2018 VPIRG Mid-Session Legislative Update

When it comes to serious legislative action to protect our people and environment and move our state forward in a positive fashion, we cannot afford to “wait and see” any longer.

We need bold action now.

The attacks from D.C. on everything from climate to toxic chemical protections to digital privacy to our very democracy have been even worse than any of us had imagined.

But the good news is there are so many things our state can be doing right now on these issues to not only fight back, but actually demonstrate that a different way is possible.

VPIRG entered the 2018 legislative session ready to work for bold policies that will make Vermont a place where our people are healthy, our environment is protected, our communities are safe, prosperous and resilient, our children are nurtured and supported, and where every Vermonter—regardless of identity or background—is treated with dignity and respect.

And thanks to the incredible grassroots efforts of our members and allies and the hard work of our advocates in the State House, we’ve already secured key legislative victories this session on everything from banning corporate campaign contributions to toxic chemical reform to appliance efficiency standards to net neutrality.

Think about that for a moment. Your team at VPIRG is leading the charge on an incredibly diverse range of issues.

Take a look below for more information about these important victories and our other priorities for the rest of the 2018 session.

Climate & Clean Energy:

Carbon Pollution Pricing – As part of the Energy Independent Vermont coalition, VPIRG continues to push for a price on carbon pollution as a means to shift our economy off fossil fuels and toward locally produced renewable energy. We’re tracking two bills (H.791 and S.284) modeled on the ESSEX Plan that would do just that by pricing the polluting fuels that the gas and oil giants import into Vermont and using the revenue to slash electricity prices for all Vermonters.

Carbon Pricing Study – VPIRG members may remember that last year Governor Phil Scott convened a climate action commission tasked with taking public input and making recommendations for climate policies that he should champion.

The number one recommendation from the public, by far, was to put a price on carbon pollution. The governor’s handpicked commission wouldn’t go that far, but they did recommend the governor at least study the idea. The governor rejected his own commission’s recommendation – saying a study should only be done by the federal government. (It’s apparent that’s not going to happen any time soon.)

Thankfully, the legislature is considering moving forward anyway to commission an independent study of carbon pricing so we can put to rest the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation and move forward with real action. VPIRG and our allies are urging the House Appropriations Committee to include the study as a line item in the House version of the budget.  If successful, the appropriation will be included in “the big bill” that goes to the Senate in mid-March.

Appliance Efficiency Standards – VPIRG is supporting a bill (H.410) that would adopt efficiency standards for appliances that aren’t currently covered by federal standards (e.g. computers and computer monitors). The 18 standards included in H.410 would cumulatively save Vermonters $210 million by 2035 and be equivalent to taking, and keeping, nearly 6,000 cars off the road by 2025. This bill has passed the House and is currently in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Volkswagen Settlement – VPIRG continues to be a leading voice advocating for effective use of the funds allocated to Vermont because of the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement. The Scott Administration was initially leaving the door open to using this money for diesel vehicles, but thanks in part to VPIRG members, that decision is now in the legislature’s hands.

The legislature is considering language to be included in the budget bill that would require all funds from the Volkswagen Settlement to be used for electric transportation projects, including 15% for electric vehicle charging stations and the remainder for replacing heavy duty diesel vehicles like trucks and buses with electric options.

Efficiency Vermont Pilot – This bill (H.739) would create a three-year pilot program to allow Efficiency Vermont more flexibility in their work with some large commercial and industrial electric users, including for the first time allowing them to help with energy storage projects. The pilot is capped at $2 million per year, and at the end of the three years the Public Utilities Commission will make a recommendation to the Legislature about whether it should be made permanent. This bill has passed the House Energy & Technology Committee and should be on the House Floor soon.

Electric Vehicles – The Transportation Bill (H.917) includes two sections related to electric vehicles. The first clarifies that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) does have limited jurisdiction over electric vehicle charging stations, in terms of consumer protection and pricing practices, as well as issuing certificates of public good. The second directs the PUC to open an investigation into electric vehicle/charging rate design, an EV or charging tax, reducing barriers for EV adoption, and more. VPIRG is generally opposed to regulation of charging stations by the PUC, in particular prior to the completion of such an investigation. This bill passed the House Transportation Committee and will now head to the full House.

Making it easier to build parking lot and rooftop solar – As it passed the committee, this bill (H.676) would remove the setback requirement for parking lot canopy solar sites. Given that parking lots (and therefore parking lot canopy solar) are typically located near roads, the setback was an unnecessary restriction to this type of solar project. The bill also eliminates Agency of Natural Resources permit fees for rooftop solar (up to 500kW) and adds a fee for non-rooftop systems between 50-150kW, to line the fees up with what ANR actually reviews. VPIRG supports the efforts to reduce barriers to these types of solar projects. This bill has passed the House Energy and Technology Committee. It will go to the House Ways & Means Committee before heading to the House floor.

Pollinator Solar Program – This bill (H.726) creates a voluntary pollinator friendly standard that solar sites may meet, if they achieve the criteria laid out in this scorecard. This VPIRG-backed bill won unanimous preliminary approval (on a voice vote) from the House, with final approval expected next week before it heads to the Senate.

Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Ban – This legislation (H.746) would prohibit the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in Vermont, except for infrastructure certified by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The House Energy & Technology Committee has taken only one day of testimony on the bill. VPIRG supports the legislation and is joining other allies in pressing the committee to take up the bill again in the second half of the session.

Environmental Health:

Toxic Chemical Reform – For more than a year VPIRG has been fighting to pass S.103 – a wide-ranging toxic chemical reform bill that would, among other things, give parents better information about the children’s products that contain potentially harmful toxins and make it easier for Vermont’s Health Commissioner to regulate a children’s product if it presents a toxic threat to kids. This legislation has already been passed by both the Senate and the House, and they’re in the process of working out the slight differences now. We expect the House to give final approval in the coming days and then we’ll be urging the governor to sign it into law.

