In this year of noise over imaginary voter fraud, little ol’ Vermont is confronting it’s own situation of questionable efforts to influence a vote.

Wind-developer Iberdrola of Spain is offering a cash incentive to all adult Windham and Grafton residents if, in an upcoming referendum, the voters come down in favor of its proposal to construct 24 turbines in the two towns.

Now, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Wind is a useful alternative to fossil fuel so long as the siting is responsible and well-considered Those determinations should be made by disinterested professionals. Local representatives of the people have an obligation to consider both those professional opinions and the sentiments of their constituents in making a final decision. I also understand that the popular vote in Windham/Grafton is non-binding.

Nevertheless, it sets a poor precedent for the permit process, and potentially for other processes going forward, when what is tantamount to a bribe is allowed to influence the vote.

I understand the argument that says this is a way to ensure that compensation for hosting the towers will reach all residents by equal parts; but if that were the only goal, there are other ways to handle this after public opinion has been fairly sampled.

After the case for and against has been heard and a public opinion vote taken without undue influence, if the project is deemed unobjectionable, then is the time to discuss the particulars of compensation.

If it becomes the habit to offer this kind of cash incentive in order to grease the wheels of voter “opinion” there could be unexpected consequences.

Should a project succeed in the permitting process only because popular support has been bought by the developer, and despite valid opposition by those most affected, some important values will have been compromised. Should that project then prove a huge mistake for the community as a whole, the fundamental principle of public input could be permanently undermined.

I was grateful to read Secretary of State Jim Condos’ carefully chosen words about the more egregious proposal to make payments only to registered voters. Certainly the current proposal that extends to all permanent resident adults is more equitable, and even arguably less of a direct bribe to voters.

Nevertheless, menace to the process is still very real in this arrangement; and, since the bribes are being offered by a foreign corporation, there is an ironic echo of colonial exploitation in the whole affair.

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

3 thoughts on “A Banana Republic in Southern Vermont?

  1. Sue, while I’m happy to say we agree on this subject, I’d like to offer just a little more to the discussion. Our state constitution sets the intent of our statute. Chapter 1, Article 8 declares: “That all elections ought to be free and without corruption.” The statute, 17 V.S.A. §2017, reads in pertinent part: “A person who attempts by bribery, … or any undue influence to dictate, control, or alter the vote of a freeman or freewoman about to be given at a local, primary, or general election shall be fined not more than $200.00.”

    Some folks are wrestling with this question using only “bribery” as the focal point, and it appears you have done so here as well. But the statute also talks about “undue influence,” a term that doesn’t quite have the same criminal aura about it that bribery does.

    If we eliminate the emotion wrapped around the nature of this particular project, the facts are easier to read. A foreign corporation proposes a project that will benefit it financially if accepted. It then says it will only go forward if the town votes in favor. Prior to the vote, the corporation offers direct monetary payments to registered voters if the project is approved. (For those who think I’m biased against industrial wind, you are right. But before you dismiss this response outright, for the purpose of this exercise just pretend the Koch brothers proposed a coal-fired power plant for downtown Montpelier.)

    It would be hard to argue that this offer isn’t an attempt to “influence” the outcome. The only remaining question is whether it is “undue.” Prior to AG Duane’s decision/opinion, this question would be given to a jury. Now, a jury will never get it. This is terrible precedent. This isn’t an argument about green versus brown power, and the statute shouldn’t be nullified based on the nature of the project. Liberals, conservatives and everybody in between should be concerned about this, since it is an open invitation for the rich to purchase what they want in our electoral process. Thanks for writing this essay.

    1. I think the Koch Brothers might be more apt to attempt to influence the legislators (ALEC,RSLC etc.) and “adjust” the legislation rather than target voters-but I understand the clever twist to your argument.

  2. What if it was an enhanced PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes)? What if Iberdrola offered to pay double or triple their assessed property taxes? Hm. Well, that feels different. I’ll bet that most people wouldn’t be alarmed by that.

    The financial effect would be the same – more cash in the pockets of Windham and Grafton residents. It’s just laundered through the town coffers and offered as a savings.

    Of course, in any event Iberdrola would have to pay its normal property taxes, which would result in lower taxes for local residents. The difference in these scenarios is:

    1) Iberdrola paying the minimum it is required to pay versus what it voluntarily pays beyond that.
    2) Iberdrola paying the town government versus paying residents directly and individually.

    Iberdrola is not trying to influence an election, so 17 V.S.A. §2017 doesn’t apply. The votes are non-binding – essentially polls. Grafton and Windham residents can weigh the pros and cons of a wind farm alongside the financial benefit the project offers.

    If Iberdrola was offering voters money to back a wind-friendly candidate, or slipping bribes to select board members in return for their binding votes, that would be a prosecutable offense.

    I also find it inconsistent that so much hand-wringing occurs over the “colonialism” of wind companies given the impositions and political influence of the oil companies, drug companies, banks, insurers, and national retailers that affect our lives far more on a daily basis. My guess is that it is because it’s hard to do much locally about any of those players, but we can stick it to the wind companies.

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