On September 16, 2020

We dare you…

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Essentially, that was the message to the governor last week when the Legislature sent him H.688, the climate bill that imposes strict greenhouse gas reduction requirements on Vermont. Approved by veto proof majorities in both the House and Senate, Speaker Johnson (D-So Hero) and Senate leader Ashe (D/P-Chittenden County), are putting Scott on notice that they will enact the climate bill into law with or without him.

Legislative leaders have rebuffed suggestions made by the administration back in February when the House Energy Committee was drafting the legislation and again last month when the governor shared his concerns in a letter to them. Scott takes particular issue with the provision exposing the state to new lawsuits.

The bill sets up a new 23 person climate council that will be charged with coming up with plans to meet the Vermont reduction mandates. It would then be up to the Agency of Natural Resources to develop regulations to institute the recommended proposals. While they could not institute new taxes or fees without legislative approval, they could explore a wide range of other options and even consider a ban on internal combustion engines (perhaps, but not likely).

If the state does not achieve its reduction benchmarks, groups and/or citizens may then sue the state to force compliance. According to one trade group, to achieve the 2025 target, Vermonters would have to switch up to 130,000 cars to electric or otherwise take them off the road as well as make significant reductions to home heating by oil and gas.

Reduction requirements:

2025: 26% less than 2005 emissions

2030: 40% less than 1990 emissions

2050: 80% less than 1990 emissions

Perhaps consistent with my uncanny ability to get both sides of a debate disappointed with me, I supported the legislation back in February but opposed it last week. I should also point out that I had reached out to a few key legislative colleagues to see if there was any room to bridge the differences in the bill with the governor. The answer was “No.” I explained my concerns on the House floor last week:

“Madam Speaker, back in February, which now seems a distant memory in many respects, I voted in support of this legislation.

“In my vote explanation back then, I acknowledged that we are contributing to climate change and we all need to do our part in reducing greenhouse gasses. But I also indicated that I was hopeful that the bill would be improved in several areas going forward in the process. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

“I worried then and worry now about the delegation of our responsibilities. I am concerned about the courts dictating what we do in the future if we don’t achieve our goals.

“And why do we need the lawsuit provision anyway? Do we not answer directly to the citizens of Vermont?

“And then came the pandemic. This was a game changer for me. There are parts of our economy that are in shambles right now. We have thousands unemployed, we have businesses that have closed and others that are hanging on by a thread.

“And directly related, our state revenues are down and expected to be even further reduced next year.

“Madam Speaker, in one of your many updates to House members, you suggested if new legislation requires a decent amount of staff work from a department or agency, consider postponing implementation dates or letting it go for now.

“There is no delay in this bill. We could have easily delayed the goals in H.688 by two years in light of the pandemic for now, but didn’t.

“Legislating is often about shifting priorities as the time and circumstances dictate. In my view, we need to focus on getting Vermonters back to work and getting our economy on the mend.

“I cannot support this bill at this time.”

With only two weeks left in this rare fall session, a number of other initiatives are now moving forward, too. The most important of these is the state budget, which was given final approval by the House on Friday, Sept. 11.

While maintaining existing programs and services, most departments in state government were able to reduce 3% from their budgets presented back in January through position vacancies and other savings.

The Vermont State Colleges did receive their bridge funding of $23.8 million in the House plan. Appropriation Committee members shifted some state expenses, like the state police, to federal  Covid funds, freeing up state funds for the colleges this year. This is essentially a one-time appropriation.

The budget also uses an additional $88 million of the Federal money to expand business grants to those most impacted by the pandemic.

Other initiatives of interest:

A scaled back Act 250 measure focusing on trail management and reducing the break of forest parcels has been advanced by the Senate Natural Resources Committee. They plan to revisit further changes in January.

House-Senate conferees on S.54, the tax and regulate bill for cannabis, remain close to a deal, but have not finalized the measure. The legislative clock could become a factor if not concluded soon.

The Senate is advancing legislation that would allow certain measures, like online remote meetings for public bodies and mail-in balloting, to take place under future declared emergencies.

Five million dollars in stimulus payments to migrant workers who were not eligible for the federal $1,200 checks was approved by the House.

A hazard pay program for additional front line workers, like grocery store clerks, has passed the Senate and is now under review by the House.

A misc. judicial bill, S.234, was given preliminary approval by the House on Friday. It includes a provision removing the criminal penalty for possessing over one but less than two ounces of marijuana. It will still carry a civil penalty. The legislation also automatically expunges past marijuana convictions.

The House Judiciary Committee continues its work on S.119, the use of deadly force by law enforcement. The committee appears to be shifting from the Senate version, which was largely copied from a new California law, to adopting a more specific proposal containing many of the elements found in the Seattle policy on use of force.

And finally, congratulations to our school boards, administrators, staff, educators, family and students on what most consider a successful school re-opening last week.

Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the state house. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us and harrisonforvermont.com.

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