2021 Legislative Wrap-Up

The Vermont legislature has officially wrapped up its work for the session, and once again VPIRG’s research, member engagement, and advocacy efforts paid off. We were incredibly successful in this “virtual” session, going toe-to-toe against some of the most powerful corporate lobbyists in the state. We’re pleased to announce that a number of our top priority bills have become law and others just await the governor’s signature. This includes landmark achievements like universal vote by mail and the most comprehensive ban on toxic PFAS in the country, as well as major investments in climate action, broadband, and more.

Some of our priority bills passed one chamber this year – like Bottle Bill modernization and a ban on corporate political contributions – and we’re already gearing up for next session to ensure they make it across the finish line. Check out the full rundown of where we stand at the close of an unprecedented 2021 legislative session below.

Environmental Health

Bottle Bill Modernization – The original Bottle Bill was a landmark piece of legislation that has grown to become Vermont’s most effective recycling law, with nearly 100% of redeemed containers being recycled each year. Compare that to the 18,000 tons of glass collected in curbside programs that Chittenden Solid Waste District secretly dumped because it was too contaminated to market. The Bottle Bill works, but since it was passed almost 50 years ago, it’s time to modernize it.

The big news is that after decades of trying to update the law, we finally got a great bill passed out of the House on April 16th! The bill (H.175) would bring Vermont’s bottle redemption system up to date by expanding it to include more beverage containers such as water bottles, hard cider, wine, and sports drinks.

Over many weeks of testimony, VPIRG’s Paul Burns and Marcie Gallagher led the charge, working with key legislators to pass H.175 through three House committees and the full House. We were aided by compelling testimony from environmental experts, allies in the recycling industry, and support from VPIRG members across the state. For the first time in decades, we were able to overcome the ferocious opposition of the beverage industry giants to win with an impressive 99-46 vote. The bill will move to the Senate next session, beginning January 2022.

Knowing that our corporate opponents will redouble their efforts to try to kill the bill in the months ahead, we chose the Bottle Bill as our 2021 Summer Canvass Campaign. Generating huge grassroots support for this bill throughout the summer is the best way to ensure that we get it passed and signed by the governor next year. If you get a call or an in-person visit from a canvasser, make sure to share your support for the Bottle Bill!

Banning Harmful PFAS Chemicals – Great news! S.20, now Act 36, passed the Legislature and was signed by Governor Scott on May 19th. This law is the strongest of its kind in the country and will protect public health by banning toxic PFAS chemicals from certain consumer products including food packaging, firefighting foam, ski wax, and rugs/carpets. Introduced by Senators Ginny Lyons and Brian Campion, the bill passed unanimously through the full Senate and the full House.

Marcie Gallagher testified in support of S.20 in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the House Human Services Committee. She worked closely with our allies including Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Conservation Voters, Professional Firefighters of Vermont, and Seventh Generation, to build support for the legislation over weeks of testimony. At each step, we countered the opposition from chemical manufacturers and other industry lobbyists, but ultimately the strengths of the bill prevailed!

Testing for Radon and PCBs in Schools – Two years ago, VPIRG successfully pressed to have school drinking water systems tested regularly for lead. This year, we supported further protections for Vermont’s children by backing new requirements in H.426 requiring schools to be tested for radon and PCBs. This will help to identify toxic threats and keep children safe.

Racial Justice

Cultural Liaisons – In addition to working diligently to center equity and justice throughout our work in our other program areas, VPIRG began over the past year to work directly on other issues of racial justice. This session, we’re happy to report that a small but meaningful provision making it easier for municipalities and school districts to fund cultural liaisons to work with students and their families (primarily those with limited English proficiency) passed as part of S.115. These liaisons are a vital component of our communities working with limited English proficiency families all year long, and the provision VPIRG supported in S.115 will make it easier to get their positions funded, and compensated fairly for their year-round work.

Democracy

Universal Vote-by-Mail – VPIRG’s top priority in 2021 was strengthening our democracy, and we started with legislation to keep universal vote-by-mail in place for all future general elections. The policy of mailing a ballot to all registered voters was employed as a one-time emergency measure in 2020. It was a huge success last year, contributing to record-breaking voter turnout — almost 45,000 more votes were cast in 2020 than in any previous Vermont election.

Three out of every four votes were cast early in 2020, mostly by mail. Furthermore, voting from home was found to be safe, simple, secure, and overwhelmingly popular. A statewide poll done in February found that 68% of Vermont voters wanted to keep vote-by-mail in place, while also preserving local in-person voting options.

The legislation, S.15, passed by wide margins in both the Senate and House. In addition to requiring ballots to be mailed for general elections, it will also establish a ballot curing process so small errors (like failing to sign the inner envelope when returning a ballot) can be fixed by voters. The Secretary of State will also be directed to work with municipalities and interested stakeholders on greater language access for non-English speaking Vermonters.

While Vermont Republicans were split on the measure, nearly every Democrat, Progressive and Independent voted for it. The broad support for making voting easier stands in stark contrast to the voter suppression laws being passed by Republican-led legislatures in states around the country. Gov. Scott is expected to sign this bill into law.

