But they’re trying to get it back
by Rob Roper
Vermont state senators, at least those on the left-hand side of the aisle, were clearly rattled by the massive public outcry opposing what they have been proudly touting as the “most important piece of climate change legislation” this session – S.5, the absurdly named Affordable Heat Act, rightfully mocked by critics as the UnAffordable Heat Act.
Rattled, yes. Rattled enough to make some changes to the bill they didn’t want to make, but not rattled enough to listen to their constituents and scrap the concept altogether. The senate passed out S.5 with what is now a slim veto-proof majority of 19-10, with just three of twenty-three Democrats bucking party leadership to vote no. The bill now moves over to the House.
But do you know who else is rattled and upset? Vermont’s major media outlets.
These reporters and editors are used to controlling the narrative – determining what information citizens are allowed to see, how that information is interpreted, and how it translates into public opinion. And make no mistake, they are in the tank for the radical left’s climate agenda and see it as their job to ensure it gets implemented. But they lost control of the narrative on S.5 and, adding insult to injury from their perspective perched inside their ivory bubble, they lost it to a bunch of blue-collar woodchucks driving around in fuel trucks.
Throughout the debate over the Clean Heat Standard, Vermont’s most widely seen news outlets did their level best to keep Vermont citizens entirely uninformed about Clean Heat Standard bill – what it would do, what it would cost, how it would impact real people. One would think that a bill that the majority party says is most important piece of legislation of the session, one that is supposed to literally transform our economy and way of life in regard to an issue that holds the very fate of the planet in its hands, would warrant some curiosity and coverage from news reporters. This is big news, right?
Nope. Our press corps knew that truthful, detailed answers to these questions would not sit well with the public. If you want to make a law that will raise the price of heating fuel in a state that borders Canada, no news is good news, so an information blackout was the best reporting strategy to ensure eventual passage of the bill.
If you do an online search for news stories on “S.5, Affordable Heat Act, Clean Heat Standard, Vermont” you will find almost zero stories by major news outlets, and those that did appear were vague on details, aspirational in tone, and one sided in their perspective.
For example, the only two stories done by Vermont Digger over the first seven weeks the bill was being debated appeared on January 27, “Natural Resources secretary presents a ‘really rough’ estimate of the clean heat standard’s cost” and on February 3, “Lawmakers dismiss Natural Resources secretary’s ‘back-of-the-envelope’ math on the Affordable Heat Act.” Both stories were attempts to shut down discussion over what the Clean Heat Standard would cost, who would have to pay, and how much – no digging into getting their readers answers to those questions.
Nevertheless, and much to our media’s chagrin, word did get out through some small, alternative news sites (Behind the Lines included!), some letter writers, but mostly through paid advertising and grassroots communication by small, mom and pop fuel dealers. (The state’s two largest fuel dealers, which stand to profit from subsidies and competitive advantages in S.5, are in favor of the bill.)
The total statewide ad buy by the fuel dealers is reported to be about $34,000, or, to put that in perspective, a little bit more than what the independent House candidate for my home legislative district of Stowe (population of about 4500) raised for his campaign in 2022, and a little less than what the Democrat raised. So, $34K is not a lot for a statewide campaign needing to reach 647,000 people.
Why am I telling you this? Because as the Clean Heat Bill goes to the House, the Vermont media is already beginning to spin a new narrative about how the massive public backlash against S.5 is the result of “greedy oil companies” spending big money on a misinformation campaign to scare Vermonters into not supporting a bill that is really nothing but wonderful. It’s a false narrative.
And I’m willing to bet that as these stories come out, the reporters will neglect to mention that the myriad of special interest organizations supporting S.5 have huge budgets and an army of lobbyists in the State House every day who are paid – most quite well – to get lawmakers to vote for things like this.
VPIRG alone, for example, with an overall organizational annual budget of over $2 million, has fifteen registered lobbyists. Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) with a $1.5 million budget has seventeen. The Conservation Law Foundation has seven. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility has two.
Of the businesses that stand to benefit financially from S.5 and support the law, Vermont Gas systems has seven lobbyists, Green Mountain Power has eight, Vermont Electric Co Op has nine, Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (VPPSA) has five, Washington Electric has two.
Up against that phalanx of money and business suits, small Vermont Fuel Dealers have one lobbyist to speak on their behalf: Matt Cota.
All these groups were actively trying to get constituents to call their senators to support their position on S.5 before the vote, which is what’s supposed to happen in a representative democracy. The pro-S.5 advocates failed. Not for lack of resources, not for lack of effort (if you want to see one of their sales pitches, check this out), but because Vermonters overwhelmingly do not support a program that will force them to pay more to heat their homes. Senator Randy Brock (R-Franklin) said he received over 700 notes, emails, and phone calls about S.5. Three were in favor of it. His story was not unique. But, the bill passed the senate anyway.
And if you want to understand why when many multiple thousands of Vermonters call their legislators and plead with them to vote NO on a bill, but a supermajority of lawmakers vote for that bill anyway, the power of these special interest groups and the fact that our press corps is in bed with them is a big reason why.
This is the real story that Vermonters need to see about passage of S.5. Well-funded special interests are pulling the politicians strings, the media runs cover for them, and whatever regular Vermonters think and need from their government comes second — if at all. But, sadly, there aren’t a lot of news outlets who are going to write that story.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com