We’ve recently wrapped up a busy, successful – and, in some cases, challenging – legislative session. VPIRG members helped win some exciting victories on environmental justice, getting mercury out of lighting in Vermont, a record-setting $200 million for climate action in the budget, and more!
But we also faced some disappointments–falling just short in our efforts to modernize the Bottle Bill and enact a Clean Heat Standard. Read below for more details on both the amazing victories we’ve achieved, and the work we still have to do:
CLIMATE & CLEAN ENERGY
Weatherization and Climate Action in the Budget
The FY 2023 budget passed by the legislature represents far and away the largest investment in climate action the state of Vermont has ever made, 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. We’ll be sharing a full breakdown of the climate action funded this year in the coming days, but the most significant investments include $80 million for weatherization and $25 million for heating and transportation electrification for low- and moderate-income Vermonters, and $45 million in efficiency and clean heating options for municipal buildings.
That these investments are so significant does not mean they were easy to secure. In fact, until an amendment in the closing days of the legislative session, the grants enabled by the $45 million investment in energy upgrades for municipalities would have been allowed to go to new fossil fuel heating systems – a provision the fossil fuel industry fought hard to keep. Our advocates pushed back on that repeatedly throughout the session, until finally succeeding in ensuring that those grants could only go to efficiency and renewable or electric heating systems.
Transportation is another area seeing massive investments in this session’s budget – and in this case, in the Transportation Bill as well. The transportation sector is Vermont’s most carbon-intensive sector, which is why we’re so excited to see nearly $40 million for electric vehicles, EV charging infrastructure, and public transit and micro-transit included in the budget and “T-bill.” While these investments are significant – tens of millions more than we’ve seen in any other legislative session – it’s important to understand that by themselves they will not come close to achieving the climate pollution reductions necessary in the transportation sector. They are, however, a critical foundation to build upon, and we’ll share more detail on what we expect them to accomplish in the coming weeks.
Clean Heat Standard
H.715, the Clean Heat Standard, passed out of both chambers of the state legislature but was vetoed by the governor. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts the legislature was unable to override Governor Scott’s veto, losing by just one vote. The Clean Heat Standard would have moved 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. We worked hard throughout the session to improve the bill, and the bill that landed on the Governor’s desk was much more equitable, and better from a climate and environmental standpoint, than the one introduced in January. While it’s unconscionable that the governor and a minority of the legislature have delayed necessary climate action yet again, it’s clear that enacting the big policies we need to slash Vermont’s fossil fuel use and climate pollution is not a question of if, but of when.
Charter Change for Climate Action in Burlington
With the governor’s short-sighted veto of the Clean Heat Standard, it is even more essential for local Vermont communities to take a more active role in reducing climate pollution in the thermal sector. The good news is that we worked hard to advance a bill that would allow Burlington to clean up its heating sector without statewide action: H.448. This bill changes the city’s charter, granting it the authority to regulate heating systems in buildings and assess carbon impact fees. Passed by nearly 2/3 of Burlington voters on Town Meeting Day in 2021 and signed by the governor in April of this year, this additional tool will help Vermont’s largest city to make even more progress on its Net Zero by 2030 climate goals.
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH & ZERO WASTE
Modernize the Bottle Bill
It’s been decades since we got as close as we did this year to a major revamp of Vermont’s popular Bottle Bill program. As you know, VPIRG has long been the leading voice pressing to modernize the law by expanding its scope to include beverages like water, wine, and sports drinks. In 2021, the Vermont House overwhelmingly passed legislation (H.175) that expanded the scope of the law, and we followed up that success by gathering more than 10,000 signatures in support of the legislation through our summer door-to-door canvass.
The Senate finally took up the bill in March of this year. Senators decided not only to increase the scope of the law, but also to create more convenient redemption locations for consumers and require beverage producers to take more responsibility for running the program. The bill won final approval in the Senate on May 11, 2022. Unfortunately, both the House and Senate adjourned for good the very next day, which did not leave enough time for the two chambers to work out their differences on this bill. This was a major disappointment given the hard work our VPIRG team, members, key allies, and legislators put into getting this bill passed. But, the success we had on the Bottle Bill this session will give us a huge boost as we head into the next biennium, determined to pass the legislation then.
Protect Vermonters from Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics
Legislation to ban the sale of cosmetic products containing PFAS and other harmful chemicals did not move in the Legislature this year, but we’re already working with partners and legislative allies to prioritize this legislation next session.
Eliminate Sales of Mercury Fluorescent Lighting
In a major public interest victory, Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass legislation banning the sale of most mercury-containing fluorescent light bulbs. Mercury lighting is costly, inefficient, and poses a threat to public health and our environment. Safer and cost-effective mercury-free LED alternatives are now widely available. VPIRG led the campaign to pass this legislation (H.500) with key support from Rep. Amy Sheldon, House Chair of the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. The new law will prohibit the sale of four-foot linear fluorescent lamps beginning in 2024. The law also continues an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program requiring fluorescent manufacturers to collect their used products at no cost to the consumer.
Protect Soils from Plastic Pollution
The House and Senate passed legislation this year (H.446) to deal with the problem of microplastic pollution in our soil, which can threaten the environment and public health. As this is written, the governor has not yet taken action on the proposed legislation.
