We are officially halfway through the 2023 legislative session, with both legislative and money crossover dates in the rear-view mirror. Our VPIRG team has been hard at work over the past few months pushing for common sense policies, from Bottle Bill modernization to ranked choice voting, and we’ve made great progress, thanks in large part to the amazing activism and outreach of our members. Here’s a brief update on where we stand going into the back half of the session.
CLIMATE & CLEAN ENERGY
Affordable Heat Act (S.5)
The Affordable Heat Act aims to address one of the most polluting sectors in Vermont’s economy from a climate standpoint: how we heat our homes and other buildings. S.5 would require Vermont’s Public Utility Commission to design a program that would require fossil fuel importers to offer Vermonters (particularly low- and middle-income Vermonters) incentives and upfront assistance to switch to cleaner, cheaper heating options, or to offer them discounts on cleaner heating fuels, sufficient to ensure climate pollution in Vermont’s thermal sector is reduced in line with the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act. The bill passed the Senate just before Town Meeting Day on a strong 19-10 vote. An amendment was added requiring the legislature to give full approval to the program again in 2025 after the PUC has fully designed it and provided additional details on the costs and benefits, before being implemented in 2026. S.5 now heads to the House.
Renewable Energy Standard
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 renewing our push to require all of Vermont’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, with a majority of that from new renewables built right here in Vermont and elsewhere in New England. While this bill will almost certainly take the full biennium (2023 and 2024) to move through the legislative process, we expect reform of Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard to be taken up in the second half of the 2023 legislative session.
Burlington Carbon Fee Ballot Item
Burlington is at the forefront of efforts to fight climate change, and on Town Meeting Day residents voted to pass a ballot item to tackle climate pollution coming from new construction and the largest buildings in the city. This policy will require most new construction (and some very large existing buildings as they install heating systems) to use “renewable energy systems or renewable fuels” (which would include systems like heat pumps and geothermal) or pay a carbon pollution impact fee. Any fees collected will go to measures that reduce carbon pollution, including a new city fund “to support clean heating technology installations for low-income Burlington households and renters.”
Climate Action in the Budget and Transportation Bill
While the budget is still being debated in House Appropriations, many of our core priorities in the budget are on track to be included in the bill the House will vote on next week, including:
- $300,000 to fund three positions required by the environmental justice law that passed last year with our support. 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), House Appropriations is including them in their base budget – exactly where they should be.
- $3,000,000 for the Clean Heat Homes program to provide comprehensive weatherization and electrification services for low and moderate income Vermonters, building on $8,500,000 in federal funds secured by Sen. Leahy last year.
- $900,000 to the state climate office.
Several additional provisions in the Transportation Bill, including funding for zero-fare public transit through the end of the year, modest additional funding for e-bike incentives, and several important policy provisions including action on Complete Streets. Stay tuned for more details soon.
Energy Efficiency Modernization Act pilot program extension
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 extends that pilot program for an additional three years, and at our urging also would allow the Burlington Electric Department to create new incentives to help Burlingtonians who use the most gasoline transition to electric vehicles. That additional flexibility could result in the first incentives specifically for gasoline “superusers” in the country. S.137 has received initial approval in the Senate.
Fossil Fuel Divestment (S.42)
VPIRG supports a bill (S.42) the fossil fuel divestment bill that would require the state to prepare a plan for divesting the state employee pension fund from fossil fuel companies. We want to recognize the leadership of our allies at Third Act Vermont and the support of Treasurer Mike Pieciak on this issue. Fossil fuels are a bad investment because of unstable pricing and the fact that their use must be phased out due to their climate impacts. Ultimately, they should not be part of the state’s pension fund. S.42 passed the Senate on a 22 to 8 vote.
Ranked Choice Voting for Presidential Primaries (S.32)
With a 23-7 vote, the Senate has given its initial approval to S.32 — a bill to put ranked choice voting (RCV) in place for the 2028 presidential primary in Vermont. If passed, S.32 would not only put RCV in place for 2028, it would also allow municipalities to use it at the local level, and create a summer study committee to look at further expansion and the best ways to educate voters. Ranked choice voting gives voters more choice, more voice, and helps create a stronger democracy. It’s already being used in dozens of places around the country.
Burlington Ranked Choice Voting Expansion
In 2021, Burlingtonians voted overwhelmingly in favor of using ranked choice voting to elect their city councilors. This past Town Meeting Day, they did it again, this time expanding RCV to include Mayoral races and other city offices. Question #6 passed with 64% of the vote, and the first city-wide council races to use RCV went off without a hitch. VPIRG played a big role in helping educate voters about the reform.
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 on an incredible 115-29 vote. After 50 years, our Bottle Bill deserves an update. Last biennium, both chambers of the Legislature passed an expansion of the program to include beverages like water, wine, and sports drinks, but the bill ultimately died because the Legislature adjourned before it could win final approval. With more than 4 out of 5 Vermonters supporting this kind of modernization and broad support in the Legislature, we knew we needed to try again. H.158 will expand the scope of containers 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 is working on legislation (S.25) that will ban PFAS and other harmful chemicals from personal care products like shampoo, deodorant, and makeup, as well as menstrual products. It will also ban PFAS from all textiles, including apparel, and artificial turf. The bill won unanimous bi-partisan support in the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare last week and is heading to the Senate for a full vote next week.
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.
The committee did not advance the bill before the crossover deadline for this session, but we expect them to continue working on this legislation in the back half of the session and will be advocating for its passage in the House before the legislature adjourns.
Fair Repair for Agricultural & Forestry Equipment (H.81)
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.
The House Agriculture Committee reviewed H.81 in the week before the crossover deadline. VPIRG joined several national repair organizations, and a number of local Vermont farmers and loggers to testify in support of the bill. A deluge of opposition from the big equipment manufacturers and their corporate lobbyists succeeded in preventing the bill from meeting the crossover deadline. Nevertheless, VPIRG and our allies are continuing to advocate for the bill and believe that ultimately the House may pass it this session, paving the way for the Senate to take the bill up in 2024.