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Vermont environmental bills die at crossover week

By   /   March 20, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Bruce Parker

GREEN ENERGY: Vermont Statehouse bills that either mandate or incentivize green energy failed to get past the mid-point of this legislative session, known as crossover week.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — In what was anticipated to have been a big year for environmental bills promoting a climate change agenda, no significant green energy bill managed to pass the legislative session’s “crossover week.”

Crossover week is when bills being worked on in the Senate move over to the House and bills in the House go to the Senate. Although rules can be suspended to allow a late crossover, the week is generally considered do-or-die for bills, legislatively.

“For people who want a clean environment and strong economy, it was a good session,” energy lobbyist Guy Page told Watchdog. “The bills that seemed to disregard the economic consequences all didn’t make it past crossover.”

For instance, a bill calling for $100,000 to study the benefits of a carbon tax, H.394, died in committee. The bill, sponsored by stat Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, was resolved simply “by not looking at it” in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Page said.

S.51, which would have codified former Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin’s goal of sourcing 90 percent of energy from renewables by 2050, also died in the same committee. As a result, those green-energy goals, among the most ambitious in the world, continue as mere policy guidelines.

H.487, a bill mandating that $18 million won in the Volkswagen class-action settlement be used for electric vehicles and charging stations, also failed, despite a hard push Friday by members of the House Energy and Technology Committee.

Honorable mentions that sputtered out include S.66, the cap-and-trade bill by state Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, which never saw movement after its initial reading in the Senate Energy Committee in early February. Critics of the bill, including Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, called S.66 “the carbon tax by another name.”

A green initiative that never even made it into the session was divestment of fossil fuels from the state pension fund. A study commissioned by the state treasurer’s office concluded that divestment would have serious negative consequences for investment returns and offer no benefit for the environment.

At least five efforts to push Vermont to the forefront of green energy leadership failed this year, as political winds shifted with new “economy and jobs first” administrations in Montpelier and Washington.

“Some observers say the lack of an activist governor to sign virtually any ‘renewable energy’ bill into law no doubt has dampened enthusiasm for climate-related legislation,” Page wrote in his weekly political newsletter.

University of Vermont associate economics professor Arthur Woolf said that legislators’ unwillingness to take up any bills that pressure the economy could be a sign of the times.

“Vermont’s aging population and decreasing workforce [are already stressing the economy]” he said.

Rob Roper, president of the free-market think tank the Ethan Allen Institute, said that the more people seem to learn about Vermont’s extreme energy bills, the more they turn against them. Roper and Woolf agreed that having a Republican governor in Vermont’s top office may have something to do with it.

“Part of it is probably the governor who threatened to veto anything,” Roper said. “Now Democrats and Progressives are probably just trying to figure out what they can do and can’t do.”

Roper added that he doesn’t think the bills are necessarily dead for the long term; he said the current lull in the action gives the opposition a chance to catch their breath.

However, Page, Cota and Roper all noted that unpopular bills can resurface late in a session as attachments to other bills, usually ones that are related to the budget. While they said piggybacking is unlikely this session, it is something opponents of state overreach must remain vigilant about.

“The one thing that I will continue is ensure that a $100,000 carbon tax study doesn’t get stuck on some other bill,” Roper said.

CLARIFICATION: Fossil fuel divestment is a policy that has strong backing from environmentalists but didn’t receive legislative backing during this session. The original version of the story didn’t clarify that distinction.

Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected]

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Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Bielawski has been writing articles for various publications in and around New York City; Seoul, South Korea; and Vermont. He’s a writer for the Hardwick Gazette, keeping track of rising school budgets and rural Vermont issues. He likes to write about energy and the environment, looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home, he’s busy looking after two little boys. During free time, he loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films on Netflix.