Legal Remedies for Impacted Residents – Vermonters deserve the right to be protected from toxic chemical exposure, and to effectively seek justice against those who poisoned them. VPIRG is supporting a bill (S.197) that would hold any person who releases a toxic substance strictly liable for any harm resulting from the release. The bill also proposes to establish a person’s right to sue a company who poisoned them for medical monitoring damages incurred due to exposure to a toxic substance. This bill has already passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be up before the full Senate soon. Then the bill must win approval in the House before it can be sent to the governor for his signature.

Zero Waste:

Defending Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law/Updating the Bottle Bill – Since it was enacted in 2012, Vermont’s landmark Universal Recycling Law has been subjected to numerous attacks aimed at weakening key aspects of the law before they’ve taken effect. This session has been no different, with legislators introducing bills that would cut curbside recycling and organics pickup requirements. VPIRG has successfully beaten back many of the worst aspects of these bills – but the Senate Natural Resources Committee has passed a bill (S.285) that would rollback requirements for trash haulers to pick up organics and food scraps from your curb for composting starting in 2020.

If passed, this bill would mean all Vermonters would need to either compost in their backyard, pay for a private business to pick up their compost, or drive to a composting facility themselves for drop-off. This would add make participating in our universal recycling goals an extra burden for Vermont’s low-income and urban residents.

In more positive news, Sen. Anthony Pollina proposed an amendment to the bill before the Senate left for Town Meeting break that would modernize Vermont’s Bottle Bill and end the giveaway of unclaimed bottle deposits (i.e. millions of dollars) to the beverage industry and use that money to fund the Universal Recycling program.

Sen. Pollina’s amendment and the underlying bill will be considered by the full Senate as the first order of business when they return next Tuesday.

Consumer Protection:

Net Neutrality – In December, the Trump Federal Communications Commission moved forward to dismantle net neutrality protections. This giveaway to giant telecoms like Comcast and AT&T is a major blow to consumers, who will likely be forced to pay more for a fragmented and less accessible internet. It’s also a major blow to our democracy by tilting the playing field of speech and information toward those with the resources to afford it.

Governors in Montana, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii have all signed executive orders saying their state governments would only contract with net neutral internet service providers (ISPs). VPIRG is pushing a bill (S.289) that would create the same requirement in Vermont – and thanks in part to VPIRG members, we’ve already advanced this bill through the Senate.

Governor Phil Scott recently signed an executive order that purports to do the same thing – but the governor’s order contains a massive loophole that would allow the state to continue contracting with non-net neutral providers.

S.289 is now in the House Energy & Technology committee. VPIRG will continue to advocate for the passage of this bill and push for even more protections to preserve a fair and open internet in Vermont.

Data Broker/Credit Reporting Protections – Last summer, Equifax, one of the nation’s largest credit reporting agencies, was subject to a data breach that compromised the sensitive information of millions of Americans. VPIRG is advocating for (and moving) a suite of actions that would better protect Vermonters from these types of breaches going forward and to make sure that when such breaches occur, consumers have access to the appropriate recourse..

VPIRG has already helped advance a bill (H.764) through the House that eliminates fees to place a security freeze on your credit history after a data breach like Equifax and puts in place first-in-the-nation protections to rein-in the “data broker” industry.

Data brokers are third party businesses (like Equifax) that buy and collect consumer data from a variety of sources so that they can analyze, package and eventually sell that data to other businesses.

H.764 would create a registry of data brokers operating in Vermont and require them to notify the state as to: what their opt-out procedures are, if they maintain data on minors and if they’ve suffered a data breach that exposes consumers’ personal information.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it will be taken up by the Senate Economic Development committee.

Fair Repair – Building off of momentum from other states, VPIRG joined the push to pass Fair Repair legislation (S.180) here in Vermont. Fair Repair requires that the manufacturers who produce our phones, computers, and other technologies must also release the necessary spare parts and diagnostic materials so folks have the opportunity to repair the products on their own or at independent repair shops. After testimony from consumer advocates like VPIRG in the Senate Economic Development committee, the legislature seems poised to create a working group to study how we could implement Fair Repair in Vermont. VPIRG will keep our membership updated on this important issue, and we’re hoping to see Fair Repair legislation passed in the next legislative session.

Democracy & Government Reform:

Banning Corporate Campaign Contributions – Corporate money has no place in Vermont elections. VPIRG and our members have been saying that for years, and this might finally be the year we see real action in Montpelier that would drastically reduce the influence of corporate money in our democracy.

The Senate passed S.120 – a VPIRG-supported bill that would ban corporate campaign contributions in Vermont – just before the Town Meeting break. VPIRG members will remember that we’ve gotten close to passing this legislation before only to see legislators back away. We’ll work hard to move this bill through the House so Vermont can join 22 other states and the federal government in banning such contributions.

Economic Justice:

Paid Family Leave –At the end of last session, 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. We expect the Senate to take up this bill in the second half of the session and VPIRG, as part of the Paid Family Leave Coalition, will be encouraging them to strengthen the legislation and pass it this year.

Health Care:

Prescription Drug Affordability – VPIRG is supporting efforts to make prescription medications affordable for all those who need them. This session, we’re backing S.175, a bill that would create a process whereby certain medicines could be imported from Canada, where they cost only a fraction of what they do in the US.
A second provision of the bill would authorize Vermont to buy prescription drugs in bulk, including working with other states to create buying pools, in order to save consumers money. This bill has already passed the Senate this year – and VPIRG will support its passage through the House as well.