What’s on agenda for 2020 Vermont Legislature?

Climate change, plastic, Act 250, insanity defense, prisons, distracted driving, marijuana, State House “CEO” may see action by 2020 Legislature

November 4, 2019 – by Guy Page – Vermont Legislature reconvenes Tuesday, January 7 for the second year of the 2019-20 biennium. Issues listed below may get attention, as indicated by between-session committee activity and media reports.

Retooling state government to meet stringent carbon reduction goals – S173 was enthusiastically supported at the end of the 2019 session by lead sponsor Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor). It replaces current statutory language of “it is the goal of the State to reduce carbon emissions” with “the State shall [emphasis added] reduce emissions of greenhouse gases” by 75% by 2050. It also empowers all arms of state government to rule on the side of carbon reduction whenever possible. A common-sense qualifier, “whenever practicable,” has been removed. House versions of this bill have been endorsed by climate-caucus leader Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Bradford) and others. Veto possibility: high.

Carbon taxes – bills like H255 and H277 to directly tax fossil fuels were introduced last year with endorsements by influential lobbying group backed by the renewable energy industry, which stands to add market share. A tax would make fossil-fuel energy competition more costly and generate revenue for state renewable energy programs.  Veto possibility: high.

Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) – the carbon-tax wary Legislature might first want to see what Gov. Phil Scott thinks about this 13-state initiative to impose a ‘stealth’ carbon tax in the form of emissions fees on fuel dealers, who would pass them along to consumers at an estimated 5-18 cents per gallon in the first year and likely escalate from there. One scary wrinkle: even if Scott says no, other states might still jack up the price at the Vermont pump with assessments on regional fuel storage terminals. Would federal courts call it an unconstitutional state-to-state tariff?   

Asked on VPR last Friday if Vermont needs more urgency in its climate change efforts, Gov. Scott said Vermont is already moving towards 90% renewable energy by 2050 with current investments in electronic vehicle (EV) charging stations, incentives to buy EVs, and grid-scale battery storage. He predicted Vermonters will buy electric as all-wheel drive passenger cars (Nissan Leaf, Subaru CrossTrek, Toyota Prius Prime), motorcycles (Harley-Davidson) and pickup trucks (Ford F-150 electric by 2021) reach the market. “That means things are changing,” he said. “EVs are where it’s going to happen.”

Will Scott be content to let incentives and new technology woo Vermont drivers? Or will he push the TCI in an election year, despite his long-stated opposition to carbon taxation? Vermonters should know sometime after TCI releases the final plan in December.

The TCI would harm rural drivers more than city dwellers and will raise farm costs, the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association noted Monday: “This proposal negatively impacts low income Vermonters, particularly those that live in rural areas of the state. It would only help those who are considering purchasing a new electric vehicle and/or those that live in urban areas with access to public transportation. Furthermore, while some consumers may be able to choose public transportation or an electric car to avoid the increased cost in gasoline, there is no viable option for businesses that need diesel trucks. In Vermont, 25% of the motor fuel sold is diesel— and we need diesel trucks to haul milk, logs and other products that benefit our agricultural economy. Diesel is also sold with increasing blends of renewable biodiesel, which is critical for Vermont and the Northeast to meet our energy goals.”

To register a public comment on the TCI website by Nov. 6, click on this link.

Plastic Ban 2.0 – the Single-Use Products Working Group has met regularly since the end of the 2019 session and will meet again Tuesday, November 12, at 12:30 pm in the fourth-floor boardroom of 133 State Street (State House closed due to battery generator installation). As required by the plastics ban law passed this year, this group is considering improvements to the law even before it takes effect on July 1, 2020.

One change under discussion: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), requiring single-use plastic makers and middle-men to pay for the cost of recycling. It’s appealing to lawmakers who don’t want to add public costs on Vermont consumers. But recycling consultant Chaz Miller told the working group October 22 EPR 1) removes consumer initiative, 2) gives the industry a monopoly on recycling practices, and 3) double-charges consumers. In addition to paying existing fees to trash haulers and solid waste districts and taxes to government, consumers would pay EPR costs passed along to them by industry. When a lawmaker suggested government might reduce taxes and fees, Miller laughed and said that in his long experience in the recycling business he has never seen government willingly reduce its trash-related revenue.

