We’re halfway through the 2022 legislative session in Vermont, and though our work continues to look a little different due to the ongoing pandemic, we have made significant progress across the board on our legislative priorities. From the continuing fight for Bottle Bill modernization to advancing a landmark climate legislation, read on to see where VPIRG stands as we enter the second half of the legislative session this year.
CLIMATE & CLEAN ENERGY
Clean Heat Standard
Last week, the Vermont House of Representatives passed H.715, the Clean Heat Standard bill, on a 96-44 vote. The Clean Heat Standard would move Vermonters off of imported fossil fuels by requiring fossil fuel companies for the first time to help Vermonters, particularly those with lower incomes, access more cost-effective, clean, efficient heating options for their homes. It would require fossil fuel companies to cut pollution enough to ensure Vermont cuts its climate pollution from the heating sector in line with the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act, does so equitably, and cuts lifecycle emissions at the same time. The bill is now in the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and we will be working to both strengthen it further and make sure it becomes law. For more, check out our recent op-ed.
The 2022 Transportation Bill is heading to the floor of the Vermont House this week, after incorporating major components of the Transportation Innovation Act we told you about back in January. The transportation sector is Vermont’s most carbon-intensive sector, and for the first time, the investments being made in clean transportation are approaching the scale and scope required to cut Vermont’s climate pollution in line with the Solutions Act’s requirements. The “T-Bill” and associated investments being made in the budget bill will put over $40 million into incentives and grants for electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure, with the bulk of that going into programs directly serving low- and moderate-income Vermonters. It will also ensure zero-fare public transit continues for another year for nearly every route in the state, and further invest in the development of innovative “micro-transit” models. You can read our statement on the Transportation Bill here for more.
Weatherization and Climate Action in the Budget
The FY23 budget, also being voted on in the House later this week, includes over $110 million in investments to cut climate pollution (in addition to the transportation-climate investments described above), with the significant majority of that funding going to programs aimed at helping low- and moderate-income Vermonters cut their energy bills and fully participate in the transition off of fossil fuels. The House has also already voted to support H.518, the municipal energy resilience bill, which would invest $48 million in efficiency and clean heating options for municipal buildings across the state, and is considering significant investments in critical workforce initiatives in H.703, including in the “climate workforce” needed to enable weatherization and other action at this scale.
As with the transportation investments described above, the initiatives the House is on track to fund finally approach the necessary scale and pace of climate action in Vermont. They are not enough on their own, but they are a huge step in the right direction. Stay tuned for more from us later this week laying out all the climate investments being funded in the House’s budget.
Charter Change for Climate Action in Burlington
Last year, Burlington voters overwhelmingly supported giving the city the authority to regulate thermal energy systems in buildings, to allow the city to make even more progress on its Net Zero by 2030 climate goals. Vermont communities should be able to take a more active role in reducing climate pollution, which is why we are urging legislators to pass H.448, which would allow Burlington this local control. After passing through the House with a strong majority, it is now being considered in the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH & ZERO WASTE
Modernize the Bottle Bill
After 50 years, Vermont’s popular Bottle Bill deserves an update. The VT House overwhelmingly passed an expansion of the program, H.175, in 2021 to include beverages like water, wine, and sports drinks. A recent statewide survey shows more than 4 out of 5 Vermonters support this kind of modernization. VPIRG’s Marcie Gallagher testified in favor of H.175 in the Senate on March 16, and a vote on the bill is expected on the Senate floor in the coming weeks. This is one of VPIRG’s top priorities for the legislative session.
Protect Vermonters from Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics
VPIRG supports a ban on the sale of cosmetic products containing PFAS and other harmful chemicals, building on the work of the European Union and laws passed by California and Maryland. Further, reporting requirements should be strengthened for manufacturers to disclose ingredients in cosmetics. The bill, S.267, failed to meet the crossover deadline, but it is possible some elements of the legislation could still pass this year.
Eliminate Sales of Mercury Fluorescent Lighting
Mercury-containing fluorescent light bulbs and lamps are costly, inefficient, and pose a threat to public health and our environment. Safer and cost-effective mercury-free LED alternatives are now widely available. It’s time to prohibit the sale of mercury lighting in Vermont. On March 16, the Vermont House passed VPIRG-backed legislation, H.500, to eliminate the sale of most mercury lamps by 2024. The bill must now be passed by the Senate.
