The 2023 Vermont legislative session has come to a close, marking the halfway point of the 2023-2024 biennium. The VPIRG team secured a number of significant legislative victories – shepherding some landmark public interest policies into law, while making important progress on other bills that will need to brought across the finish line in 2024. Read on to see where we stand on our legislative priorities at the end of the 2023 session:
CLIMATE & CLEAN ENERGY
Affordable Heat Act (S.5)
Following a two-year effort, the Vermont legislature overrode Governor Scott’s veto of the Affordable Heat Act (S.5) in the closing days of the legislative session, passing for the first time a comprehensive policy to address one of the most polluting sectors in Vermont’s economy: how we heat our homes and other buildings.
The Affordable Heat Act requires Vermont’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) to design a program requiring companies that import fossil fuels used for residential, commercial, or industrial heating to offer Vermonters (particularly low- and middle-income Vermonters) incentives and upfront assistance to switch to cleaner, cheaper heating options, sufficient to ensure climate pollution in Vermont’s thermal sector is reduced in line with the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act.
After Gov. Scott vetoed the bill, the Senate voted 20-10 to override the governor’s veto, and the House followed suit by a vote of 107-42. Now, the state PUC has until January 2025 to fully design the program as laid out in S.5 and provide additional details on its costs and benefits, before the legislature will have an opportunity to authorize the program’s implementation by passing an additional bill in 2025 allowing it to go into effect in 2026. The final program cannot be put in place without that additional authorizing legislation. We’ll keep you in the loop in the coming months as we begin to work at the PUC to ensure that final program is both equitable and effective.
Renewable Energy Standard Working Group (S.112)
Right now, Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard only requires Vermont’s electric utilities to get 10% of the power they provide Vermonters from newly built renewables by 2032. That’s not nearly good enough, which is why we’re glad to report that by passing S.112 this session, the legislature has created a legislative and stakeholder working group to propose draft legislation in advance of next legislative session to reform the Renewable Energy Standard, get more new renewables built, and ensure an affordable, reliable electric system moving forward. VPIRG will be part of that working group, and we’ll let you know how you can be part of the movement to transform our electric system in the coming months.
Energy Efficiency Modernization Act pilot program extension (S.137)
In 2020, the Legislature created a pilot program to allow Efficiency Vermont and Burlington Electric Department to do more work to advance transportation and heating electrification. S.137, which passed on a near-unanimous voice vote in the House in the final week of the session after moving through the Senate earlier this year, extends that pilot program for an additional three years. The bill also allows the Burlington Electric Department to create new incentives to help Burlingtonians who use the most gasoline transition to electric vehicles. That additional flexibility represents the first legislative action in the nation to authorize incentives specifically for gasoline “superusers” – a policy that if adopted widely could significantly accelerate greenhouse gas reductions in the transportation sector (read more about the research on superusers done by our allies at Coltura here).
Climate Action in the Budget and Transportation Bill
Having secured nearly $250 million for climate action over the course of the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions – most of which was for programs that will be implemented over the course of several years – the budget played a less central role in our strategy for the 2023 session. Still, across the budget and the transportation bill, we pushed for and secured a number of important, though more modest, investments, including:
- Funding for three positions required by the 2022 environmental justice law. Critically, while the Scott Administration recommended that these essential positions be funded with “one-time” money (meaning we’d have to fight for them year after year), the Legislature included them in the “base” budget, meaning funding for this critical work will be the default going forward.
- $90,000 for the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to help businesses expand their work to support the transition to clean technologies like heat pumps and weatherization – a small downpayment on much more substantial work we must do to support the expansion of Vermont’s climate workforce in the coming years.
- Funding for zero-fare public transit through the end of the year.
- Modest additional funding for e-bike incentives.
- Funding for the state climate office.