Distracted driving – House Transportation Committee chair Curt McCormack supports H239, more penalties for distracted driver, and more renewable transportation spending in the House Transportation Bill.

Act 250 revision – as in 2019, the House Natural Resources Committee may spend most of 2020 revising Vermont’s land use and planning law. The revision in process would change the review process, decrease “fragmentation” of forests caused by human activity, link urban housing development with alternative transportation (bus, bike, train), and limit “sprawl” – i.e. development outside of urban centers. It’s still a work in progress. The governor’s office has been involved in discussions and is said to favor at least some aspects, including streamlining Act 250 regs for urban areas.

Insanity Defense – A proposed bill would give convicted murderers who are insane a mandatory three-year term in a mental health facility. Discussion of the bill became more urgent after Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George dropped charges on three murder suspects because they were deemed insane. The subject was discussed Oct. 18 by the Joint Justice Oversight Committee

Reducing inmate population – Urged on by a Vermont ACLU report, the Vermont House Judiciary Committee will at least consider taking up legislation to dramatically reduce Vermont’s prison population. The ACLU recommends decarceration of women and of eliminating jailtime for conviction of most crimes involving drug possession, shoplifting, writing bad checks, and the sex trade. Which, if any of these policy recommendations the progressive House Judiciary Committee adopts will bear watching. There is widespread dissatisfaction with Vermont’s aging, overcrowded facilities and the practice of ‘outsourcing’ incarceration to out-of-state prison systems.

Also, the Legislature is considering creating or eliminating controversial offices and boards, including:

Eliminate Vermont State Board of Education – the Sunset Advisory Commission is scheduled to meet November 13 to continue discussing whether to advise changes to or elimination of the Vermont State Board of Education, the source of highly unpopular forced school mergers. The Vermont Agency of Education has argued that it can handle most of the duties now performed by the governor-appointed state board.

Create new position of “State House Executive Director” and staff to oversee the five separate offices that serve legislators: Sergeant of Arms, Capitol Police, Legislative Council, Joint Fiscal Office, and Information Technology. One former legislative leader griped today to Vermont Daily Chronicle: “If 180 lawmakers can’t solve their own problems then how can they expected to solve the state’s problems? We as taxpayers don’t know what the issues are and if they warrant adding another $100K/ year employee to the state payroll to try and solve them.”

House leadership reportedly would like a ‘CEO’ to resolve “turf wars” between the departments and perform administrative tasks it now performs. One department head last week told VDC that hiring a CEO to tell the departments how to do their jobs seems top-heavy and unnecessary.

Create Office of Child Advocate – H215, which stalled in the House Human Services committee this year, calls for the Legislature to create an Office of the Child Advocate. As explained by Voices for Vermont Kids, the OCA would work for a state-paid contractor (likely a not-for-profit) and serve as a watchdog over the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF). Staff would include an Advocate and a Deputy Advocate, with authority to hire for services.

Legalized Production and Sale of Marijuana – The same questions remain after S54 passed the Senate and moved into the House before the session ended this year. How much to charge in taxes? How much to spend on education, prevention, law enforcement, Marijuana Control Board administration? Will it pay for itself? Is there a roadside driver intoxication test for marijuana comparable to an alcohol “breathalyzer”? The respective answers are ‘don’t know,’ ‘don’t know,’ ‘don’t know,’ and ‘no.’

Whether the 2020 Legislature sufficiently answers these questions deemed important to Gov. Phil Scott two years ago, and whether he still deems them important, may decide whether he vetos any bill passed by the Legislature passes.

Also: local government advocates worry opposing towns would be required to “opt out”  – i.e. ban local operations – rather than be required to “opt in,” i.e. allow local operations.

This list of possible 2020 action items isn’t comprehensive. Paid family leave, the $15 minimum wage, more money for housing, and a dozen other items could be added. Stay tuned…..