By John McClaughry
With Montpelier awash in Federal money, the 2022 legislature balanced the General Fund budget while spending more on a long list of popular causes: extending broadband, subsidizing early education (as always with little or no assessment of the results), keeping the reorganized state college system alive, and spending more on favorites like home weatherization ($80 million) and subsidies to entice more people to buy electric vehicles ($32 million).
A serious reform of Act 250 was long overdue. The legislature’s idea of reform (S. 234) turned out to mean creation of a development permit criterion to maintain “forest blocks and connecting habitat”. This responded to the Vermont Climate Council’s enthusiasm for keeping people from settling in rural areas, in order to reduce the use of CO2-emitting fossil fuel vehicles to get to work, school, and health care.
Another key provision was to direct appeals of Act 250 permits to an exhumed Environmental Review Board, composed of carefully screened friends of the environmental organizations. The original version of that Board (1970-2005) – marketed then and again now as exemplifying a “citizen friendly process” – soon turned into a sustaining income source for the environmental law bar.
Gov. Scott vetoed S.234, saying that “this bill makes Act 250 even more cumbersome than it is today, and it will make it harder to build the housing we desperately need.”
He also actively opposed and vetoed a “Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act” (H.606). This sweeping bill would have designated 30% of the state as “conservation” by 2030 and 50% by 2050. The legislative leadership did not attempt to override the veto.
After four years of trying to find common ground on restoring solvency to the two state retirement funds, now saddled with over $6 billion in unfunded liability, the legislators and government unions agreed on steps projected to reduce that liability by $2 billion over 70 years (S.286). Surprisingly, Gov. Scott vetoed this bill because it didn’t go nearly far enough. Both houses of the legislature voted unanimously to override his veto.
One cardinal rule of fiscal responsibility is not spending windfall money on programs that will continue when the windfall money disappears. By and large, governor and legislature tried to honor this principle. Perhaps the most popular exception was enacting a permanent tax credit of $1000 for each child five and under in families with incomes below $125,000. This measure (in H.510) will cost $32 million next year and most likely can never be reduced or repealed.
Gov. Scott vetoed the construction contractor registration bill (H.157), but its provisions found their way into another bill that the governor signed (S.226). The bill was clearly the first step toward licensing contractors doing jobs greater than $10,000, and taking enforcement action against any whose work did not comply with the arbitrarily declared CO2 emissions reduction requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act.
The Senate passed a bill (S.219) to, in the words of Senate Education Chair Brian Campion, “put some guardrails on [religious schools receiving public funding], to protect the students and the staff.” From what, one might ask? The Public Education Lobby forcefully urged the legislature to adopt a policy of “no public support for any but [unionized] public schools.” The imminence of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the subject, handed down in June, caused the House to let the bill die. The issue will be a hot one in 2023.
The legislature advanced Proposal Five, establishing a constitutional right to yet to be defined “personal reproductive liberty”. It will appear on the November ballot for final approval.
In a stunning setback for the climate change activists, the House sustained – by a single vote – Gov. Scott’s veto of the Clean Heat Standard (H.715). This measure, the top surviving priority of the Climate Council, would have required businesses and homeowners to pay a stealth tax on their heating fuel bills. The Public Utilities Commission would require fuel distributors to use the money thus collected to subsidize electric heat pumps, advanced wood pellet system, and home weatherization, or pay crushing fines (“non- compliance payments”). The issue may well surface again in 2023, depending on the makeup of the legislature elected in November.
Clearly the Climate Council will aggressively push for ever more costly and desperate measures to put Vermont on track to meeting its self-declared CO2 emissions reductions goals by 2030, as of now not likely to be achieved. Those measures, aid to pupils attending sectarian schools, and learning to get by without billions of Federal dollars to distribute, promise a full plate for the General Assembly and governor next January.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).