2019 Vermont Legislative Session Wrap-up

The 2019 Vermont Legislative Session has officially ended – and once again, VPIRG, our members and our allies went toe-to-toe with the most powerful, big-moneyed interests there are and delivered major victories for Vermont’s people and our environment – including some landmark, first-in-the-nation achievements.

Unfortunately this session also came with disappointments – particularly the failure of our legislature to take bold, meaningful steps to address the climate crisis.

Check out the full run-down below of where VPIRG’s priority legislation stands at the close of the 2019 legislative session.

Zero Waste

S.113 – Stop Single-Use Plastics: Single-use plastics – such as bags, cups, containers, straws and more – are a kind of pollution like we’ve never seen before. With a useful life that’s often no more than 15 minutes, this plastic can last in the environment for 500 years or more. And the problem is just getting worse. In fact, half of all the plastic ever made was produced in just the last 15 years. It’s choking our oceans and waterways, spoiling our environment, killing wildlife and threatening human health as well.

 

Governor Scott responded by signing S.113, which represents the toughest anti-plastics legislation yet on the statewide level. The new law bans troublesome plastic carryout bags and imposes a 10-cent fee on most single-use paper bags to encourage reusable bag use. It also bans plastic drink stirrers and expanded polystyrene food service products and makes straws available upon request in most establishments. Finally, the bill sets up a working group to develop ideas for next steps to address plastic pollution.

* * * * *

Environment & Public Health

S.40 – Lead in School Drinking Water: On June 17, Governor Scott signed into law a bill protecting against lead in school drinking water that’s the strongest of its kind in the nation. Lead is a potent neurotoxin, and exposure to even very low levels can result in lifelong, irreversible consequences. Children are especially susceptible, and lead exposure can cause attention disorders, loss of IQ, delayed learning, and behavioral, kidney, and hearing problems. S.40 requires testing of water taps in all schools and child care centers in the state. It also mandates remediation for any tap that tests at or above 4 parts per billion of lead. All testing would be required by December 31, 2020. .

S.49 – Drinking Water Standard for PFAS: On May 15, Governor Scott signed legislation (S.49) to establish a drinking water standard for five toxic Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). The law also requires comprehensive testing for PFAS at public water systems, includes a process to evaluate the regulation of PFAS as a class or subclasses, requires a statewide investigation of PFAS sources, and provides the Agency of Natural Resources with additional tools to protect Vermonters from emerging contaminants. Called ‘forever chemicals’ because they never fully break down, PFAS have been used in a wide range of consumer products including nonstick cookware, food wrappers, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, and some firefighting foams. It’s estimated that almost every American has one of these toxic compounds in their blood.

S.55 – Protecting Kids from Toxic Chemicals: For the past five legislative sessions, VPIRG has fought for legislation to give parents clearer information about toxic chemicals in children’s products and allow Vermont’s Health Commissioner greater authority to regulate a children’s product if it presented a toxic threat to kids. Last year, Governor Scott vetoed the bill and the override attempt fell 4 votes short in the House. This year, overwhelming legislative support for the bill (the Senate passed S.55 on a 25-5 vote, while the House vote was 137-4) contributed to the Governor reversing his stance and finally signing S.55 into law on June 19.

 

S.37 – Legal Remedies for Toxics Victims – VPIRG was part of a coalition of groups supporting S.37, which was designed to hold polluters accountable for medical monitoring costs associated with exposure to toxic chemicals that they released into the environment. Passed by both the House and Senate, this bill would allow a person to obtain doctor-recommended medical monitoring in cases where they have a high level of a toxin in their body and it’s found to be the fault of an industrial facility. The polluter would pay for the monitoring, which could help to identify diseases early, allowing for a better chance at recovery. For the second year in a row, Governor Scott bowed to industry pressure and vetoed this bill.

H.205 – Pollinator Protection: Bees are dying in Vermont and around the world and it’s a big problem. Bees pollinate everything from strawberries to broccoli to apples. In fact, it’s fair to say that without bees, we don’t have food. Chemical pesticides have been linked to the bee die-off, particularly insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics). This year, Vermont legislators passed a VPIRG-backed bill (H.205) that will make neonics a restricted-use pesticide. That means that only certified applicators will be able to purchase and use it. This is a step in the right direction that will reduce the overall use of the bee-killing pesticide in Vermont. Governor Scott signed the bill into law on May 29.

* * * * *

Consumer Protection

H.513 – Broadband Expansion: Far too many Vermonters lack access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet. That’s why, this year, VPIRG advocated for legislation (H.513) aimed at expanding broadband throughout the state. The bill passed both Vermont chambers by large margins (139-2 in the House and 29-0 in the Senate) and was signed into law by Governor Scott on June 20. H.513 increases state government funding for local internet startups. It establishes a state revolving loan fund to help these startups undertake the initial steps to be successful and be able to service all Vermonters in their communities. And it reforms Vermont’s pole attachment rules – cutting red tape that is currently preventing local internet service providers from building the infrastructure necessary to bring high-speed Internet to unserved Vermonters.

 

S.110 – Data Privacy: Last year, VPIRG helped to enact a first-in-the-nation law to rein in the data broker industry – a law that’s already yielding results and drawing attention across the nation. On the heels of that victory, VPIRG set out to push for more online privacy protections for Vermonters this year. We were successful in getting S.110 – a wide-ranging data privacy and consumer protection bill — passed in both the House and Senate. Among other things, S.110 would expand online privacy protections for Vermont students and update Vermont’s data breach notification requirements.

