Public Interest Priorities as VT Legislature Reconvenes

The VT legislature reconvenes today for a session aimed at passing a budget for 2021 and working on bills whose progress was interrupted by COVID-19. Elected leaders will be in session for a short time, likely just 4-6 weeks, so VPIRG and our members will be working to ensure no time is wasted in getting these priority bills to the Governor’s desk. As always, VPIRG’s team of advocates will be there to hold legislators accountable and push for public interest policy.

When the State House closed down back in March and the focus shifted heavily to pandemic response, many priority bills were put on the sidelines, and our team of advocates has been working in the interim to ensure that they do not stay there. Here’s a snapshot of the bills that we will be advocating for in the coming weeks:

H.688 - Global Warming Solutions Act

H. 688, the Global Warming Solutions Act passed in both the House and the Senate earlier this year, with some minor differences that will have to be resolved before it hits the Governor’s desk.

This bill would put Vermont on a path toward meeting our commitment to the Paris Climate Accord by 2025 and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by turning our current greenhouse gas reduction goals into requirements and setting binding deadlines for the state to cut climate pollution. The bill would also spur the creation of a Climate Action Council tasked with developing a detailed plan to reduce emissions and bolster our climate adaptation efforts–ensuring that the communities, infrastructure, and economy of the Green Mountain State are more resilient to the impacts of climate change. This plan would then be used to inform Agency of Natural Resources rulemaking on reducing climate pollution.

Vermont currently lacks the kind of strategic planning process and implementation framework this bill offers. Such a framework is critical for doing our part to combat the climate crisis – as well as strategically moving out of the COVID-19 crisis into recovery in a way that prioritizes Vermont’s most vulnerable, puts people to work in the local, clean energy economy and recognizes the unique assets that will make our state more resilient, independent and strong – including our farms and forests.

S.337 - Energy Efficiency Modernization Act

S. 337, the Energy Efficiency Modernization Act has already passed in the Senate and will now be taken up by the House Energy & Technology Committee. A vote in the full House will be needed to move it out of the legislature and to the Governor’s desk for signing.

This bill would create a three-year pilot program allowing energy efficiency entities, namely Efficiency Vermont, to spend up to $2 million of its current budget annually over the next three years on projects aimed at reducing climate pollution in Vermont’s thermal and transportation sectors. Historically, Efficiency Vermont has focused on reducing the amount of electricity Vermonters use.

S.185 - Health-Focused Climate Response Plan

S.185, An Act to Adopt a Health-Focused Climate Response Plan has already passed in the Senate and will now be taken up by the House Human Services Committee. A full House vote will be needed to move it out of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk for signing.

This bill proposes to require the Department of Health to develop and adopt a statewide climate change response plan. It also aims to require regional planning commissions to develop a communications plan for the purpose of mitigating and responding to climate change related public health risks.

Racial Justice

In our new Racial Justice program, we’ll be pushing for the 10-point police reform platform VPIRG signed onto earlier this month – though there’s no question that many of the measures embedded in that plan will take time.

We’ll also be watching several bills in the House closely, including S.119 (which would set a standard for when and how police use force) and S.124 (which contains several provisions related to law enforcement training, body cameras, and other police practices). We have real concerns with how some of the provisions in these bills are currently written. And we’ll be backing funding to support the work of the Director of Racial Equity (H.937).

S.295 - PFAS Ban

S.295 passed the Senate in May and will now be taken up by the House Human Services Committee.

PFAS are manufactured chemicals linked to several health concerns, including cancers, thyroid hormone disruption and disease, liver and kidney toxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and immune system harm. In 2016, drinking water wells in North Bennington and elsewhere were found to be contaminated by the toxic chemical PFOA. To prevent human exposure and contamination to our drinking water before it happens, we must now look upstream, and restrict the use of these toxins in products. To do so, S.295 bans PFAS from many of the products through which we are commonly exposed. The products include:

  1. Class B Firefighting foam; Use of firefighting foam accounts for about a third of total global PFAS pollution.
  2. Food packaging; When PFAS are used in food packaging, they migrate to our food. For a typical adult, dietary exposure is likely to be the single largest exposure pathway of PFAS.
  3. Rugs and carpets; Carpets made with PFAS become “PFAS factories,” releasing the chemicals over time into our air and dust.

S.295 also adds the class of PFAS to the Chemicals of High Concern in Children’s Products (Act 188) in order to ensure we protect children from these harmful chemicals, and to prevent regulating them on a one-by-one basis.

S.227 - Single Use Plastics and Packaging
Plastic pollution is skyrocketing, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the endless stream of single-use products which threaten our health and environment. This bill will slowly phase out throwaway personal care containers in lodging establishments and require planning for future action against packaging waste by initiating an extended producer responsibility (EPR) system, in which the producer of a product holds responsibility for that product throughout its life cycle.
S.47 - Ban on Corporate Campaign Contributions
This bill prohibits corporations from making direct contributions to political candidates in the state. This measure, adopted by the federal government and 22 other states, is key to getting big money out of our political system. S.47 has already passed the Senate, and now must be passed out of the House.
CARES Act Funding for Broadband Access

As the legislature decides how federal coronavirus relief funds will be spent in Vermont, we continue to advocate for significant investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure, with the goal of bringing high speed internet access to underserved rural and low income communities. Back in June, the legislature authorized around $18 million (of the $1.2 billion in CARES Act funding Vermont received) to be used in support of a variety of programs designed at expanding broadband access in Vermont (funding line extensions, providing subsidies to Vermonters with low-incomes, and providing planning support to community-owned internet providers to help them expand). VPIRG will be monitoring the progress of these efforts, and, where possible, advocating for increased investments to address the broadband gap in our state.