By way of background, Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law is intended to provide a safeguard against plastic pollution by requiring organic food scraps to be separated from their packaging at the point of generation, which is referred to as “source separation.” With any type of recycling system, the earlier the recyclable material – plastic, glass, cardboard, or food waste – is separated from everything else, the cleaner the material will be, and better chance there is for the material to actually be recycled.
An emerging technology called “depackaging” mechanically separates organic food waste from inorganic packaging, most of which is plastic. This process does not conform with Vermont’s law requiring source separation. H.446, would put a pause on new depackaging plants in Vermont and require a stakeholder process to address important questions regarding the use of this technology.
Vermont must join a growing number of states in enacting an environmental justice law. That is why VPIRG joined dozens of partners in supporting S.148 and helped lead the effort in the State House to pass this bill. 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, establish a statewide mapping tool to depict environmental burdens and benefits, and set a target for proactive investments in communities that are environmentally overburdened and underserved. In the closing days of the session, we worked with our allies on a successful amendment to ensure the advisory council the bill creates can access the resources it will need to do its critical work, a change we had been pushing for throughout the session.
After the environmental justice bill passed the House and Senate, we saw some indications the governor may veto it – certainly a possibility, given his recent vetoes of environmental (see Clean Heat Standard, above) and justice (see Just Cause Evictions, below) bills. VPIRG members and our allies have gotten dozens of calls into the governor’s office, and while we’re encouraged by his staff’s recent statement in support of the bill, if you want to see this bill signed into law, we’d still encourage you to call the governor’s office at 802-828-3333 and urge him to do so.
At VPIRG, we believe it is time to end qualified immunity for police. Qualified immunity is 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 have ended qualified immunity as a defense for law enforcement in cases of misconduct. This would have granted access to justice for victims of police abuses and increased accountability. However, because of intense, uncompromising, and often misleading opposition from law enforcement officials, the bill that currently sits on the governor’s desk does NOT end qualified immunity, but rather sets up a legal study to assess the impact of qualified immunity in Vermont. We are confident the completion of this study will add to the myriad compelling reasons to end this legal doctrine through legislative action.
Just Cause Eviction in Burlington
Just cause eviction (JCE) is a 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 supported the Legislature’s passage of H.708, which would have granted the City of Burlington the authority to pass an ordinance requiring just cause to evict a tenant. However, the governor vetoed the bill, preventing the city from implementing this important and popular tenant protection measure near the end of the legislative session.
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. Although Vermont has made great strides, make no mistake, we must continue to improve our democracy. One way to give voters an even stronger voice in elections is to bring ranked choice voting (RCV) to statewide elections in Vermont. Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so forth. This process creates a more reflective democracy because if your vote cannot help your top choice win, it counts automatically for your next choice. And, RCV has a host of other benefits too like majority winners, less negative campaigning, and empowering voters to vote their conscience rather than picking the ‘less of two evils.’ VPIRG advocated and organized around S.229, a bill that would bring RCV to the primary and general elections for president, U.S. House and U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, despite high profile support in the Senate, the bill did not advance this year.
Legislation to allow Burlington to use RCV for its City Council races passed both chambers this session and Gov. Scott chose to allow the legislation to become law without his signature. This means Burlington City Council races will being using RCV in 2023.
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 repeatedly passed legislation that would do this (most recently, S.51 in 2021), but the House once again failed to act on this reform this year.
2022 was a redistricting year, and the House and Senate both approved new legislative boundaries that will be in effect for the next decade. To promote gender parity in the General Assembly, VPIRG advocated for an end of the current mishmash of single-member and multi-member districts because our research shows that women are more likely to run and win in single member districts in Vermont. (Neither chamber of the State House has achieved gender parity in more than 200 years and counting.) Both bodies made modest improvements in the right direction, but the change was not as much as we had hoped for. Worse, both the House and Senate adopted maps with overall population deviations above 10% — making them vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, “a plan with larger [than 10%] disparities in population creates a prima facie case of discrimination and therefore must be justified by the State.” Finally, we advocated for a change in how Vermont conducts the reapportionment process so that it is a nonpartisan affair in 2030. The bill we supported did not advance but we have the next eight years to get it across the finish line.
VPIRG helped support a bill, H.410, 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 implicated by the use of such technologies. The legislation would create an advisory council on artificial intelligence made up of key stakeholders, establish a technology director position to oversee and coordinate work on A.I., and require the state to create an inventory of State uses of A.I. and adopt standards for its use. VPIRG has successfully pushed to widen the scope of the A.I. council’s work to encompass and address discriminatory impacts more directly. The bill, which has passed both the House and Senate with strong support, awaits the governor’s approval.
Putting a Stop to Unfair Cable Company Equipment Rental Fees
VPIRG supported legislation that would prevent telecom companies for 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. This legislation did not advance this year, but we see an opportunity to pursue legislation in 2023 that would even more comprehensively deal with the issue of unfair hidden fees in customer bills.
VPIRG has endorsed the Reproductive Liberty Amendment (RLA). This proposed constitutional amendment, previously known as Prop 5, would protect every person’s right to make their own reproductive decisions in Vermont, like whether and when to become pregnant, use temporary or permanent birth control, or seek abortion care. The amendment has been making its way through the legislative process since 2019, and was passed for the second time by the Vermont House this session. The RLA will be voted on by Vermonters as a ballot measure in the 2022 November election.