Vermont must join a growing number of states in enacting an environmental justice law. That is why VPIRG has joined dozens of partners in supporting S.148. The bill would take several steps to ensure no community is left behind in our efforts to address the climate crisis and create a clean, healthy environment for all. Among other things, the bill includes provisions that would create an environmental justice advisory council made up of community members with a special interest and expertise in environmental justice and set a target for proactive investments in communities that are environmentally overburdened and underserved. S.148 is now headed for a full Senate vote.
At VPIRG, we believe it is time to end qualified immunity for police, an unjust legal doctrine that prevents Vermonters whose rights are violated by public officials from having their day in court. Early this session, VPIRG supported a bill, S.254, that would end qualified immunity as a defense for law enforcement, granting access to justice for victims of police misconduct and increasing accountability. However, because of intense, uncompromising, and often misleading opposition from law enforcement officials, the bill as passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee would NOT end qualified immunity, but rather set up a study to assess the impact of QI in Vermont.
Just Cause Eviction in Burlington
Just cause eviction (JCE) is a form of tenant protection policy designed to prevent arbitrary, retaliatory, or discriminatory evictions by establishing that landlords can only evict renters for specific reasons — known as just causes — such as failure to pay rent. VPIRG supports the Legislature’s passage of H.708, which would grant the City of Burlington the authority to pass an ordinance requiring just cause to evict a tenant. The bill passed out of the House in late February with a strong 98-49 vote, and is currently in the Senate Government Operations committee. JCE is one of a handful of charter changes that passed in Burlington in 2021, with a strong majority of 63% of voters in support.
DEMOCRACY & GOVERNMENT REFORM
Ranked Choice Voting
As other states move to disenfranchise voters and threaten democracy itself, Vermont has become a leader in democratic reform. One way to give voters an even stronger voice in elections is to bring ranked choice voting (RCV) to elections in Vermont. Legislation to allow Burlington to use RCV for its City Council races is expected to be considered by both chambers this year, while a separate bill, S.229, to bring RCV statewide for the presidential primary and federal races was put off for consideration until next year.
Campaign Finance Reform
The federal government has banned corporations from contributing to candidates for over 100 years, and 22 states have done the same. It is time for Vermont to curb the influence of corporations by banning corporate contributions to candidates and requiring more transparency from corporate political action committees (PACs). Rather than depend on large donors and corporate cash, Vermont can instead find ways to fund campaigns by encouraging more small-dollar donations. The Senate has already passed legislation that would do this in the form of S.51. It is now time for the House to act.
Since 1970 Vermont has had a redistricting process in which the Legislative Apportionment Board spends a year crafting proposed political boundaries in response to the latest Census. In that time, none of those maps have been adopted as proposed. Members of the House of Representatives and Senate have always drawn their own maps. This has created the perception that politicians are choosing their voters rather than the other way around. To correct this, VPIRG continues to advocate for legislation, H.585, to update and depoliticize Vermont’s redistricting process before the next census.
VPIRG supports legislation that enables the State to more comprehensively deal with the rapid development and deployment of artificial intelligence (A.I.) technologies and use cases, particularly to prevent discrimination and unfair practices produced by the use of such technologies. VPIRG is supporting legislation that has passed the House Energy & Technology and Appropriations Committees this year that would create a permanent Artificial Intelligence Commission and technology director position as well as inventory State uses of A.I. and adopt standards for its use, H.410. VPIRG has successfully pushed to widen the scope of the A.I. Commission\’s work to encompass and address discriminatory impacts more directly.
Putting a Stop to Unfair Cable Company Equipment Rental Fees
VPIRG is supporting legislation that would prevent telecom companies from charging unreasonable fees to rent communications equipment – such as modems, routers and cable boxes – as part of a consumer’s internet or cable subscription. These fees are typically not included in companies’ advertised prices, driving up customers’ bills. Companies often charge exorbitant, uncapped prices for this equipment – resulting in customers paying 5 to 10 times the retail price of the devices over the lifetime of the rental. Legislation regulating what companies can charge for these rentals didn’t make the crossover deadline, but it is possible elements of that bill will be incorporated into other consumer protection legislation this year.