Unfortunately, final negotiations on this bill stalled after language was inserted into the bill to repeal a landmark consumer protection law dealing with automatic contract renewals set to go into effect this year. VPIRG opposed the attempted repeal of that law – so while we were disappointed to see the data privacy bill halted, we were glad to see legislators hold firm against this attempted rollback. We’re hopeful that next year we can get S.110 across the finish line without the problematic language included.

* * * * *

Climate and Energy

H.51 – Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Ban: In order to fight climate change and promote a vibrant clean energy economy, Vermont’s long-term plans call for a 75% reduction in climate pollution and 90% of our total energy to come from renewable sources by 2050. New infrastructure that extends our reliance on dirty and outdated fossil fuels has no place in that fight. Legislators introduced H.51 this session to ban the creation of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state.

Although the bill did not move this year, more than 100 Vermonters turned out for a House Energy and Technology Committee hosted public hearing on the topic of fossil fuel infrastructure, overwhelmingly supporting a state-wide ban on pipelines and related structures. Whether through H.51 or another vehicle, we will continue the fight to stop new, dangerous, counterproductive fossil fuel infrastructure from being built in Vermont.  

Electric Vehicle Incentives: To meet our climate commitments as a state we need to tackle the transportation sector. This year legislators set aside $1.1 million to put towards a statewide electric vehicle (EV) incentive program. Although not as robust as we had pushed for, this is a great start to increase the rate at which Vermonters purchase EVs, one of the key ways we can cut transportation pollution. EV adoption in the state has been too slow and incentive programs in other states have proven effective at increasing the number of these vehicles on the road. We are encouraged by the creation of the program and look forward to building on it next session.

Vehicle Emission Repairs: Vermont requires the inspection of vehicle emissions control systems to reduce the release of key pollutants that can harm human health and air quality. Repairs to pass these inspections can be expensive and, while they are often under warranty, can be burdensome for Vermonters already struggling to make ends meet. In the annual Transportation Bill, legislators included a vehicle repair program to aid in the expense of repairing cars for Vermonters with lower incomes. Legislators also created a $5000 voucher program to help get people out of polluting vehicles that would be the most expensive to repair, and into ones that are more fuel-efficient instead.

Unfortunately, the bill also exempts cars that are 16 years or older from emissions testing. Next year, we will work with legislators to come up with a better solution than an exemption to help Vermonters fix their cars and further prevent these harmful toxins from polluting our air.

S.30 – Phase Out of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs): HFCs, chemicals used as refrigerants in various products, are powerful greenhouse gases that are significant contributors to climate change. On June 17, Governor Scott signed S. 30 into law, setting a schedule to phase out the use of HFCs statewide and transition us to safer alternatives. While regulation is happening on the Federal level (though far more slowly under the Trump Administration than it had been), the VT Agency of Natural Resources has been working on more stringent rules to regulate these chemicals for some time – this bill supports and strengthens that work.

Weatherization: Every analysis of Vermont’s climate commitments makes clear that they require far more efficiency work than we’re doing today. As a step in that direction, going into the legislative session our goal was to secure the funding needed to double the number of low and moderate income homes weatherized every year in Vermont, from 2000 to 4000. That would have needed roughly $11 million in new, ongoing funding. Between the budget and H.63, the legislature eventually passed a little less than half of that – almost all of it one-time funding, meaning we’ll have to be back next year if we want to keep even this modestly accelerated pace going.

H.63 also took the important step of directing the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to open a proceeding to figure out how Vermont can approach efficiency differently in order to accelerate our progress towards our climate and energy goals – and how best to fund that work. We’ll continue to push both the legislature and the PUC to rapidly do just that.

School Solar: While Vermont has historically been a leader on solar, in recent years we’ve seen the pace of installations slow and the industry lose hundreds of jobs. That’s due in part to restrictions placed on new “net metered” renewables, including a policy preventing larger school districts and municipalities from getting all of their electricity from net metering (which is mostly solar). This session, the legislature doubled the amount of renewable energy school districts can get from renewables, taking a small step towards Vermont once again having a robust net metering program. VPIRG was proud to support the good work of the legislators championing school solar and the passage of S.95.

* * * * *

Government Reform

S.47 – Banning Corporate Campaign Contributions: Corporate money has no place in Vermont elections. VPIRG and our members have been saying that for years, and in 2019, for the second year in a row, the Vermont Senate passed legislation (S.47) to ban corporate political contributions. Unfortunately, the House failed to act on the legislation for the second straight year. Next year the House will have plenty of time to act on the bill, and VPIRG will press to make sure that Vermont joins 22 other states and the federal government in banning corporate cash from our political races.

S.32 – Promoting Clean Money Elections: Vermont has had a public financing system for certain races for twenty years. But it hasn’t been used for years and isn’t considered a viable option by many candidates. VPIRG supports the idea of looking at new approaches to encourage candidates to raise more small-dollar contributions, increase voter participation and provide the means for more voters to donate to their preferred candidates. We supported S.32, which would make small corrections to the current system while studying ways to improve or replace it, such as Seattle’s successful Democracy Voucher program. S.32 passed the Senate earlier this year, but has languished in the House Government Operations Committee.