VPIRG’s 2021 Legislative Preview

If 2021 looked like years past, our team of advocates would be trudging up to the State House right now, prepped with policy memos and 30-second-pitches, maybe even through a foot of snow, as we did in 2019. The good news is we won’t be ruining any dress pants this year (or wasting any paper!), because we will be organizing remotely, and advocating virtually.

What hasn’t changed in 2021 is the need for bold action on a number of important issues. The pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies and inequities of so many of our systems, from broadband access, to health care, to racial justice.

We have a lot to do, but we firmly believe that the power of the people can make anything happen. With supporters and allies alongside us, we are prepared to make meaningful progress on each of our policy priorities listed below.

VPIRG’s 2021 Legislative Preview

Democracy –  

  • Make universally mailed ballots a permanent feature in future Vermont elections. In 2020, thanks in large part to Vermont’s emergency vote-by-mail law passed in response to COVID-19, a record-shattering 370,968 votes were cast in the Vermont general election, beating the previous general election record by close to 45,000 votes and representing a 73.27% turnout of registered voters. Over 75% of all votes cast were via early voting (mostly mail-in ballots), and voter turnout increased in every district across the state. Our democracy works best when as many people as possible participate, which is why we support giving all Vermont voters the option of voting from home in future statewide elections.
  • Strengthen the voice of the people and restrict corporate influence in campaigns. The federal government has prohibited corporations from giving campaign money to candidates for over 100 years, and 22 states have done the same. It’s time for Vermont to ban corporate contributions and identify ways to improve the state’s ineffective public financing system.
  • Adopt ranked choice voting for all federal races. Ranked choice voting to promote fair elections and majority winners will be on the ballot in Burlington in March 2021. VPIRG is supporting this measure and will later press for legislation to put RCV in place for all federal races in Vermont beginning in 2024. 

Economic Justice and Healthcare – 

  • Fight economic injustice and work for affordable child care, health care, and family & medical leave. The pandemic didn’t create economic inequality, but it made existing problems far worse. Our state must do a better job of helping hardworking Vermonters make ends meet – not just now but in the future and in ways people can count on. This means identifying meaningful steps forward on affordable child care, health care, and family and medical leave.

Climate and Energy –  

  • Ensure funding for modern transportation infrastructure that will cut both costs and carbon pollution. Vermont needs to take a more holistic view of transportation, making  transportation access and affordability more equitable, incentivizing clean transportation (including both electric and non-motorized travel), and building out modern infrastructure will all be crucial in the effort to modernize Vermont’s transportation system and cut carbon pollution.
  • Work to ensure that the Climate Council, created by the Global Warming Solutions Act, develops a forward thinking and progressive plan that is up to the task of dramatically lowering Vermont’s carbon pollution, and ensuring Vermonters’ voices are heard in the Council’s deliberations.
  • Over the 2021-22 biennium, we will continue to push for (1) 100% renewable electricity, with far more of that coming from new, in-state renewables that advance climate resilience, (2) expanding the work of our energy efficiency utilities, (3) significantly increasing weatherization efforts, and (4) building support for an equitable, just adoption and implementation of the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Environmental Health –  

  • Eliminate PFAS toxins from consumer products. PFAS toxins threaten public health and water supplies and should be banned from products such as food packaging, rugs and carpets, firefighting foam, and ski wax. PFAS substances should also be added to Vermont’s list of Chemicals of High Concern to Children. Action on PFAS is particularly important given the concerning link between PFAS exposure and COVID.
  • Confront the growing problem of single-use plastic and packaging pollution. Vermont took an important step to address single-use plastics in 2019 by taking aim at throwaway bags, straws and polystyrene food containers. But plastic and packaging waste is only getting worse. So, VPIRG is pressing for policies that reduce plastic pollution at the source, focus on toxic hazards in plastic, require increasing levels of recycled content in plastic beverage containers, and make producers take responsibility for the wasteful materials they create.
  • Modernize Vermont’s successful Bottle Bill. This past fall, Vermont finally started collecting millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits for environmental initiatives, rather than giving the money away to the beverage industry. Now it’s time to bring the Bottle Bill into the 21st century by updating the deposit and expanding its scope to cover more beverage containers including water bottles, wine bottles, and sports drinks.

Racial Justice –  

  • Advocate for improved data collection throughout the criminal legal system, particularly on racial disparities. Systemwide data collection and analysis within the criminal legal system, particularly on racial disparities, is fundamental to understanding and dealing with the root causes of systemic racism in the criminal justice system. The Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel (RDAP) recently released recommendations for enabling and requiring data reporting that we and our allies will be supporting.
  • End qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. Qualified immunity creates an incredibly high bar for civil suits against law enforcement officers, in most cases making it functionally impossible to hold officers accountable through the courts when they violate a person’s rights. Vermont can and should fix that issue in state law and replace it with a much more reasonable standard. Law enforcement officers should not be immune from liability when they violate a person’s constitutional rights.   
  • Ensure the use of force policy passed last year is not weakened. At the end of the special COVID-19 budget session last fall, the Vermont legislature passed S. 119 into law, enacted as Act 165 without the Governor’s signature. The use of force policy goes into effect in July of 2021, and we will be watching the implementation process and on the lookout for any potential pushes to weaken the policy.
  • Continue to push for the 10-point platform for police reform. In August of 2020, VPIRG signed on to sign on to a plan for reimagining policing in Vermont, an initiative led by about a dozen Vermont organizations including the ACLU of Vermont, Justice for All, and branches of the NAACP.

Consumer Protection –  

  • Work toward affordable, high-speed internet access for all Vermonters. VPIRG will look to build on the work we’ve done in this area in recent years, by pushing for policies that support Vermont’s community-owned fiber networks, accelerate the deployment of broadband infrastructure, and make internet access affordable for Vermonters. In particular, we’ll be advocating for 1.) an expansion of the state loan fund that was established by the 2019 broadband law, 2.) investments in workforce training to ensure Vermont is ready to meet the construction demand for broadband, 3.) reforms that will make it easier for the Communications Union Districts to collaborate with the electric utilities in their regions and 4.) the establishment of a permanent state lifeline program to make internet more affordable for Vermonters with low income.
  • Protect Vermont farmers from giant repair monopolies, by giving them the Right to Repair. The way the system of electronic repair for devices currently works puts consumers and repair shop owners at a severe disadvantage to the wealthy and powerful manufacturers that control the marketplace. Fair Repair is a smart, sensible solution to the dual issues of rising e-waste and costly repair monopolies. In 2021, we’ll be encouraging the legislature to enact right-to-repair legislation regarding agricultural machines – allowing Vermont’s farmers to maintain and repair their own equipment.
  • Stop unfair auto-lending practices and enact a moratorium on auto repossessions during the COVID emergency. In 2020, VPIRG supported legislation dealing with the practice of auto dealers falsifying or doctoring financial information on loan applications thereby saddling consumers with loans they can’t afford. That legislation passed the Senate in 2020 but was stalled as legislators shifted their focus to the COVID-19 response and recovery. We’ll return in 2021 to support similar legislation that would make such practices illegal and provide greater transparency by requiring auto dealers to provide consumers with copies of their application at the time of submission. We’ll also be pushing for a moratorium on auto repossessions for the duration of the COVID emergency, coupled with reforms to ensure that Vermonters who are facing financial hardship as a result of this crisis don’t lose necessary transportation.
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