Facing Budget Woes, House Passes Watered Down Weatherization Bill

Vermont Yankee

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, says the so-called climate change bill that passed the House Friday does not go far enough. “It’s a baby step forward, but the problem is huge,” Klein said. (AP File Photo/Toby Talbot)

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.

 Earlier: As Legislature Reconvenes, Lawmakers Push For Energy Efficiency

House Committee Backs $26M Tax Plan That Includes Rooms and Meals

Tax Bill

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, says debating whether rooms and meals is considered a broad-based tax undermines the severe budget challenges facing Vermont. (AP File Photo/Toby Talbot)

By Kirk Carapezza

A key House committee has given preliminary approval to a tax package that would raise roughly $26 million, putting it on a collision course with the governor because it includes provisions he opposes.

Governor Peter Shumlin has said he does not want to raise broad-based taxes.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Friday took a straw vote in favor of a deal that includes a half percent tax increase on rooms and meals – from 9 to 9.5 percent.

Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said debating whether rooms and meals is considered a broad-based tax undermines the severe budget challenges facing Vermont.

“I think the real point that we need to ask ourselves is are we going to raise revenue to do the things we need to do? And if we raise revenue, how do we do that equitably and fairly?” Ancel said.

The package in the House would also impose the sales tax on soda, candy and bottled water, and clothing costing more than $110. Ancel said these taxes make fiscal sense to pay for state programs.

“We’re actually – frankly – not quite an outlier, but we’re in a minority of states in that we don’t apply the tax to candy and soda,” Ancel said. “So I think there’s certainly some good policy arguments for doing it.”

In the spirit of March Madness, some lawmakers this week have been filling out brackets that list various taxes. They’ve been picking which tax is going to “win” in the House Ways and Means Committee.

For those of you keeping score at home, the panel voted narrowly against a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. But it backed a 50-cent tax increase on cigarettes. It did not consider the governor’s proposal to tax break-open tickets, which are games akin to a lottery that are played in social clubs and bars.

The committee also rejected the governor’s proposal for redirecting $17 million from an earned income tax credit program for working Vermonters to subsidize child care. Not a big surprise – most lawmakers had seeded that proposal at the bottom of their bracket.

In a statement released Friday, Shumlin said he disagrees strongly with the manner in which the Ways and Means Committee has chosen to raise revenue.

“I have repeatedly opposed increases to income, meals, and sales taxes, and yet this proposal hits all three,” Shumlin said. “Rather than reallocating existing funds more efficiently to achieve better outcomes as my budget recommends, the committee proposal increases Vermont’s already high tax burden.”

House Advances Anti-Narcotics Bills

LIPPERT

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, made sure the state’s prescription drug problem got attention this year. (AP File/Toby Talbot)

By Kirk Carapezza

After weeks of studying Vermont’s prescription drug problem, House lawmakers on Thursday advanced a sweeping bill that would address opiate addiction and abuse.

Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the lead sponsor of the bill, said even before this legislative session began, he repeatedly heard from law enforcement officials who urged the Legislature to strengthen the state’s response to a prescription drug epidemic.

“We continue to have issues with overdoses,” Lippert said. “We continue to have a need to address recovery because, as law enforcement said in our committee and elsewhere, we can not arrest our way out of this problem.”

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lippert made sure the issue got attention this year. On Thursday, he outlined on the House floor how the new legislation would address that problem. It would provide better access to the state’s prescription drug monitoring system, and hold property owners accountable if they knowingly rent to drug dealers. It would also attempt to undercut the financing of the drug trade, and increase treatment options.

Last year, a similar bill got bottled up in committee largely because lawmakers couldn’t agree whether to give police access to the state’s drug records. This version would limit police access, but some lawmakers, including Arlington Representative Cynthia Browning, want to expand it.

“I understand all the issues of privacy of patients,” Browning explained. “I just think it’s important to note that improved access for law enforcement is not in this bill. That is one tool that is not being provided in this bill.”

Since opiate addiction in Vermont has dramatically spiked in recent years, lawmakers agree that the state needs to take a more comprehensive approach and they say this bill is a good start.

The House also advanced a companion bill that would create limited criminal liability for a person who calls emergency officials when someone is potentially having an opiate overdose.

Both bills come up for final approval on Friday.

Senate Orders Study Of Social Media Privacy Laws

By John Dillon

Legislation that would have banned employers from accessing the social media accounts of their workers was watered down to a study of the issue by the Vermont Senate.

The Senate on Thursday passed the measure on a unanimous voice vote. It sets up a study of existing social media privacy laws, as well as proposed legislation in other states. The committee is supposed to report back to the Legislature next January.

The bill started out with a far more pro-active approach. As originally proposed by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the measure would have prohibited potential employers from requiring passwords for Twitter, Facebook, or other social media accounts.

