Vermont legislators tell student journalists what they think will, and won’t, work
From left – Rep. Avram Patt, Rep. Mollie Burke, Rep. Brian Smith.
By the Community News Service
This story features reporting from students in the University of Vermont’s environmental journalism course: Sophie Acker, Quinn Bisbee, Caitlin Boyarsky, Olivia Buchler, Jonas Camera, Lindsay Foxwell, Leah Golding, Emma Graham, Tanner Hopkins, Kate Kampner, Abby Minton, Julia Odwyer, Lindsay Renk, Kate Rosegard, Phoebe Swartz, Amelia Veleber, Meredith Williamson, Finn Hummel, Cassie Mcgonagle and Sangavi Muthuswamy. Mark Johnson edited the story.
Lawmakers say efforts to reduce the effects of climate change are more urgent than ever after devastating flooding caused significant damage throughout many parts of Vermont this summer.
Reducing the use of gas-fueled automobiles tops the lists of 16 lawmakers interviewed by the Community News Service this fall. Among their ideas are to create incentives for more people to purchase electric vehicles, build more EV charging stations, promote more public transportation where practical and improve the reliability of internet service in rural areas so more Vermonters can drive less and work from home more. Some caution against setting unachievable goals, though.
The legislators — who come from both the House and Senate and represent counties across the state — also want to push for more energy efficiency in homes, including improvements in heat pump technology and building housing closer to transportation hubs to reduce the use of gasoline and cut emissions.
Many lawmakers believe the flooding this July was caused by the effects of climate change and want to make changes that might help reduce the frequency of major flooding events. They also want to expand mitigation efforts, like improved emergency services and placing utilities underground, to reduce the damage when those major weather events occur in the future.
“(People say) that we want to improve the environment,” said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, the Senate minority leader. “One of the first things we have to do is not make it worse than it is right now.”
The costs of improvements and incentives could be significant, but Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, said the costs of cleaning up afterward are higher than taking preventative measures ahead of time. Some of those investments and ideas will be difficult politically and financially for lawmakers to support, she said, but the time for action is now.
That includes an effort she’s worked on with former Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington, chair of the House Committee on Transportation last session, and Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins, D-Burlington, of the House environmental committee, to tax gas-guzzling vehicles and giving buyers a “feebate” for vehicles that are more fuel efficient.
“Sometimes you have to do things that are politically feasible,” said Burke, a 15-year member of the House transportation committee. “At the same time, we’re in a situation right now where being politically feasible shouldn’t matter. It should matter that we’re in a very bad situation regarding our climate.”
Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, agreed that investments today could save money on cleanups after future extreme weather events and lessen their blow when they happen.
“We can either pay to clean up after a weather event or invest upfront in mitigation to save us all money” said Sims, who serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Among Sims’ suggestions are burying power lines, stabilizing sloped roads to aid in drainage and upgrading stormwater infrastructure. Many infrastructure improvements made after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 are credited with reducing the impact from this summer’s flooding.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said reducing the use of cars is key to offsetting the costs of climate change.
“Transportation is probably the biggest sector of environmental impacts that we’re dealing with right now,” said Stevens, chair of the House Committee on General and Housing.
Some ideas, like expanded bus service or more bike lanes, are more practical in urban than rural areas, lawmakers say.
“Bus routes are not viable in extremely rural areas,” says Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, who once helmed an organization developing and planning central Vermont’s public transportation system. “You’re going to be running empty buses down long distances.”
Having more people working remotely, even if it’s just a few days of the week, Patt said, can not only reduce the use of cars but have other benefits too.
“It also makes the job more attractive to a larger number of people who might otherwise not apply,” said Patt, a member of the House environmental and energy committee.
But he said better internet service is key to making remote work more feasible, especially in rural areas. He spoke about some constituents who took extreme measures to make remote work possible during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Two working parents, two small children, (with) basically no internet,” he said. “At their home, four people could not be on the Internet, so they were driving to the Wi-Fi hotspot in their town and sitting in their car for half a day, the poor people, to go to work.”
Some jobs like those in health care, Patt acknowledged, have to be done in person.
Where public transportation is more viable, like Burlington and the surrounding areas, Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden-Southeast, wants to see bus drivers paid better and fewer costs falling so heavily on municipalities. He said one possibility for more funding could come from a surcharge on car registrations.
“The answer is not just more electric cars — it’s also in less cars,” said Chittenden, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. He also said e-Bikes, like those recently proliferating in Burlington, aren’t a practical solution for many.
“I’m not against e-bikes, but I don’t see them as the best solution for the most vulnerable,” said Chittenden. “They are a great luxury to have when you also have a vehicle. But when you need to get a gallon of milk and some groceries, (e-bikes are) not going to work for those that need the resources the most,” Chittenden said.
