March Legislative Update

We’re past the halfway point of the 2021 legislative session, and even though we released a legislative update just four weeks ago, we’ve already made amazing progress on a wide range of key public interest initiatives.

From advancing the most comprehensive PFAS legislation to addressing Vermont’s digital divide to passing much needed reforms to our democracy – we’ve accomplished a lot in the past few weeks, and we’ve done it despite the challenges of a still raging global pandemic.

Environmental Health

Bottle Bill Modernization – The original Bottle Bill was a landmark piece of legislation that has grown to become Vermont’s most effective recycling law, with virtually all redeemed containers being recycled each year. Compare that to the 18,000 tons of glass collected in curbside programs that Chittenden Solid Waste District was found to have secretly dumped because it was too contaminated to market. The Bottle Bill works, but since it was passed almost 50 years ago, it’s time to update it.

The big news is that after decades of trying to update the law, we finally have strong momentum on a bill (H.175) to update Vermont’s Bottle Bill by expanding it to include more beverage containers such as water bottles, cider, wine and sports drinks! Over several days of testimony in the House Natural Resources Committee, VPIRG’s Paul Burns and Marcie Gallagher led the charge, aided by compelling testimony from environmental experts, allies in the recycling industry, and support from VPIRG members across the state. We were able to overcome the ferocious opposition of the beverage industry giants to convince 8 of the 11 members of the committee to support the bill.

H.175 then moved to the House Ways and Means Committee, where we continued to fight industry opposition for nearly a month while the Committee considered the legislation. We are happy to announce that the Committee passed an amended version of the bill on April 1st on a 7-4 vote. That means the bill is very likely to be receive a vote in the full House of Representatives within days!

We still have a long way to go, but our plan is to have this bill on the Governor’s desk by the end of May.

Banning Harmful PFAS Chemicals  – This bill (S.20) would protect public health by banning toxic PFAS chemicals from certain consumer products including food packaging, firefighting foam, ski wax, and rugs/carpets. Last year, this same bill (with minor differences) passed the Senate, but due to the onset of the pandemic, never made it to the full House for a vote.

On March 19th, after hearing compelling testimony from our own Marcie Gallagher and VPIRG’s allies, S.20 passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, and Senate Floor unanimously. We’re working closely with allies including Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Conservation Voters, and Seventh Generation to build support for the legislation as it moves to the House. As always, chemical manufacturers and other industry lobbyists are working against us, which means any success we have will be hard-fought.

Climate & Energy

Transportation Modernization / Transportation Bill – The Transportation Modernization Package (part of the Transportation Bill – H.433) is a set of policies that, if enacted, will save Vermonters money and reduce climate pollution. With 70 cosponsors on their initial introduction, these policies include more funding for existing programs that help moderate- to low-income Vermonters purchase high-mpg and electric vehicles, create a new “Replace Your Ride Program” that allows income-eligible Vermonters to trade in their clunkers for a $3,000 incentive on clean transportation options, get more EV charging infrastructure built, create an e-bike incentive program, and expand our Downtown Transportation Fund to (among other things) make our roads safer for non-drivers, and continue zero-fare transit through 2022.

The Transportation Modernization Package passed unanimously out of the House through the larger Transportation Bill and is currently being debated in the Senate Transportation Committee. We’re expecting it to stay in committee until late April and we’ll be working to keep it strong, and build on it. we’re pushing for some minor additions, and will be sure to update you with any new developments.

This Transportation Modernization package will be another step in the right direction for climate action in Vermont. This only scratches the surface of much needed transportation modernization efforts, but with the help from our friends and allies we’re hopeful that we’ll get this done this legislative session – and build on it next year.

Vermont Climate Council – The work of the Vermont Climate Council (created by the enactment of last year’s Global Warming Solutions Act) is well underway. Subcommittees have been appointed, the Administration has hired staff to support the Council’s work – and VPIRG and our allies are diligently watchdogging the process to ensure that there are ample opportunities for Vermonters of all walks of life to have their voices heard on the need for bold, equitable climate action, and the actions they would like to see. Throughout this process, we will be pushing the Council to center justice, equity, and resilience – as required by the Solutions Act – and of course to put forward the actions necessary to hit the legally binding climate pollution targets embedded in that law.