“I hope the study finds that we should be protecting job applicants from being required to release what is essentially private information,” Sears said.

The study bill would have been strengthened through an amendment offered by Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham. His amendment would have barred employers from accessing a worker’s personal computer, email, phone, letters or dairies that were created prior to employment.

But Galbraith withdrew his proposal because of confusion over the wording of the amendment.

House Gives Final Approval To Gas Tax

By John Dillon

The House has given final approval to legislation that makes major changes to how the state taxes gasoline sales.

The bill adds a 2 percent sales tax in addition to a tax on per gallon sales. That amounts to about an 8 percent tax increase. In 2014, the sales tax would be increased from 2 to 4 percent while the per gallon tax is reduced by 6 cents.

Backers of the bill say the changes were needed because gas sales have dropped over the years as people have shifted to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The House approval came after lengthy debate over the practice of diverting Transportation Fund dollars to non-transportation programs. Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre Town, offered an amendment that would reduce annual transfers to the Department of Public Safety, which includes the state police. Koch says his move would “purify” the Transportation Fund.

“There is either a will in this building to purify the funds, or there is not. This amendment provides a way to do it. It gets the job done, gradually over a period of time in a responsible manner,” he said.

Opponents of Koch’s amendment said the state has made progress in reducing the Transportation Fund transfers. Rep. Pat Brennan, R-Colchester, chairs the Transportation Committee. He said the bill cuts the transfer to Public Safety from $25.4 million to $20 million.

“I’m going to go back in time and tell you that at one point it was $44 million,” he said. “That was a raid on the Transportation Fund… I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Koch’s amendment was defeated 88-49. The gas tax bill now moves to the Senate.

House Passes Gas Tax, Equal Pay; Senate Turns To Social Media

VPR Staff

By a three-to-one margin, the Vermont House has given preliminary approval to a bill that would significantly change the way the state taxes the sale of gasoline. The bill moves away from the current per gallon tax and towards a sales tax on the price of gas.

A final vote is expected on Thursday.

***

Fifty years after Vermont outlawed pay discrimination, the House has advanced a bill that would ensure equal pay for all employees by prohibiting discrimination based on sex.

In 1963, Vermont banned pay discrimination in the Fair Employment Act. Since then, the gender-based wage gap has narrowed to 77 cents on the dollar. But advocates say new legislation is needed because progress has stalled in recent years.

“Half a century later, it’s amazing to think that women in Vermont are still paid less than men for the same jobs,” Speaker Shap Smith said in a statement. “It’s not enough to celebrate that Vermont is at least better than other states. If you do equal work; you ought to get equal pay, and this principle should drive employers to compensate their employees in a fair and balanced way.”

In Vermont, women earn about 84 cents for every dollar that men earn.

Opponents argued the bill passed in the House goes too far and could carry unintended, anti-business consequences.

The vote was 115-to-22 and the bill now goes to the Senate.

***

Earlier in the day, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would prohibit employers from getting into the social media accounts of their staffs.

The measure, known as the Facebook bill around the Statehouse, would forbid employers from requiring potential employees to provide passwords to their social media networks. Other states have adopted similar measures, including Illinois, New Jersey and California.

The bill is likely to come up for final approval before the Senate on Thursday. Advocates say the bill is needed because people are increasingly sharing their lives online.

Planning For A Burlington Bike Path Overhaul

By Amy Kolb Noyes

The city of Burlington has put out a call for consultants to plan a complete rehabilitation of the Burlington Bike Path. Proposals from design and engineering consultant teams are due by the end of the month. The project is scheduled to begin a year from this spring.

“The 7.5-mile Burlington Bike Path, part of the regional Island Line bike path, is valuable to the local community and the region as a recreation, health, transportation, tourism, and economic resource. Sections of the bike path were originally constructed in the mid‐1980s and it is past due for a comprehensive rehabilitation,” the city’s request for qualifications states.

Burlington is looking to hire consultants experienced in bike path design, engineering and permitting. Construction of the project is expected to go out to bid in January 2014. Reconstruction will start the following spring with a middle portion of the bike path, beginning at the water treatment plant south of Perkins Pier and heading up to North Beach.

House To Consider Pair Of Anti-Narcotics Bills

By Kirk Carapezza

Lawmakers are spending most of their time this week on the House and Senate floor, debating a dizzying number of bills – from a gas tax to a social media bill.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is finalizing a wide-ranging piece of legislation designed to strengthen Vermont’s response to prescription drug addiction. Among other things, the legislation would provide better access to the state’s prescription monitoring system – a move supporters say would help control Vermont’s drug problem. And public health and law enforcement officials are championing the measure, saying it would save lives.

