Legislative Update – May 2021

The legislative session is winding down, and it has been another busy month at VPIRG! We’ve made major progress across the board, from advancing legislation to make universally mailed ballots a permanent feature of Vermont elections, to protecting our health from harmful PFAS chemicals in consumer products, to passing the most comprehensive expansion of the Bottle Bill in 50 years in the House.

As we transition from our legislative work to planning our upcoming summer canvass, we are fighting hard to make sure many of these important pieces of legislation make it to the governor’s desk this year. Stay tuned for more updates and ways you can take action to support these key public interest initiatives!


Democracy 

Universally Mailed Ballots

While many states around the country are working to make it harder for citizens to vote, VPIRG is leading the charge to make Vermont the most voter-friendly state in the nation. Our top priority this year is to make permanent the policy of mailing all voters a ballot for general elections. Mailing voters their ballots worked incredibly well in 2020 as a one-time emergency measure, and a VPIRG poll commissioned over the winter found that 68% of Vermonters favor keeping the policy in place.

On March 18th, the Senate passed S.15, the VPIRG-backed “vote-by-mail” bill, by an overwhelming 27-3 vote. In addition to making mailed ballots permanent for general elections, the bill will keep polling places open for those who want to vote in person. It would also establish a ballot curing process so small errors (like failing to sign the inner envelope when returning a ballot) can be fixed by voters. The Secretary of State would also be directed to work with municipalities and interested stakeholders on greater language access for non-English speaking Vermonters. We expect the bill to pass the full House and be sent to the governor within days.

Corporate Campaign Contribution Ban

VPIRG strongly supports legislation passed by the Senate (S.51) that would ban campaign contributions by corporations and identify ways to improve the state’s public campaign finance options. Similar legislation has passed the Senate in the past two legislative biennia, only to stall in the House. Once again this year, the House has delayed action on this legislation. Please consider contacting your Representative(s) using this page to let them know how important this issue is.

Better Ballot Burlington (Ranked Choice Voting)

After the resounding 64% vote for the charter change to adopt ranked-choice voting in Burlington, VPIRG is working hard to ensure those changes are approved in the legislature and that voters will be ranking their votes for City Councilor in 2022, as planned. We will also be supporting efforts to expand ranked-choice voting, ensuring that those elected have the true support of a majority of voters adopting a ranked-choice voting system for the election of city councilors, starting in 2022. This charter change still needs to be approved by the full Vermont legislature to take effect and because of delays in the House, that may not happen until next year.

H.10 – Remove Barriers to Running for Office – Now Law!

On April 13th, the Governor signed into law H.10, a bill that allows candidates to use campaign funds to cover dependent care while campaigning. This lowers barriers and opens doors to running for office for underrepresented groups like women, single parents, and working families.


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 nearly 100% of 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 modernize it.

The big news is that after decades of trying to update the law, we finally got a great bill passed out of the House on April 16th! The bill (H.175) would bring Vermont’s bottle redemption system up to date by expanding it to include more beverage containers such as water bottles, hard cider, wine, and sports drinks.

Over many weeks of testimony, VPIRG’s Paul Burns and Marcie Gallagher led the charge, working with key legislators to pass H.175 through three House committees and the full House. We were aided by compelling testimony from environmental experts, allies in the recycling industry, and support from VPIRG members across the state. For the first time in decades, we were able to overcome the ferocious opposition of the beverage industry giants to win with an impressive 99-46 vote. The bill will move to the Senate next session, beginning January 2022.

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. Introduced by Senators Ginny Lyons and Brian Campion, this bill passed on a 5-0 vote through the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare and unanimously through the full Senate. 

Marcie Gallagher testified in support of S.20 in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee as well as the House Human Services Committee. She worked closely with our allies including Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Conservation Voters, Professional Firefighters of Vermont, and Seventh Generation, to build support for the legislation over weeks of testimony. At each step, we countered the opposition from chemical manufacturers and other industry lobbyists, and ultimately won an astonishing 146-0 vote in the House. We expect the bill to be sent to the governor for his signature soon.  


Climate and Energy 

Transportation Modernization / Transportation Bill

The Transportation Modernization Package in the Transportation Bill (H.433, or the “T-bill”) is a set of policies that will save Vermonters money and reduce climate pollution. With 70 cosponsors on the original “Transportation Modernization Act” that was in large part folded into the T-bill, these policies include more funding for existing programs that help moderate- to low-income Vermonters purchase high-mpg and zero-emission vehicles, expanding “Complete Streets” to make our roads safer for non-drivers, and continuing zero-fare public transit through 2022.

