Given what’s happening in Washington DC and the real threats to what we would consider Vermonters’ well being–our health, our environment, many of our values–we expected more activity on the part of Vermont legislators to push back against these threats.
Some people have suggested that the new leadership in the State House needed time to settle in and find their stride, but we have no time to waste. This is urgent.
But that doesn’t mean nothing worthwhile was accomplished this year. Along with our supporters and allies, VPIRG helped to advance a number of important bills that will move our state in a positive direction. And, of course, legislators took action on other bills outside of our purview.
So even as we set our sights higher for 2018, it’s worth noting some of our achievements this year. Together, we helped to pass bills that will:
- Establish a voluntary public retirement plan to make sure more Vermonters have a secure retirement.
- Make Vermont the first state in the nation to require tax return disclosure from candidates for statewide office.
- Ensure that current appliance efficiency standards remain in place even if Congress and/or the Trump administration roll them back on the federal level.
We also helped set the table for even bolder action in 2018–on everything from toxic chemical reform to paid family leave to carbon pollution pricing.
Now is not the time for Vermont to shrink from the challenge of protecting and promoting our people and our environment. We need to stand up and fight back.
And from now until the legislature returns in January, we’ll be working hard to make sure our lawmakers come back to Montpelier ready to do exactly that.
So keep reading below for a more detailed update on the issues you helped move forward in the 2017 legislative session:
S.8 – Ethics Reform: Experience shows that it’s nearly impossible to get Vermont legislators to pass tough laws regulating their own behavior. That’s been true on campaign finance and it was true this year on ethics and transparency. But legislators did take a modest step forward by passing S.8, which creates a weak state Ethics Commission, bans certain pay-to-play practices, addresses the “revolving door” problem of state officials becoming lobbyists, and requires financial disclosure from candidates and officeholders. While VPIRG would like to have seen a stronger bill in many respects, it’s worth noting that the new law will make Vermont the first state in the country to require statewide candidates to disclose their tax returns.
ENERGY AND CLIMATE
H.411 – Appliance Efficiency Standards: This bill ensures that if the Trump administration or Congress repeals or eliminates federal appliance efficiency standards, those standards will remain in place here in Vermont. With a flurry of attacks on energy efficiency coming out of DC, this bill is an important backstop. These standards require a minimum level of energy efficiency for over 55 different types of appliances, from refrigerators to heaters. In fact, they save more energy and cut more carbon pollution than all but one other federal program. Not to mention saving money: the standards save Vermonters on average $555 per year on utility bills.
As passed, H.411 also included a provision that VPIRG opposed, which clarified that a portion of the new net metering rule applies to existing net metering customers. The language sets a risky precedent for regulators to allow utilities to change net metering customers’ rates just 10 years after a system is installed, while all other states with net metering prevent changes for at least 20 years. VPIRG will work to fix that provision.
S.52 – Public Service Board and energy proceedings S.52 initially came out of a working group on easing citizen access to Public Service Board proceedings. It creates a streamlined process for resolving minor complaints about existing generators and refines several other aspects of the Board’s practices. Thanks to the hard work of the House Energy committee, S.52 also includes two other important, VPIRG-backed provisions. First, it requires the Department of Public Service conduct a study on energy storage options in Vermont. This study will lay the groundwork for advancing storage solutions, critical for our renewable future. Second, it also temporarily closes a loophole in the Standard Offer program (which supports the development of mid-sized renewable energy projects) that allowed individual utilities to opt out of paying the costs for that program.
Protecting Vermont’s Renewable Energy Goals: Going into 2017, we saw an important opportunity to enshrine into law Vermont’s goal of getting 90% of all of its energy from renewable resources by 2050. With an administration in Washington cozying up to the fossil fuel industry and hell bent on rolling back climate action, it’s now up to the states to lead. But lawmakers in Montpelier failed to move this legislation (S.51), making clear that clean energy jobs were not their priority this year either.
Carbon Pollution Pricing: In the first year of the biennium, the governor and legislature failed to respond to President Trump’s attack on the climate. It was disappointing to see Vermont’s elected officials sit on their hands while the president pursued policies clearly detrimental to Vermont’s economy and Vermonters’ health. That said, it’s only halftime in the legislative calendar, and they still have time to enact a carbon price that will grow jobs, strengthen our local economy and protect Vermonters’ health and environments. That’s not just wishful thinking — it’s possible. We were pleased to see the Climate Solutions Caucus double in membership this session. And four courageous legislators proposed transformative “Tax Reform & Climate Action” bills that could save Vermonters money while cleaning our air. Together, they have set the table for action in 2018.
S.135 – Retirement Security: We face a growing problem in this country where many seniors simply cannot afford to retire. Under legislation passed this session, Vermont will be the first state to move forward with a voluntary, state-run retirement program. The Obama administration authorized states to implement retirement plans, and Vermont’s program will be available to employers with 50 or fewer employees. It will allow many small employers to provide retirement plans for the first time. Research shows that workers are significantly more likely to enroll in a plan if provided by their employer, and Vermont’s plan presents an accessible, cost-effective way to boost retirement savings in the state.
H.196 – Paid Family Leave: In a major step forward for working families in Vermont, the House gave its approval to a statewide paid family leave insurance program. Though it was weakened in the process, H.196 would still provide up to 6 weeks of leave time for employees needing to care for a new child, or a seriously ill or injured loved one. Workers would contribute to the program and receive 80% of their salary (up to two times the livable wage) during their time off. The bill will be taken up by the Senate next year, where we hope to strengthen it.
S.103 – Toxic Chemical Reform: This bill was introduced in response to the discovery of chemical contaminants in drinking water wells in Bennington Country and elsewhere around the state in 2016. The Senate and House passed different versions of the bill this year, and failed to work out their differences before time ran out. Legislative leaders have promised to pass the bill early in 2018. VPIRG and our allies support the stronger House version of the bill, which would empower the Health Commissioner to ban dangerous toxins in children’s products, require more disclosure from manufacturers about the chemicals they use, and ensure that all new drinking water wells are tested for toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and uranium. We are urging senators to support the House version of S.103 when they return to work next year.
Holding the Line on Composting: In the final days of the session we helped to defeat an amendment that would have slashed composting requirements from our state’s zero waste goals. The proposal would have dealt a serious blow to Vermont’s landmark recycling and waste reduction law. In the end, one aspect of the law–the introduction of residential composting –was delayed for just a year. This was a compromise we could live with.
S. 28 – Unclaimed Nickels: After 45 years, Vermont’s successful Bottle Bill program could use an update. Many beverages that didn’t exist in single serving containers in 1972–sports drinks, juices, bottled water–still aren’t covered by the law. And unlike most states with a redemption law, Vermont is one of the few that gives all of its unclaimed deposits away to the beverage industry. That means we’re giving away millions of dollars a year to the likes of Coke and Pepsi. Legislation to update the law failed to move this year, though many legislators warmed to the idea.