By Kirk Carapezza
Some lawmakers’ hopes of passing meaningful climate change legislation this session that might reduce greenhouse gas emissions have collided with the state’s fiscal reality.
Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, sponsored a thermal efficiency bill that originally would have, among other things, earmarked millions of dollars for the weatherization of homes and businesses in Vermont.
“Our leaky structures create a thirst for oil and other fossil fuels that is emptying our wallets and contributing to climate change,” Cheney told lawmakers on Friday. “We are spending twice as much to heat our homes today as we did 10 years ago. By taking on this challenge we can slow down climate change, save Vermonters money and create jobs in the building industry.”
But with no new funding sources, Cheney and other members of the House Natural Resources Committee, instead, recommended the state look into the electrification of its fleet of cars and vans. It was one sign of how the once broad climate change bill had been stripped of its primary elements.
A legislative task force found that substantial public investment would be necessary to meet the state’s statutory goals for weatherizing homes and buildings. The task force found that energy efficiency measures would save more than $1.4 billion, and 6.8 million tons of carbon emissions would be eliminated.
The measure would give priority for weatherization assistance to low-income heating recipients before other Vermonters. Supporters argued that policy could save state money as federal support for heating assistance continues to drop. The bill, which seeks no additional state spending, passed the House 109-27.
Still, critics, including Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, characterized the watered-down bill as an “unfunded mandate.”
“Expanding services, increasing eligibility without the necessary funding or resources required, is not fiscally responsible,” Turner said.
Supporters maintained the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough given the global climate crisis.
“It’s a baby step forward, but the problem is huge,” said Rep. Tony Klein, D- East Montpelier, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “We need to do much more and much sooner. If we don’t, then we will create a huge injustice to the generations that follow us.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed raising money for weatherization with a tax on a lottery-style game called “break open” tickets. Shumlin had said that tax would raise $17 million, but the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office later reported those projections were seriously inflated.
Later in the day, the House Ways and Means Committee did not consider the governor’s proposal to tax break-open tickets.
In January, House Speaker Shap Smith said climate change and energy efficiency would be a top priority this session. On Friday, Smith championed the energy efficiency bill.
“This bill directs weatherization to the lowest-income homes that are the least energy efficient,” Smith said. “Over time, this will allow us to distribute LIHEAP fuel aid more efficiently.”
House lawmakers, however, conceded there may be no money to pay for effective climate change legislation at the state level. Smith said the House hopes limited steps taken Friday will be bolstered with more funding to meet a statutory goal of weatherizing 80,000 homes in Vermont by 2020.