“It’s clear that we have a challenging problem with opiate addiction and substance abuse in Vermont,” said Commissioner of Health Harry Chen, whose office estimates that Vermont sees about 50 deaths every year by unintentional overdoses. “We have some of the highest substance abuse rates in the nation.”

Chen said the prescription drug monitoring system is only effective if physicians are required to use it. Last year, a similar bill got bottled up in committee largely because lawmakers disputed giving police access to the state’s drug records.

While opiate addiction has spiked in recent years, Chen and others have said the state needs a more comprehensive approach.

The Judiciary Committee is also preparing a companion bill that would create limited criminal liability for a person who is present when someone is potentially having an opiate overdose.

Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said the point of the bill is to encourage people “to call 911 to assist the person who is in physical danger, and hopefully to stay with them until emergency EMTs can get there.”

This month, during public hearings, law enforcement officials in Massachusetts told lawmakers that this kind of criminal immunity has proven effective without condoning opiate use.

“On a bipartisan basis, the members of the House Judiciary Committee have endorsed this bill in order to save Vermonters’ lives,” Lippert said. “The moment of the overdose needs to be a moment when we are focusing on saving lives.”

“That’s the priority,” he added.

The House is scheduled to debate the two drug prescription bills on the floor Thursday.

Senate Delays Wind Debate

Hartwell_02

Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday lawmakers need more time to review a bill that would subject renewable energy projects to more state regulation.

By Kirk Carapezza

There’s a lot of arm-twisting going on in the halls of the Statehouse today, after the Senate delayed a much-anticipated, much-contested vote on a bill that would subject renewable energy projects to more regulation.

For months, the bill has divided environmentalists over the role of Act 250, Vermont’s development control law. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders stepped into the fray last month, expressing his opposition to what he and others see as an obstacle to ridgeline wind power projects in Vermont.

The bill’s backers argue it would allow renewable energy development to continue while authorizing cities and towns to block renewable projects proposed in their communities. Opponents say it would block clean energy projects that could slowly wean the state off its dependence on fossil fuels.

On Tuesday, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted, 5-0, to send the bill to the Senate floor, but the lead sponsors then requested lawmakers be given more time to look at the latest iteration, which calls for creating a legislative commission that would consider local and regional plans in the development review process. That commission would also weigh the costs and benefits of selling renewable energy credits from Vermont projects to out-of-state utilities to meet their states’ clean energy requirements.

“It’s really, to me, a planning bill,” said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, who was slated to report the legislation before the Senate decided to pass over it. “It takes full advantage of what the commission has been working on and takes the legislative opportunity to preview their recommendations on statutory changes.”

Opponents, who say the bill would slow renewable energy development in Vermont, suggest the bill’s backers are stalling to lobby more votes. “I think the proponents of the legislation can count and they came to the conclusion that they were not going to win so they delayed the vote,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

If the bill passes, Burns said it would undermine the state’s plan to develop clean energy in Vermont. “It is at odds not only with what most Vermonters would like to see done, but it’s at odds with what the state has committed to do.”

But Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, a sponsor of the bill, said supporters have the votes necessary to advance it. With Lt. Governor Phil Scott in Washington for a conference and Senate President John Cambpell presiding, however, Hartwell said he wanted to wait until the Senate had all of its members.

“Whatever happens I think everybody should be here,” he said.

The Senate will decide tomorrow whether to take up the bill for a full debate.

UPDATE: The Senate President’s office says lawmakers will vote on the bill Tuesday.

Earlier: Energy Bill Splits Environmentalists Over Role of Act 250

VPR News: Sanders Says Vt. Wind Moratorium Would Send ‘Terrible’ Message To Nation

Committee Takes On Speeders In Jay

By Amy Kolb Noyes

Town meeting voters in Jay opted not to appropriate money to hire the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department to patrol for speeders in the village, along Route 242. But the Jay Select Board is still determined to address the speeding issue. The board has formed a Traffic Control Committee that it hopes will come up with a plan to be put to voters on Town Meeting Day 2014.

Ten volunteers have already indicated interest in sitting on the Traffic Control Committee. The new committee will hold an organizational meeting on March 27.

“Peggy Loux, Jay Select Board chair, has asked Dee Burroughs-Biron to start the ball rolling to get as many of the volunteers together as possible for a 1st meeting, select a chair and minute taker,” the town website states.

Several traffic control suggestions were raised from the floor of town meeting earlier this month. Those ideas included a speed bump, a four-way stop, a flashing light, and an additional “speed cart” that flashes lights when a driver is exceeding the speed limit. Voters also discussed sending the town constable to law enforcement academy so he will have authority to make traffic stops.

The committee is charged with looking into the pros and cons of these and other options, as well as the costs. The select board has also asked the committee to investigate which options the state of Vermont will allow on the state highway.

“No sense wasting time on ideas the state of Vermont will not allow,” the website states.