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Rep. Brian Ohler Rated Strong on Environment

Talking With Our Legislators

 

By Susannah Wood

State Representative Brian Ohler (R, 64th Dist.) was pleased, when we spoke in November, to have been recently named an Environmental Champion by the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters. The League credits him with being key to passage of an herbicide transparency bill that would give towns along the Housatonic Railroad a chance to review and appeal yearly plans for spraying to keep the tracks clear of vegetation. When pressed on whether he will be proactive in getting towns to review the plans, he said his role was getting the legislation passed. He has reached out to the first selectmen of Falls Village and Cornwall to let them know of the new law and says he will be paying attention come February to see if the protocols are being followed.

He would also like to see herbicide spraying ended along state roads, given that “when they spray, it kills everything and it looks terrible for months.” I brought up the problem of invasive species to which he replied that there are other and often better methods of control than wholesale spraying, though he acknowledges these are more labor-intensive.

This was one of the very few environmental achievements of the session. Partly because of the budget morass, many bills faded away without action. According to the League, lack of action by the Environment Committee was also part of the reason so little was accomplished. One last-minute budget amendment Ohler said he did not support was a rollback of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection ability to review and approve applications. Applications will be approved automatically after 90 days, even if there are still concerns or unresolved questions. Ohler said this is “asking for more harm than good.” He did vote for another business-friendly bill, which ultimately failed, that would allow a company to avoid penalties for first-time violations if the problem were remediated within 30 days.

Another bill that stalled out was a permanent ban on the transportation and use of toxic waste from shale fracking. Connecticut has no shale deposits, but waste could come in from other states nearby. A temporary moratorium was due to run out in 2017, and Ohler was part of a large majority in the House that voted in favor of the permanent ban. The bill was not taken up in the Senate. Over 20 towns have issued their own bans on the waste, which can be used in road resurfacing materials. Ohler said any ban should clearly exempt the relatively benign waste from fracking for water.

The first-ever State Water Plan was released for comment this fall, laying out strategies for managing water resources going forward. Legislation is likely to emerge from the plan. Ohler said he had not looked at this yet. Nor did he have any comments on the newly released Comprehensive Energy Strategy other than to say he has not heard much from constituents on this issue. To the charge that the plan lacks a strong commitment to renewable resources, he replied that he’s “a big proponent” of renewables and mentioned that North Canaan has just purchased land near its school and transfer station for a solar array to serve the school and some of the town buildings, providing big savings in energy.

An attempt to improve and update the existing bottle-deposit program stalled in the legislature. Ohler said he was in favor of the program because of its environmental benefits and its role in providing a funding stream for all sorts of community programs. That said, he voted in committee to replace the current program, a course that the beverage industry favors and that would put local redemption centers out of business. He defended this vote by saying the bill should be debated by the full house.

He also said, when asked, that he would like to improve on his League of Conservation score (64 percent) in the next session, which begins in February 2018. But he pointed out that the coming session will be short and that the bills proposed may not have a financial impact.

A hot topic for some Connecticut voters is the National Popular Vote, a way of circumventing the electoral college in national elections without a constitutional amendment. States would make a compact to dedicate their electors to whichever candidate won a majority of votes nationwide. Advocates say this would restore a true one person, one vote system to presidential elections. Although Ohler received a lot of constituent pressure to support the National Popular Vote at the beginning of the year, he remains undecided on the issue and says that he sees both sides.

Ohler says he is a strong supporter of a bi-partisan approach to redistricting. (Currently in Connecticut, the legislature draws up electoral districts. In some states, bi-partisan commissions have been set up as a way to minimize gerrymandering by either major party.)

We ended our conversation with a discussion of Ohler’s plans for next session. He is going to conduct a traffic study in conjunction with the State Police, the Department of Transportation, community leaders and first responders to address the many fatal accidents on Route 44. He also wants to facilitate University of Hartford’s plan to set up a four-year program in Torrington, which he feels would be an important draw for young families. Other than that, his main concern is bringing more business to the northwest corner and being “a big cheerleader” for our part of the state.

This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Rep. Ohler. Part 1 was printed in the Dec. 2017-Jan. 2018 issue of Norfolk Now.

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