Corporate Campaign Contribution Ban – VPIRG strongly supports legislation passed by the Senate (S.51) that would ban campaign contributions by corporations and identify ways to improve the state’s public campaign finance options. Similar legislation has passed the Senate in the past two legislative biennia, only to stall in the House. Once again this year, the House has delayed action on this legislation. Please consider contacting your Representative(s) using this page to let them know how important this issue is.

Yes on 4 Burlington (Ranked Choice Voting) – On Town Meeting Day this year, 64% of Burlington voters favored a VPIRG-backed charter change to adopt ranked-choice voting (RCV) in city council races. The full legislature must approve the charter change in order for it to take effect and that did not happen this year. We’ll be back pressing for this approval in 2022. VPIRG is also supporting RCV for federal races and the next presidential primary in Vermont.

H.10 – Remove barriers to running for office – On April 13th, the governor signed into law H.10, a bill that allows candidates to use campaign funds to cover dependent care while campaigning. This lowers barriers and opens doors to running for office for underrepresented groups like women, single parents, and working families.

Climate and Energy

Climate Action in the Budget – The legislature committed to the most significant investments in climate action in its history in this year’s budget bill, with two big actions. First, they devoted $46 million to direct climate spending. Second, they laid out in no uncertain terms that over the next three years, they will be devoting $250 million to cutting Vermont’s climate pollution.

Among the direct investments the legislature authorized on climate action, $23 million will go to weatherization, with big investments in job training and low-income weatherization; $10 million for a new “Affordable Community-Scale Renewable Energy Program”; $5 million for the Clean Energy Development Fund, which will be used to further advance equity and climate action; and $1.5 million for the Community Action Agencies to hire energy & financial advisors to work with low-income Vermonters.

Beyond those significant investments, the commitment to spend at least $250 million over the next three years on climate action and climate justice laid out in this year’s budget puts the foundation in place for the success of the Vermont Climate Council’s upcoming Vermont Climate Action Plan, due to be released in December. Created last year by the Global Warming Solutions Act, the Vermont Climate Council is tasked with laying out a plan to hit Vermont’s legally required climate pollution targets, and we’re excited to see the legislature commit to such a significant down payment on that work’s success.

Of course, there is no question that we must identify sustainable, long-term funding sources for ongoing climate action. And there are numerous other policies that will have to complement these investments for Vermont to truly get on track to hit its climate requirements. For today though, we celebrate a job well done by the legislature. Read our full rundown on climate action in the budget here.

Transportation Modernization / Transportation Bill – Championed by a host of legislators, VPIRG’s amazing members, and our many allies, this year’s Transportation Bill contains the most significant investments to cut Vermont’s transportation pollution yet, while advancing our goal of creating a more accessible and affordable transportation system for all Vermonters. The Transportation Modernization Package includes almost $12 million for programs ranging from electric vehicle incentives to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, to zero-fare public transit and EV charging infrastructure*, with almost all of those investments aimed directly at reducing inequality in the transportation sector and costs for low-income Vermonters.* The bill also starts a process to create the “transportation equity framework” we’ve been working to make happen.

This package is another step in the right direction for climate action in Vermont – and one that we must build on in a big way next year.

For more details on the transportation modernization package, check out our full update here.

Yes on 3 & 7 Burlington – On Town Meeting Day, Burlington voters overwhelmingly approved a charter change, question 3, that will allow the city more local control to take on climate pollution coming from buildings by assessing a carbon impact fee (that voters would need to approve in a separate election). It is a critical measure to move towards building electrification and a tool for the city to meet its Net Zero by 2030 climate goals. Unfortunately, the legislature did not act to approve this or the other Burlington charter changes. We will be pushing hard next legislative session to see them taken up and passed quickly.

EV Service Centers (S.47) – We’re glad to report that S.47, which will allow electric vehicle manufacturers to open up service centers in Vermont, was passed by the legislature and is on its way to the Governor. This bill eliminates a pointless barrier to EV adoption in Vermont and a significant inconvenience for the owners of EVs who found themselves unable to get all their repairs done in-state.

Consumer Protection

High Speed Internet – The legislature has sent H.360 – the broadband bill – to the governor’s desk.

This VPIRG-supported bill represents the most significant investment in state history toward bringing world-class broadband internet service to every Vermonter—an investment made possible by federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

But perhaps as important as the funding itself is what entities will receive these funds.

Rather than direct precious resources to the same large telecoms that have failed to deliver affordable, reliable internet access to every Vermonter, H.360 invests in community-based solutions.

H.360 ensures that the $150 million broadband investment contained in the budget will go to the state’s Communications Union Districts and small telecom providers. Even more critically, it ensures that the funding will only go to entities that have a plan to provide universal service in their territories.

Right to Repair – The agricultural right-to-repair bill (S.67) did not advance this session, but we’re not giving up. If enacted, S.67 would require agricultural equipment manufacturers to provide farmers, on fair and reasonable terms, access to the tools, parts, and documentation necessary to fix the equipment they own.

This legislation seeks to address the growing problem of repair monopolies whereby manufacturers limit access to essential repair resources, forcing consumers (in this case farmers) to rely solely on the manufacturer for repairs. This means repairs that could be addressed by the farmer themselves or at a local independent repair shop instead become costly and time-consuming endeavors. If you or someone you know has dealt with agricultural repair monopolies, let us know!