Rep. Tesha Buss, D-West Woodstock, wants to work on making heat pump technology more accessible and attractive for consumers. Commercial use heat pumps only have a warranty of one year, unlike those for residential use, which have a warranty from eight to 10 years. Buss said she wants to see the warranties for commercial heat pumps extended longer.
Buss also wants to dispel some of the “misconceptions” she’s heard about electric vehicles, particularly the claim they are more expensive. An EV owner, Buss said electric vehicles typically need fewer engine repairs and brake replacements than gas vehicles.
Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, expressed skepticism about the affordability of EVs and urged caution against any policies that would compel people to own them. “If I don’t know I want to buy an electric car, I shouldn’t be penalized,” said Smith, a member of the House environmental committee.
Smith also questioned whether Vermont can deploy charging stations at the scale needed to meet emissions goals.
But legislators broadly signaled support for more EV charging stations and more EVs in consumers’ hands around the state. That includes traditionally offroad vehicles popular in Vermont’s recreation economy. Sen. David Weeks, R-Rutland, said he believes in “the use of electric snowmobiles and ATVs to mitigate air and noise pollution.”
Alongside those vehicles,“the related recharging infrastructure must also be available,” he said.
Weeks, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, mentioned as a priority reforming Act 250, the state’s land-use and conservation law long seen as too strict on builders.
Act 250 should be enhanced “to support interstate road development, address the housing shortage and encourage business development,” he said.
Discussions of infrastructure, transportation and the environment almost necessarily include regulations like Act 250, along with some of Vermont’s most immediate and well-known challenges: housing and demographic trends.
Brock, the Senate minority leader, said that “you don’t want to create sprawl, and you don’t want to create an environment that damages the natural beauty of the place in which we live,” though, “We have to recognize that we do have to have places for people to live.”
He said Vermont needs to look less toward government agencies and more toward the private sector to help the state’s housing crisis.
Part of solving that crisis, and of state projects to address environmental problems, depends on Vermont’s demographic dynamics, he said. For years the state’s population has declined on the whole and become increasingly older, apart from a small spike amid the pandemic. Officials have long talked about the flight of younger Vermonters.
“We don’t have enough people to do the jobs that need to be done,” Brock said, adding later, “We don’t have the number of folks moving in who are plumbers, carpenters and electricians, which is one of the things that we desperately need.”
He doesn’t think Vermont has enough skilled workers to add efficient heat pumps on the scale required. “People have gone most of the winter without their heat pumps working because they couldn’t find someone to do the repairs,” he said.
Critical to addressing the impacts of environmental changes in Vermont is boosting the number of folks in the trades, he said.
“You can’t do the insulation and the changes to add new and more advanced and more environmentally friendly heating sources unless you have the labor force to be capable and competent to be able to do that,” he said, adding, that the lacking labor force is “among the biggest risks that we have right now to be able to achieve our environmental goals.”
Some of the climate-related issues brought up are outside of the lawmakers’ jurisdiction but nonetheless affect their constituents.
“We certainly have a major environmental problem on our hands,” said Brock. “But it’s not a solely Vermont problem. It is a national problem, and indeed it’s an international problem.”
Rep. Jonathan Williams, D-Barre City, noted some of his constituents had difficulty during the summer flood cleanup because of the smoke coming from Canadian forest fires.
“Folks were cleaning up from the floods, and it involved a lot of, you know, shoveling out mud and stuff like that, but some of that cleaning couldn’t happen, or some folks couldn’t participate in the cleaning because of the air quality,” said Williams, a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus.
He also said the 211 emergency number needs to be improved because it was not always available for his constituents during the crisis.
Rep. Brian Cina, P/D-Burlington, said the flooding this summer has piqued lawmakers’ interest in passing legislation on climate issues.
“We’re in a worse situation than people want to admit, because when you really face it, it’s overwhelming. It’s really intense to think about the scale of it,” Cina said.
The question, he said, is “how do we deal with what’s happening now and prepare for what’s coming.”
On the other hand, Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex, feels it’s more important to resolve the current issues Vermont is facing before trying to bring in new laws.
“I’m really not so much looking at creating a new law as we’re going to be pretty busy repairing a lot of the flood damage throughout the state,” said Ingalls, who chairs the Senate Committee on Institutions, which is responsible for public buildings.
“I’ve got about 21 buildings right there within sight of the Statehouse that have been flooded,” he said. “And so we’re going to be pretty busy with that … I’ve got enough on my plate right now with running the committee to make sure that we repair the damage from our last flood.”
He said officials should “be wise about where we decide that we’re going to put buildings on and get them out of the floodplain, so that we don’t have to keep on going back and fixing what we’ve fixed the previous years.”