Gov. Phil Scott didn’t mention the clean heat standard in his budget address Friday — but his comments indicated he’s taking aim at the policy once again.
The bill, which addresses greenhouse gas emissions from heating Vermont’s buildings, has returned to the Legislature after lawmakers failed to override Scott’s veto last session.
In his speech, during which he laid out his administration’s budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year, Scott announced that he has carved out funding — $900,000, according to his budget summary — for the Climate Office in the Agency of Natural Resources “to do the real planning and analysis we need to reach emissions targets accurately and realistically."
That office will be dedicated to “the pre-work that's needed around the building and thermal sector,” Julie Moore, the agency’s secretary, said after Scott’s address.
But wait — doesn’t Vermont already have a group dedicated to finding climate solutions in the state?
Indeed, it does. Lawmakers formed the Vermont Climate Council when they passed the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets by 2025, 2030 and 2050.
“I was surprised to hear about a plan, that we need a plan, that we need to develop a plan,” House Speaker Jill Krowinski told reporters after Scott’s budget address Friday. “We do have a plan. We passed the Global Warming Solutions Act. We have a Climate Council. The Climate Council has been doing incredible work to produce policy recommendations for us to act on, and that is what we've been doing.”
Scott vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act, but members of his administration ultimately led the Climate Council, which in December 2021 delivered a 274-page report that outlined ways Vermont can reduce its emissions.
Council members named the clean heat standard among the Climate Action Plan’s top strategies. It was meant to drastically reduce pollution from the thermal sector, which accounts for more than 30% of the state’s climate emissions.
While the exact proposal is still being discussed by lawmakers, the clean heat standard would likely establish a credit system, rewarding people and businesses that install “clean heat measures” such as buying electric heat pumps or making a home more weather-proof. Entities that bring fossil fuel heat into the state would need to buy credits, therefore imposing a financial penalty.
Scott has long expressed concern that the standard could mean financial hardship for Vermonters.
“The fact is, 70% of Vermonters rely on fossil fuels to heat their homes,” he said in his address on Friday. “To change this, we need to help people through this transition, not punish them.”
Some lawmakers and many environmental groups have long emphasized that Vermonters are most vulnerable to expensive heating options when they use fossil fuels to heat their homes. They point to volatile markets for propane, kerosene and fuel oil. On the other hand, weatherizing homes and transitioning to heat pumps marks a significant and often out-of-reach upfront expense for many Vermonters.
After Scott vetoed the clean heat standard last year, the agency’s Climate Office spent the summer “trying to dig into getting answers to the questions he asked,” Moore said.
The agency has contracted with the Energy Futures Group, based in Hinesburg, to “help do a qualitative assessment of all of the different options for building a thermal sector, but then come back with a more detailed quantitative assessment that we hope to have this spring around greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” she said.
Part of Scott’s proposed $900,000 would go toward the next phase of that study.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are pressing ahead with a new draft of the clean heat standard, which they’re calling the Affordable Heating Act this session. The bill is a priority for lawmakers this year, and with a supermajority of Democrats and Progressives, they have a better chance of swinging an override.
So, will the efforts of the Climate Office work in tandem with lawmakers' plans?
Moore said it depends.
“There's been a lot of work done looking at how to make a clean heat standard cost effective, but I'm not sure we ever asked ourselves, ‘Is a clean heat standard the most cost effective approach to meeting the thermal sector reductions?’” she said. “There could be a pretty big gulf there, and that's part of what we're trying to get at.”
— Emma Cotton
IN THE KNOW
The overall price tag for Scott’s budget this year is $8.4 billion — “very slightly more” than last year’s budget, Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin told reporters in a Friday morning briefing. The budget’s total spending is roughly $20 million higher than last year’s, according to the administration.
Scott said in his address that he’s bracing the state for lean times on the horizon — even though revenues are historically high.
“We’ve seen incredible revenue growth over the last two years because the economy has been supercharged by the sheer volume of federal funds,” Scott said in his annual budget address Friday. “But we know that’s only temporary.”
— Sarah Mearhoff & Lola Duffort
Hours before Scott’s address, Democratic leaders of the House and Senate took aim at a separate proposal of the administration’s: the push to shift state employees to a private Medicare Advantage plan, against the wishes of the state employees’ union.
“Shifting the decision-making power to the private insurance industry, without support of state retirees, undermines the decades of protections that state retirees have enjoyed as a result of the state employees’ collectively bargained contract,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, and House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, wrote in a joint statement.
“We share the concerns of many retired state employees about the legality and the financial and health implications for our state’s retired public servants,” they said. “State retirees have dedicated years of service to the State of Vermont and they deserve the assurance that the healthcare benefits they were promised will be protected.”
— Mike Dougherty
Lawmakers have approved an update to the state’s pesticide regulations, marking the first time the rules have changed in more than 30 years.
The change, approved unanimously by the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, brings Vermont in line with federal regulations and includes a requirement that people using commercial pesticides must provide more notification to landowners and the public about when and how they are used. A new permit process will be required for adult mosquito spraying, and town governments will go through a new permit process for using the chemicals on private land and in public rights-of-way.
— Emma Cotton
The Vermont Supreme Court issued a decision Friday in favor of Montpelier allowing noncitizens to vote in its local elections.
The plaintiffs included two Montpelier residents who are citizens, eight Vermont citizens who live elsewhere in the state and the Republican National Committee. The court ruled that the parties had standing to challenge the charter change because eligible voters had an “interest” in ensuring the voter pool was constitutional to “preserve the effectiveness of their vote.”
But when it comes to the legality of the charter change to allow noncitizen voting, the court’s decision said that legal precedent and a close reading of Chapter II, Section 42 of the Vermont Constitution proved that local election qualifications can be different from statewide election qualifications.
— Erin Petenko
Ena Backus has left her role as the director of health care reform for the Agency of Human Services. Having served since 2018, Backus will join the Vermont office of U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., as an outreach representative next week.
Meanwhile, the agency is still seeking a permanent head of the Department for Children and Families, as Harry Chen prepares to step down from his interim role as commissioner in late February.
— Kristen Fountain
WHAT WE’RE READING
Procedural confusion could delay Winooski’s ‘just cause’ eviction effort (VTDigger)
Vermont ACLU files lawsuit against Bennington police officials, alleging rights violations (VTDigger)
Group says it received threats in advance of meeting to support equity in Randolph schools (VTDigger)
Vermont gun control bill would add age limit for semi-automatic weapons, among other measures (VTDigger’s Sarah Mearhoff will be on Monday’s Vermont Edition at noon on Vermont Public)
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