The budget also included a study on fossil fuel divestment. While S.42, the divestment bill that passed the Senate earlier this year, did not pass, the additional analysis required in the budget will ensure the conversation on this important topic continues.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)
We found lots of support for expanding the use of ranked choice voting in Vermont this year. In March, a large majority of Burlington voters favored extending RCV (currently in place for city council races) to future mayoral races and other city contests. That proposed charter change also won approval in the House and Senate (H.508), and is on its way to the governor’s desk. In terms of the statewide use of RCV, another bill, S.32, would implement RCV for the 2028 presidential primary. It would also authorize municipalities to adopt RCV for local elections and would commission a study to investigate what other statewide elections would be ripe for implementation beginning in 2026. The bill received broad, tri-partisan support and passed the Senate on a 23-7 vote. The House took weeks of testimony on the bill, but held it as the major elements of S.32 were incorporated into a miscellaneous elections bill, H.429, being taken up in the Senate. That bill received preliminary approval on a close 16-14 vote in the Senate on the final day of the legislative session.
So, we still have a bit of work to do, likely in the 2024 legislative session, to put RCV in place statewide for the 2028 presidential primary.
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH & ZERO WASTE
Modernize the Bottle Bill (H.158)
H.158, legislation to modernize Vermont’s popular Bottle bill program, won initial approval in the House and Senate with strong, bipartisan votes in each chamber. Now, the bill awaits one final vote in the House (to approve changes made in the Senate) before being sent to the governor’s desk. This could potentially happen during the veto override session in June, or next January.
After 50 years, our Bottle Bill deserves an update. H.158 would expand the scope of the program to include beverages like water, wine, and sports drinks, and create more producer responsibility, more convenience for consumers, and greater support for small businesses.
Protect Vermonters from Toxic Chemicals in Products (S.25)
VPIRG-backed legislation (S.25) that will ban PFAS and other harmful chemicals from personal care products like shampoo, deodorant, makeup, and menstrual products passed the Senate with unanimous support this year. The legislation will also phase out the use of PFAS in textiles, including apparel, and in artificial turf. The bill has the strong support of legislators across the political spectrum, as well as Attorney General Charity Clark. The House did not take up the measure this year, but we expect it to be a priority there next year.
Fair Repair for Agricultural & Forestry Equipment (H.81)
In a significant win for Vermont’s farmers and forestry professionals, the Vermont House passed H.81 on a 137-2 vote. The bill, if enacted, would establish a right-to-repair for agricultural and forestry equipment in Vermont.
VPIRG has been a staunch supporter of the fair repair movement – that is, the effort to require manufacturers to provide consumers and independent repair shops access to all of the parts, tools, and documentation necessary to fix the products we own.
The lack of a right-to-repair has been a particular concern in the agricultural sector, as large equipment manufacturers have withheld access to critical tools and information necessary to perform fixes on the machinery they sell. As a result, farmers are forced to rely solely on the manufacturers and authorized repair technicians to fix this machinery when it breaks. This lack of competition in the agricultural repair space means that these repairs can be costly and incur significant delays – delays that farmers cannot afford.
H.81 would fix this by requiring agricultural and forestry equipment manufacturers to provide farmers and independent repair techs the same parts, tools, and information they provide to authorized techs.
We expect the Senate to take up this bill in 2024.
Consumer Data Privacy (H.121)
The House Commerce Committee has been reviewing legislation (H.121) that would greatly enhance online data privacy protections for consumers. VPIRG testified in support of this bill which, if enacted, would establish: a data minimization standard (limiting the data that companies can collect to only that which is necessary to provide a good or service to the consumer), broad prohibitions on secondary data sharing, strong protections with respect to biometric data, and improvements to Vermont’s data broker law.
As the session moved toward its close, the committee announced that they had received permission from the speaker of the House to continue working on H.121 throughout the summer, with the intention of passing this comprehensive consumer privacy legislation when they return in January. VPIRG will be there to track this work over the summer and weigh in to ensure lawmakers craft robust data privacy legislation.