2021 Mid-Session Legislative Update

We’re nearly halfway through the 2021 legislative session, and even though our work continues to look totally different than it would were we not in the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve already made amazing progress on a wide range of key public interest initiatives this year.

From advancing a long-stalled zero waste priority to addressing Vermont’s digital divide to running victorious ballot question campaigns – we’ve accomplished a lot in the past few months, and we’ve done it with essentially no in-person advocacy and organizing.

The legislature returns from Town Meeting week break next week. Read more about where we stand 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 was found to have 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 committee on Feb. 26th! 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, cider, wine, and sports drinks. It would also increase the deposit from 5 to 10 cents.

Over several days of testimony in the House Natural Resources Committee, VPIRG’s Paul Burns and Marcie Gallagher led the charge, 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 convince 8 of the 11 members of the committee to support the bill. We still have a long way to go, but our plan is to have this bill on the Governor’s desk by the end of May.

Banning Harmful PFAS Chemicals  – This bill (S.20) would 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, this bill has 12 additional cosponsors and is currently being considered in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. Last year, this same bill (with minor differences) passed with a unanimous vote in the Senate, but due to the onset of the pandemic, never made it to the full House for a vote.

Marcie Gallagher will be testifying in support of this bill on behalf of VPIRG’s Environmental Health team. We’re working closely with allies including Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Conservation Voters, and Seventh Generation to build support for the legislation. As always chemical manufacturers and other industry lobbyists are working against us, which means any success we have will be hard-fought.

Climate and Energy

Transportation Modernization / Transportation Bill – The Transportation Modernization Act (H.94) is a set of policies that, if enacted, will save Vermonters money and reduce climate pollution. With 70 cosponsors, these policies include more funding for existing programs that help moderate- to low-income Vermonters purchase high-mpg and zero-emission vehicles, expanding “Complete Streets” to make our roads safer for non-drivers, and continuing fare-free transit through 2022.

Transportation Modernization policies continue to work their way through the House, with productive debate continuing in the House Transportation Committee. We’re pushing House Transportation to include these policies in the Transportation Bill, or T-Bill, which includes all transportation programs and funding – and things are looking good. The T-Bill will be voted out of House Transportation by the week of March 15th, so look for more info from us on how this is going soon.

This Transportation Modernization package will be another step in the right direction for climate action in Vermont. There’s much left to do, but with the help from our friends and allies we’re hopeful that we’ll get this done this legislative session – and build on it next year.

Vermont Climate Council – The work of the Vermont Climate Council (created by the enactment of last year’s Global Warming Solutions Act) is well underway. Subcommittees have been appointed, the Administration has hired staff to support the Council’s work – and VPIRG and our allies are diligently watchdogging the process to ensure that there are ample opportunities for Vermonters of all walks of life to have their voices heard on the need for bold, equitable climate action, and the actions they would like to see. Throughout this process, we will be pushing the Council to center justice, equity, and resilience – as required by the Solutions Act – and of course to put forward the actions necessary to hit the legally binding climate pollution targets embedded in that law.

The work of the Council will continue throughout the spring and summer, culminating in a report due on December 1st, which will lay out a roadmap for Vermont to hit its 2025 climate targets, and strategies for getting on track to hit our medium- and long-term targets as well. Between here and there, expect to hear a lot from us about how you can be part of an effort to make sure the Climate Action Plan gets the job done.

Yes on 3 & 7 Burlington – ThisTown Meeting Day, Burlington voters approved a charter change, question 3, that will give local control over thermal systems in buildings to the city for the first time. This represents a critical step for Burlington to take significant action on the climate crisis by ultimately phasing fossil fuels out of buildings. Question 7 was an advisory question that directs city to center the needs of the most disadvantaged Burlingtonians in this work – including BIPOC Burlingtonians and those with low- and moderate- incomes.

Question #3 passed with 64.5% of the vote, and #7 passed with 75.6%.

VPIRG led a coalition effort in favor of these ballot items in the months leading up to Town Meeting Day, and we’re thrilled to see them both pass. We will be following the charter change as it moves through the General Assembly in the coming months.

Consumer Protection

High Speed Internet — The House Energy and Technology Committee has advanced VPIRG-supported legislation (H.360) aimed at accelerating the development of community broadband in Vermont.

If enacted, this bill will make significant resources available to the state’s Communications Union Districts (CUDs) – public, municipal entities formed to provide universal, affordable, world-class broadband to their regions.

It will also bring greater accountability to the state’s investments in broadband by ensuring such dollars would only go to projects capable of achieving 100mbps symmetrical speeds (which effectively means fiber-to-the-premises) and would only be available to Communications Union Districts, providers working directly in conjunction with CUDs, or, in communities that are not part of a CUD, to providers working directly with municipalities to ensure true universal service in their coverage area.

Right to Repair – When the legislature returns, we expect the Senate Agriculture committee to take up S.67—a bill that 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! We’re working to line up Vermont farmers and repair shop owners to testify when the Senate considers this bill.

Democracy

Universal Vote-by-Mail – In a major victory for our Democracy program, the Senate Government Operations committee passed the so-called Vote-By-Mail bill (S.15) on a vote of 4-1 on Feb. 25th. The bill will make universally mailed ballots a permanent feature of Vermont general elections moving forward while adding a curing mechanism to the process. Furthermore, it contains concrete language directing the Secretary of State’s to work with municipalities and interested stakeholders on greater language access for non-English speaking Vermonters. The bill goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee next, before heading to the full Senate for a vote by the end of March.

Last month, VPIRG and RepresentUs commissioned a survey by the independent pollster Lincoln Park Strategies that found Vermont voters are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the practice of mailing a ballot to every voter, a policy that was put in place by state leaders on a temporary basis last year.

Corporate Campaign Contribution Ban – The Senate Government Operations is currently reviewing a bill (S.51) that would ban campaign contributions by corporations to candidates for office in Vermont. Similar legislation has passed the Senate in the past two legislative biennia, only to stall in the House. VPIRG remains committed to enacting this commonsense measure to limit corporate influence over our political process. We also hope to include a study of ways to improve Vermont’s outdated system of public financing for top officials.

Yes on 4 Burlington (Ranked Choice Voting) Thanks to the hard work of Kate Lapp, Sam McGinty and the entire Better Ballot Burlington team, we can report victory in our campaign to implement ranked choice voting (RCV) in Burlington City Council elections! After weeks of phone banking, text banking, leafleting, mailings, and educational webinars featuring campaign co-chairs Councilor Zoraya Hightower and former Governor Howard Dean, 64% of Burlingtonians voted in favor of adopting a ranked choice voting system for the election of city councilors, starting in 2022. This charter change will now need to be approved by the full Vermont legislature to take effect. After that, VPIRG will begin pressing for legislation to establish RCV for federal races in Vermont starting in 2024.