The Transportation Modernization Package continues to work its way through the legislature – passing out of the House and the Senate with unanimous support after the Senate took modest steps to build on the House version. As it likely heads to conference committee (where both chambers debate on any changes that were made), we are only seeking minor changes to how we plan on spending additional funds expected from the federal government, if any new spending is authorized before the next legislative session. Right now, there is no promise that additional funds would be invested in our transportation-related climate programs. Ideally, these programs would be a top priority for any new monies Vermont receives.

This Transportation Modernization package will be another step in the right direction for climate action in Vermont. And with our friends and allies, we look forward to building on it to do far more next year.

Vermont Climate Council

Subcommittee work on the Vermont Climate Action Plan continues, and the Climate Council has recently contracted with several firms to run the Council’s public engagement efforts this year. Meanwhile, VPIRG and our allies continue our work to involve Vermonters from all walks of life in the conversation on climate action. 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 now and then, 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.

Climate Action in the Budget 

Both the House and Senate included meaningful investments in climate action in their versions of the state budget. As the session nears its conclusion and the two versions are reconciled, we are pushing the legislature to appropriate at least $40 million in this budget (over and above existing programs) across weatherization, low-income and community renewable energy, municipal climate action, and other initiatives to cut climate pollution while helping lower-income Vermonters cut their energy bills. We’re also pushing hard for the legislature to dedicate an additional $160 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA – the recent federal stimulus law) dollars to future climate action, matching the Governor’s proposal for ARPA funds.

Yes on 3 & 7 Burlington 

On Town Meeting Day, Burlington voters overwhelmingly approved a charter change, question 3, that will allow the city more local control to take on climate pollution coming from buildings by assessing a carbon impact fee (that voters would need to approve in a separate election). It is a critical measure to move towards building electrification and a tool for the city to meet its Net Zero by 2030 climate goals, as buildings represent the largest single source of climate pollution in BTV. The city aims to ensure that all new construction use efficient, renewable sources for heating and cooling rather than dirty and inefficient fossil fuel-based thermal.

Sebbi Wu, Iris Hsiang, and the rest of our Climate Team led a coalition effort in favor of these ballot items in the months leading up to Town Meeting Day, and we are pushing for the General Assembly to approve Burlington’s charter change bill as the legislative session comes to a close (which also includes ranked-choice voting, more context under “Democracy”).

EV Service Centers (S.47) 

Today, owners of electric vehicles sold by car companies that only make EVs must travel out-of-state for major repairs. Due to a quirk in an old Vermont law passed before EVs were a thing, these companies aren’t allowed to open up service centers in Vermont. Legacy auto companies have, predictably, opposed fixing this, not wanting to remove yet another barrier to EVs and the companies that sell them. As new EV models are introduced, prices continue to decline and become more affordable for low- and moderate-income Vermonters. But, as the used EV market develops, there is also an equity concern if consumers are forced to travel out-of-state for major repairs. VPIRG has supported the passage of S.47, which is currently in House Transportation, after passing the Senate earlier this year, and we’ll continue pushing for it to be passed and signed into law this year.


Consumer Protection 

High Speed Internet

Earlier this week, the Senate Finance Committee voted out H.360 – the community broadband acceleration bill. The bill is expected to receive the approval of the full Senate next week. H.360 had previously passed out of the House on a 145-1 vote.

The Senate did make some changes to the legislation and a final version will need to be negotiated between the two chambers in a conference committee.

Both versions of the bill use federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to make the most significant investment in state history toward delivering high-speed internet to every Vermonter.

VPIRG will be advocating to ensure the final version of the legislation invests significant resources in the state’s Communications Union Districts (CUDs) – public, municipal entities formed to provide universal, affordable, world-class broadband to their regions.

Because these networks don’t need to satisfy shareholders, they are better able to provide universal service (in fact, that is their mission) – reaching the houses that aren’t profitable. Studies have shown that these networks are much more consumer-friendly than the giant telecoms. On average, they’re more-affordable and provide better speeds than large telecoms while prioritizing bedrock consumer protection principles like net neutrality and user privacy.

Right to Repair

Earlier this month the Senate Agriculture Committee took additional 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!