Vermont Legislative Session Ends: What Happened and What Comes Next
More than $7 billion in coronavirus relief funds have been injected into the Vermont economy over the past year. This infusion of federal funds includes unprecedented increases for programs and services across state government. Now that work inside Vermont’s Virtual Statehouse has ended, you can find details on what lawmakers did and what comes next at vermontfuel.com/2021laws. A brief summary is below.
Climate Spending Lawmakers allocated $20 million for weatherization and another $20 million to the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund to subsidize wood heat and solar power. There is also $5 million more in cash to convince Vermonters to buy an electric vehicle. Lawmakers have also set aside $100 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to implement a still unwritten “Climate Action Plan.” While the money has been identified, it isn’t clear whether it can be spent on the plan. A review of U.S. Treasury guidance clearly states that ARPA funds can only be used to address the negative economic impacts of the public health emergency. Lawmakers on the budget committee have admitted they are not sure whether climate change spending is “ARPA-able.” Click here to watch.
Action Planning The Climate Council continues to work on an action plan that will be released in December. The plan will explain how to meet the emissions reduction mandates in the law. If emissions do not decline by at least 26% in the year 2025, anyone could sue the state. Vermont will have to show a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. And 80% fewer emissions by 2050. The action plan may offer restrictions on the combustion of fossil fuels or the equipment and engines that depend on them.
C-Noted Members of the Vermont Climate Council asked the Legislature to increase the per diem they are eligible to receive— from $50 to $100 a day. The organization, created by the Global Warming Solutions Act, is figuring out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025. The ranks of the Climate Council have more than doubled as five different subcommittees have formed to come up with solutions. Despite the request, the Senate Committee on Government Operations did not agree to double their pay.
TCI Trouble Not much talk in 2021 about TCI— the Transportation Climate Initiative. Two years ago it seemed all but certain that Vermont would join the cap and trade scheme to raise the price of gasoline and diesel fuel in order to convince drivers to use less. While Vermont is still involved in the planning process, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. have committed to TCI. Last year, legislation was proposed that would require Vermont to join. This year no such bill was introduced. The new worry about TCI is that it will reduce fuel supply by 30% over the next decade, leading to shortages and possible hoarding.
Registry Proposal Fall Short Legislation that requires contractors to register with the state and pay a fee collapsed on the one-yard line. VFDA successfully amended the bill (H.157) on the Senate floor to ensure that heating technicians— and the companies that employ them— would not have to register. However, lawmakers shut down the virtual session before the House could approve the Senate changes. It will be back in January.
Burlington Burner Ban Delayed Voters in Vermont’s largest city overwhelming approved a resolution back in March that could lead to a ban and/or a tax on heating equipment that burns fossil fuels. The House Committee on Government Operations held an initial hearing on a proposal (H.448) that would change the charter of the City of Burlington and allow the City Council to “regulate heating equipment.” There was not enough time in 2021 to pass the charter change, but it will be back in January.
Fix for Four Finalized Legislation (H.433) passed by the House and Senate will eliminate the requirement that trucks obtain a permit when driving on Route 4. The town of Woodstock rakes in about $25,000 per year from truckers who forget to pick up a permit. Woodstock charges up to $962 if a driver doesn’t have a permit in the truck. No other town in Vermont has the ability to fine truckers for simply driving on a state road. If Governor Scott signs the legislation as expected, Woodstock’s ability to penalize truckers for driving on Route 4 without a permit will expire on July 1, 2022.
Foam Fix Lawmakers in the House voted 145-0 in favor of legislation that would ban toxic chemicals from a slate of consumer products in Vermont. The ban includes certain types of firefighting foam used at oil and gas terminals. The measure (S.20) does allow foam that contains PFAS chemicals to be purchased until January 1, 2024. A terminal operator can apply for a limited exemption if there is no commercially available alternative.
Unemployment Fix Compromise After months of negotiations, lawmakers finally agreed to not penalize employers for laying off workers when the government ordered them to shut down last year. The legislation ensures the 2020 experience rating is removed from the unemployment insurance rate calculation. The fix came at a cost as lawmakers added $25 per week for anyone with children collecting unemployment. The benefit bump is estimated to cost employers $100 million over the next several years.
Getting Connected A good chunk of the federal money ARPA money will try to connect the estimated 60,000 Vermont homes that are still without high speed internet, with $150 million going to broadband buildout projects across the state.
Fuel Funds Refund All certified fuel assistance suppliers should have received information and instructions on how to close out the heating season. The refund report along with any unspent funds is due back to the Fuel Assistance office no later than June 16. The seasonal fuel assistance program spent $16 million this winter to provide heat to more than 16,000 Vermont families. Thanks to federal ARPA funds, the Vermont fuel assistance program will more than twice as much money to spend next winter.
No Reform Despite several proposals that would have made significant adjustments to Act 250, nothing happened. While Governor Scott pushed for a more predictable and less costly permit process, others sought to use the reform enthusiasm to put further restrictions on development.
Energy Planning The Vermont Public Service Department will be hosting four virtual regional forums in June focused on energy planning efforts as they update the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan. The PSD wants to hear comments from citizens and stakeholders around the state before they publish the new plan in January 2022. Go to publicservice.vermont.gov/content/2022-plan to learn more.