The work of the Council will continue throughout the spring and summer, culminating in a report due on December 1st, which will lay out a roadmap for Vermont to hit its 2025 climate targets, and strategies for getting on track to hit our medium- and long-term targets as well. Between here and there, expect to hear a lot from us about how you can be part of an effort to make sure the Climate Action Plan gets the job done.

Consumer Protection

High Speed Internet – On a 145-1 vote, the Vermont House of Representatives passed H.360, VPIRG-supported legislation aimed at accelerating the development of community broadband in Vermont.

The bill uses federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to make the most significant investment ($150 million) in state history toward delivering high-speed internet to every Vermonter.

If enacted, this VPIRG-supported legislation will make significant resources available to the state’s Communications Union Districts (CUDs) – public, municipal entities formed to provide universal, affordable, world-class broadband to their regions.

Notably, the legislation would 1.) direct $30 million toward a pre-construction grant program to provide these nascent entities with resources to quickly do the study, survey, planning and design work necessary to start building networks and 2.) establish a $120 million subordinated loan and construction grant program to complement the existing broadband loan program created in 2019 to fund the construction of critical broadband infrastructure.

Right to Repair – Earlier this month the Senate Agriculture committee heard testimony on S.67—a bill that would require agricultural equipment manufacturers to provide farmers, on fair and reasonable terms, access to the tools, parts and documentation necessary to fix the equipment they own.

This legislation seeks to address the growing problem of repair monopolies whereby manufacturers limit access to essential repair resources, forcing consumers (in this case farmers) to rely solely on the manufacturer for repairs. This means repairs that could be addressed by the farmer themselves or at a local independent repair shop instead become costly and time-consuming endeavors. If you or someone you know has dealt with agricultural repair monopolies, let us know!

Democracy

Universal Vote by Mail – On March 18th, the Vermont Senate took a meaningful step towards making our democracy more accessible and equitable for all Vermonters. In a resounding 27-3 vote, the Senate advanced universal vote by mail legislation that would make permanent the temporary policy in place for the 2020 general election. This bill (S.15) will send every active registered voter a ballot in the mail for all general elections and increase participation and equity in our elections too. If enacted, S.15 would enable Vermonters to fix (aka “cure”) small defects so that otherwise valid ballots could be counted. In the 2020 general, roughly 1,500 ballots weren’t counted because of minor defects, such as forgetting to sign the security envelope. While that may not seem like a lot, 1,500 disenfranchised Vermonters is still way too many.

At a time when numerous states are actively putting up barriers to voting, Vermont is moving to empower voters and provide more access in our elections.

Corporate Campaign Contribution Ban – In another move to strengthen our democracy, the Senate passed (S.51), a bill that would ban corporations from giving campaign contributions directly to candidates. This legislation will help to lift the voices and influence of working Vermonters who rarely make large political contributions. These are the people who should decide the outcome of elections, not corporations.

Furthermore, this bill will increase transparency in campaign finance by requiring political action committees (a.k.a. PACs) to include any connected organizations in the name of the PAC, allowing voters to better understand a candidate’s financial backers. In addition, S.51 will create a study to identify ways to improve Vermont’s outdated and ineffective public finance system.

Dependent Care as a Campaign Expense – Being a parent is hard, being a parent and running for office is even harder. The House and Senate have given approval to a bill that would make the care of a dependent an acceptable campaign expense. If enacted, (H.10) would not only open doors for more underrepresented groups – women, single parents, and working families – to seek and hold office, but also send the message that caregiving labor has real economic value.

Yes on 4 Burlington (Ranked Choice Voting) – After the resounding 64% vote for the proposed charter change to adopt ranked choice voting in Burlington, VPIRG is working hard to ensure that the legislature approves the charter change so voters can rank their choices for City Councilor in starting in 2022. We are also supporting efforts to expand ranked choice voting to state primaries and federal elections in Vermont, ensuring that winners have the support of a majority of voters.

Racial Justice

Supporting Cultural Liaisons in Schools – Earlier this year, VPIRG Votes-endorsed Senator Kesha Ram introduced a bill that would facilitate cultural liaisons for families with limited English proficiency (LEP) in schools. We are proud to support this important initiative, which just passed the Senate in bill S. 115. Now, we are working to educate and organize our members to support its passage in the House.

The provision would allow municipalities to fund services of cultural liaisons, who play a key role in facilitating communication between families, schools, municipalities, and community organizations and help reconcile differences in cultural perspectives and understandings.