Vermont Legislators Discuss Newest Climate Change Bill

Sep 14, 2020

The Vermont Legislature has passed H.688, or the Global Warming Solutions Act, which would legally require the state to meet carbon emission reductions targets in the coming years, and allow people to sue the government if it does not meet those targets. It’s now awaiting Gov. Phil Scott’s signature, though he is expected to veto the act. This hour, we discuss this bill with legislators from both sides. Plus, we’ll hear about how similar legislation in Maine has played out.

Our guests are:

  • Rep. Selene Colburn, a Progressive from Burlington who was one of the sponsors of the Global Warming Solutions Act
  • Rep. Felisha Leffler, a Republican from Enosburg Falls who voted against the bill
  • Kevin Miller, reporter who covers politics and environmental issues at the Portland Press Herald 

Broadcast live on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Note: Gov. Phil Scott vetoed this bill on Sept. 16, 2020, and the Vermont Legislature overrode his veto Sept. 17, 2020.

The Global Warming Solutions Act by the numbers

H.688 will require Vermont to reduce greenhouse gas pollution: 

  • 26% below 2005 levels by 2025
  • 40% below 1990 levels by 2030
  • 80% below 1990 levels by 2050

The bill will also create of a 23-member climate council to develop a pollution reduction plan.

A Q&A with the legislators who support and oppose H.688

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Jane Lindholm: What does this bill entail, and how will it make sure the targets are met?

Selene Colburn, Burlington Progressive: So it creates a planning body and process; a climate council that will be chaired by the Secretary of Administration with clear directives for a process to make rules, and the Agency of Natural Resources will use a rulemaking process to do that, to get us on a path to meet these goals.

And then along the way, there are many, many checks and balances with the Legislature and importantly, I think with the public, so that we are constantly able to assess the plan that's coming forward and how we will meet these goals.

And then the bill does create a very narrow legal remedy for Vermonters if Vermont fails to make good on these promises. Essentially, the court can order Vermont to get back on track with its planning and rulemaking process. And that's about the extent of the legal remedy.

Jane Lindholm: Representative Leffler, you don’t support this piece of legislation. Walk us through why.

Felisha Leffler, Enosburg Falls Republican: In H.688, the proposed climate council of 23 people has eight representing the executive branch, and ... not only holds policymaking authority, but enacting authority. So if you compare that to clean water, where we asked the board to come up with a plan for the Legislature to enact, there are no real checks and balances in this bill.

And I'm actually very uncomfortable, particularly with a great example of how a board can kind of muck, looking just at two years ago at the State Board of Education and Act 46.

It's absolutely, in my opinion, within the power of the Legislature to do this work and not farm it out. And I don't understand how people are comfortable abdicating really our constitutional duty. And in handing that over to the executive branch and problematic boards and councils and at the end of the day, it's bad governance.

I absolutely agree that we have to address our changing climate. I have a lot of concerns for the reality of reaching the 26% below 2005. But I was excited to see the governor commit to the Climate Alliance when we pulled out of the Paris Accord federally. And I'm excited to continue working on supporting legislation that addresses our changing climate.

But you can oppose bad bills and still support good ideas. My problem with the bill is that it farms out the work that the Legislature should be doing, and it kind of abdicates that responsibility. If the council puts forward a proposal for reductions that Vermonters are uncomfortable with, the council's not elected. They're not accountable.

I think if the Legislature really wants this, the onus should be on the Legislature. We should be the ones making these big decisions and the ones accountable for Vermonters' likes or dislikes of the measures that we take to reach these goals.

More from VPR: Poll Shows Respondents Split Over Vermont's Response To Climate Change

Jane Lindholm: Who is set to be on the climate council, and how do you think should be on it?

Felisha Leffler: So the panel is currently made up of eight members of the administration. Most of those are secretaries that represent the sectors that we're going to be impacting. So Secretary of Administration, Secretary of Natural Resources, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce and Community Development, Secretary of Human Services, Secretary of Transportation.

We've also got the Commissioner of Public Safety, Commissioner of Public Service, and then we have eight members chosen by the [House] Speaker that have to fall into specific areas of expertise or representation. And then eight or seven that are chosen by the Committee on Committees.

So as far as the members that make up the council, as I previously voiced, we're giving a seat to the executive branch for something that should be handled by the legislative, and then picked by the Speaker, but not required to be legislators. But they're not required to have really any depth of expertise. It's just one number to represent distribution, utilities, one member to represent rural communities.

So as far as the council's made up, I think that this bill made the efforts in some regards to represent kind of the duality of Vermont and that rural and urban setting and think about who ought to be included. But they missed the biggest point, that the Legislature already has representatives that represent the duality of the rural and urban communities.

The Legislature already has pockets of expertise from being a citizen legislature. And we have just an absolute wealth of experience and ideas and advice that come from our agency partners and the administration, as well as from the public and any testimony and conversations that we have around this issue. So, is the council made up of the right people? I don't think there should be a council.

Jane Lindholm: What steps need to be taken to actually meet the targets laid out in this bill?

Selene Colburn: There are a lot of solutions that have been on the table for years and years that really are direct and would increase resiliency for Vermonters, would be a boom to our economy. The bill calls for substantive work on the issue of resiliency, which I think is so important and also calls for what we're calling a just transition.

So any solution that comes forward really has to take into account how rural Vermonters, how low-income Vermonters, how folks who are going to be the most impacted by the effects of climate change, can be assisted in the transition.

So, you know, I can't tell you the way we're going to do it is X, Y and Z. But I can tell you that so many pieces of the puzzle, so much good work has already been done. The issue is we're not moving forward with those solutions.

Jane Lindholm: The VPR-Vermont PBS poll that we had a while ago said so many Vermonters can't even afford an unexpected $1,000 expense. This is going to hurt people who need to make choices but don't have a lot of money. So how do you protect them?

Selene Colburn: I think we protect them by the really important provisions in this bill that I mentioned earlier about making sure that low-income Vermonters, rural Vermonters have the support and resources that they need. We know that there is the possibility of increasing federal stimulus money in the coming year by doing this planning in this bill, we know how to put that money to good use to help the people who need it to make this transition.

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