Commentary: There’s Still Time for Policies that Will Strengthen Vermont
This commentary is by Lauren Hierl, Executive Director of Vermont Conservation Voters
Like so many aspects of our lives, the 2020 legislative session in Vermont has been unprecedented. For the first time, lawmakers figured out how to do committee work and hold votes virtually. Instead of adjourning before the election season got underway, as typically happens, lawmakers are merely on a break until late August, when they plan to reconvene to finish work on the state budget, allocate the remaining federal COVID-19 Relief Funds, and wrap up several priority policy initiatives.
Critical action on climate change, land use, and protecting people from toxic PFAS chemicals remain on the Legislature’s to-do list. Collectively, these policies aim to foster public health, community resilience, create jobs, and address inequities in our current systems.
Coming into this year, sweeping public support created strong momentum for bold climate action. Vermont Conservation Voters (VCV) and 30+ organizations representing low-income, business, public health, youth, faith, and other perspectives presented a 2020 Climate Action Plan with a set of complementary climate policies that had the potential to be job-creating game-changers for Vermont.
Our marquee priority this year has been the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688), which will require progress and strategic planning to achieve our climate pollution reduction targets. Framed around vital principles for action — adaptation and resilience, equity and justice, pollution reduction, and economic development — the legislation offers the framework we need to transition to a clean energy economy. In the process, we will put people to work, cut carbon pollution, help families save money, and (re)build communities in the wake of COVID-19.
We are grateful that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe made climate action a top priority this year, and even amidst the many challenges facing the state due to the pandemic, they continue to prioritize and ensure progress on critical climate policies. An overwhelming, bipartisan majority of the Legislature has voted in support of the Global Warming Solutions Act, with 24 Senators and 105 Representatives voting in favor. All in all, more than two-thirds of all lawmakers have voted in support of the bill.
Despite strong votes in both chambers, the Global Warming Solutions Act is not yet over the finish line. When the Legislature reconvenes later this month, the House will need to vote on the latest version. We hope that the vote happens swiftly so this important climate bill heads to Governor Scott’s desk for his signature as soon as possible.
Act 250 Modernization
At the same time, the Legislature has been working hard on a bill (H.926) that includes a suite of updated land use policies that would encourage smart growth development and affordable housing in the places we want it, while better protecting our natural resources — including forest blocks and wildlife corridors — by updating Act 250. This bill passed the House, and is queued up for action in the Senate when they reconvene.
Thinking about how and where we develop in Vermont is especially important during the pandemic. We have seen large numbers of people from surrounding urban areas, in particular, coming to the Green Mountain State to live in vacation homes or purchase new properties, many sight-unseen. We need policies in place to ensure that an influx of new residents to Vermont will be supported by responsible development and infrastructure in their new hometowns, which modernizing Act 250 will address.
Protecting People from Toxic Chemicals
Before going on break, the Senate also passed legislation to ban toxic PFAS chemicals from food packaging, carpets and rugs, and firefighting foam (S.295). There are safer alternatives for all of these products that are cost-competitive, and other states are already moving ahead with similar PFAS bans. Just this summer, New York State banned PFAS from food packaging, building on a similar ban already enacted in Maine. In addition to cancer and other negative health impacts, exposure to PFAS has also been linked to increased susceptibility to the negative impacts of COVID-19.
Vermonters deserve protections from unnecessary exposure to these harmful chemicals. We hope to see the House take up and pass a ban when they return in August.
A Brief Look Back
It’s also worth remembering that we made several noteworthy strides on environmental priorities in the first year of the 2019-2020 legislative biennium. Positive steps included a significant increase in long-term clean water funding, a nation-leading ban on single-use plastics, new requirements to test and remediate toxic PFAS chemicals in public drinking water supplies, mandatory testing and remediation for any lead contamination in our schools and childcare facilities, and better protections for children from toxic chemicals in children’s products.
Important work remains on environmental priorities this year before final adjournment, including climate change, Act 250, and PFAS protections. But we are encouraged by the progress to date. We appreciate Speaker Johnson’s and Senate President Pro Tem Ashe’s ongoing commitment to advancing climate action and other environmental and public health priorities this year – especially during these incredibly challenging times. It’s a clear recognition that we must rebuild and revitalize our economy in ways that create good jobs and make our communities more self-reliant and resilient.
Vermonters have come together in so many ways during the pandemic; let’s come together to call on our elected officials to enact these bills to help create a stronger Vermont.