You may have heard that the just-completed 2016 legislative session was lacking in big ideas or major accomplishments. While it’s true that the looming election and pending retirement of many prominent legislators was a distraction this year, it did not prevent real progress on a number of important fronts.
That’s important because many of the challenges we’re facing as a state, nation and planet cannot wait for the political winds to be perfect. We have to keep moving forward. At VPIRG, we overcame the political obstacles we faced and won important victories in each of our program areas this year.
Among our many 2016 successes, VPIRG was critical in helping pass laws that will:
- Expand our dental workforce and give more Vermonters access to critically important dental care.
- Strengthen our democracy by bringing thousands of new voters into the electoral process through automatic voter registration.
- Empower even more Vermonters to take part in the process of moving our state toward a clean, renewable energy future.
And we did this the same way we have for more than forty years – using a proven combination of informed advocacy and unbelievable grassroots power from the 40,000+ strong VPIRG supporters across the state.
The tools and technology we’ve used over the years have changed, but that recipe for success remains the same.
Read on below for a more detailed update on the issues VPIRG worked on in the 2016 legislative session – and if you appreciate this work, please consider chipping in $30+ to help VPIRG continue fighting for the public interest!
S.20 Dental Therapists: After more than three years of work, VPIRG helped pass legislation that will allow dental therapists to offer care to Vermonters. Dental therapists will have a scope of practice that is greater than a hygienist’s, but smaller than that of a dentist, and will perform common procedures such as cleanings, fillings and routine extractions. These providers have been shown to improve access to first class care, and are already part of the dental team in more than 50 countries around the world, as well as Minnesota and Alaska.
H.620 Increasing Access to Contraceptives: VPIRG worked closely with our partners at Planned Parenthood to pass legislation that will improve access to birth control for all Vermonters. Because of this law, Vermonters are now guaranteed access to contraceptives beyond what’s included in the Affordable Care Act, including vasectomies. Women will now be able to get up to a full year’s prescription for oral contraceptives, and it will be easier to access long acting reversible contraceptives, which have been shown to dramatically reduce unplanned pregnancies.
H.458 Automatic Voter Registration Vermont became the 4th state in the nation to adopt Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) when Gov. Peter Shumlin signed H.458 into law on April 28th. AVR brings voter registration into the modern era by automatically registering Vermont citizens as voters when they apply for or renew their driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), unless they decline to register. The new law is expected to help increase voter participation, improve the accuracy of the voter rolls and save the state money. It had unanimous support in the Senate and just one vote against it in the House.
S.184 Ethics and Pay-to-Play: One of the biggest disappointments of the legislative session was lawmakers’ failure to create a state ethics commission, establish a code of ethics, and prohibit so-called pay-to-play activity where state officials receive contributions and hand out contracts to the same person or corporation. From scandals to scuttlebutt, legislators had more than enough justification to pass reform legislation this year. The only silver lining was that the light that VPIRG helped to shine on the need for ethics reform did cause the Senate to finally adopt its own ethical standards, following the earlier leadership of the House.
ENERGY AND CLIMATE
S.230 Renewable Energy Siting: S.230 will empower Vermont’s towns and regions to take on a greater role in Vermont’s clean energy transition and get a greater say in the siting of energy projects provided they write plans that clearly advance our state’s renewable energy and climate goals. Almost as important as what the bill includes is what it does not — namely, a de facto moratorium on wind power. Added in the closing days of the legislative session, a backdoor moratorium was stripped from the bill just hours before the session ended. The bill also includes a “preferred locations pilot” program that will get 2.5 MW of new renewables built on places that are either already developed in some other way (commercial rooftops, gravel pits, etc.) or are explicitly designated by towns as “preferred.” Half of that will be solar located on parking lot canopies.
2050 Goals: In January, the Department of Public Service released the updated Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, which outlines energy policy objectives for the next 35 years. Because of work that VPIRG, our members, and allies did during the drafting process of that 400+ page report, official Vermont policy is now to “investigate and pursue options for market-based GHG emission policies.” This is a fundamental building block in our campaign for bold climate action. Now, state agencies have a directive to begin the work needed to price carbon pollution. And it would not have happened without VPIRG members participating actively in the planning process.
Low-Income Weatherization: VPIRG, working with our Energy Independent Vermont coalition partners, provided essential support to help pass an important increase in funding for the state’s low-income weatherization agencies. Despite their obvious success in reducing fossil fuel use and helping struggling Vermonters make ends meet, these programs have not had an increase in their state funding formula for over 20 years. This very modest increase will put people to work weatherizing homes and save Vermonters money on their energy bills.
Carbon Pollution Tax Reform: As expected in an election year, the legislature did not consider either of the carbon pollution tax bills that were drafted in this biennium. That said, even our most ardent opponents at the Ethan Allen Institute had to admit that we “laid some heavy ground work” for reform in the recently concluded session. Business leaders and academics made the economic case for shifting taxes off of individuals and businesses and moving them onto activity we’d rather discourage — carbon pollution. We’ve always known that this would be a multi-year campaign, and we’re redoubling our efforts ahead of the next biennium and the swearing in of a new governor.
Protecting Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law: With Vermont’s first in the nation labeling law set to take effect July 1st, we found ourselves busy fighting off amendments which could have been harmful to our law, and consumers’ ability to know what is in their food. In the end, the legislature delayed by one year a provision of the law that will allow citizens to enforce the law through private litigation, but the rest of the law will go in to effect as planned this summer with the attorney general providing enforcement.
H.595 Reducing Exposure to Toxic Chemicals: The discovery of the toxic chemical PFOA in North Bennington made it clearer than ever that more must be done to protect Vermonters from dangerous chemicals. Legislation passed this year allows administration officials to get necessary information from companies to reduce possible toxic exposures, begins a process to hold polluters accountable for the damage they cause, and provides us with leverage for stronger chemical reform regulations moving forward.
H.539 Pollinator Protection Committee: If we want a healthy food system we need to have healthy pollinators. We have seen massive declines in bees and other pollinator populations in recent years, which threatens our food security. To address this growing issue the legislature created a pollinator protection committee to develop recommendations on how we can protect this valuable resource.
H.861 Regulating Treated Article Pesticides: Seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides have been shown to be harmful to bees and other pollinators, but until now the state did not have the authority to regulate them. Now the state will have the ability to take action they deem necessary to protect pollinators and our environment from treated article pesticides such as coated seeds.