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Note: Blog posts entitled "Legislative Report" have been published in The Charlotte News, and those entitled "The Word in the House" have been published in The Citizen.

Legislative Report 2/8/2018 - Vision Reflects Values

The President's State of the Union address is a tradition of our democracy that allows the head of the executive branch of the government to express his vision for America. It usually addresses a broad range of issues at a high level and is short on detail. Whether or not you agree with what is said, at least you get a pretty good idea of where the speaker is coming from. This got me thinking about my own communications, so I thought I'd try to deliver my own vision of what I try to accomplish as I serve as your Representative in Montpelier.

Let me start by saying that, as wonderful as Vermont is, we all want to help make our state a better place to live, work and play. We want Vermont to be affordable, not just for those at the top of the income bracket, but for everyone. Every family should have the opportunity to thrive, to be able to earn a living wage. While our minimum wage is above average, I believe that it should continue to rise gradually over time until it becomes a livable wage. Likewise, no employee should have to worry about losing their pay or even their job if they have to take time off to care for a sick child or elderly parent. That is why I voted for paid family leave last year, a bill that is awaiting action in the Senate. For those who are stuck in low wage jobs, we need to continue to increase access to training, career and technical education so that every Vermonter has a fair shot at success.

We have a great education system, but the cost of education continues to place a heavy burden on property taxes. With the additional demands placed on our schools from addiction, mental illness, and poverty, great public schools in all our communities are more important than ever in giving all children a bright future. During this session we are proposing a system of education funding that is simpler, still progressive, still subject to local control, and that will significantly reduce property tax burdens. Nor can we forget about the need to support pre-K and post high school educational opportunities.

Another core value is healthy families in healthy communities. The cost of health insurance and housing are the biggest challenges faced by many Vermonters. While Republicans in Washington are dismantling the Affordable Care Act and cutting funding for Medicare and Medicaid we need to make health insurance more affordable and ensure that Vermonters have access to treatment without barriers for drug addiction and mental health. A key to maintaining individual health is affordable housing, We need to support affordable housing development in downtowns and in village centers that also provides access to jobs, shopping and public transportation.

Finally, we need a healthy environment. We can't put off efforts to clean our lakes and streams. We have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels which has become a major contributor to climate change. Extreme weather events as well as adverse health effects. Lyme disease, algae blooms, heat waves, and extreme cold are the result. We can't afford to do nothing,

These are some of the values that frame my work in the legislature. I hope that my work will lead to a better Vermont for us and for our children and grandchildren.

I'll end by reminding you that I will be hosting an informational forum on the topic of Pricing Carbon Pollution at the Charlotte Senior Center on Monday. February 12, at 7:00 p.m. I hope to see you there.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 1/24/2018 - A Practical Approach to Pricing Carbon Pollution

Most people recognize that climate change is happening, that it is caused by burning fossil fuels, and that it has serious environmental and health consequences. The challenge to our generation is how to counter the trend of increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The most obvious action is to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Our economy and lifestyle depends heavily on fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation. We successfully continue to transform our electric generation to renewable, clean sources, making Vermont's electric supply among the cleanest in the country while keeping our electric rates the second lowest in New England. However, despite our goal of reducing Vermont's GHG emissions by 25% compared to 1990 levels, our GHG levels have instead increased by 4%. We cannot be successful unless we address fossil fuel consumption in heating and transportation.

A proposal currently being considered called the ESSEX Plan, an Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy EXchange, was developed by a group of environmental advocates, business people and legislators over the last summer and has been introduced as Senate bill S.284. The goal of the plan is to move dependence on dirty fossil fuels to Vermont's clean electric energy by discouraging use of fossil fuels and encouraging a transition to electricity for heating and transportation. Here is how the plan works.

The EPA during the Obama administration calculated the “social cost of carbon pollution” to health and the economy to be $40/ton. Based on this number the plan starts at $5/ton of CO2 (5 cents/gallon) and rises steadily to $40/ton (40 cents/gallon) over an 8 year period. The revenue generated goes back to Vermonters in the form of a rebate on electric bills. About $30M would be raised the first year and grows to $240M when the price tops out in eight years. This money would go into a special fund which would be drawn on for the rebates. Each month the amount collected would be allocated to each utility based on its electricity consumed for that month. That share would then be allocated based on whether the revenues came from the commercial, industrial or residential side of fossil fuel consumption. The rebates would be based on the amount of a customer's electricity usage. The revenues from the commercial and industrial customers would be rebated to them. The revenues from the residential customers would be divided based on income and geography.

Of the residential revenue 50% would be rebated to all residential customers, 25% would be rebated to customers in rural areas, and another 25% would be rebated to low income customers. Low income Vermonters in rural areas would get both bonus rebates. This formula is in recognition that Vermont is a rural state that requires longer commutes for rural residents and that low income residents pay a proportionally higher share of their income on energy costs. This strategy should encourage Vermonters to use less fossil fuel by transitioning to technologies like cold climate heat pumps, electric vehicles, mass transit, carpools and other strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.

So, how does this strengthen the state's economy? First of all, it makes Vermont more affordable. While electric rates themselves won't be affected, the carbon rebates, itemized on consumers' electric bills, will significantly decrease the net cost of electricity. Vermont's already low rates relative to our neighboring states will be even more attractive to businesses. Secondly, Vermont is not a source of fossil fuels, so 80 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels leaves Vermont. On the other hand, Vermont's electricity is increasingly sourced within the state or region, keeping millions of dollars of energy spending in Vermont. Third, transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity will add more well-paying green jobs to the 17,500 already created in Vermont. Finally, we are not alone. Vermont's New England neighbors and New York are poised to introduce their own carbon pricing legislation in the coming weeks making this a regional effort.

This method of carbon pricing is innovative and environmentally and economically beneficial. I look forward to a productive dialog about this plan and will host an informational forum on the topic at the Charlotte Senior Center on February 12 at 7:00 PM. I hope to see you there.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 1/17/2018 - Hitting the Ground Running

The first week of the 2018 legislative session opened with less ceremony than last year, which was the beginning of the biennium. New members appointed since last May due to resignations were seated, and Speaker Mitzi Johnson made her opening remarks. She acknowledged that each House member was there to promote the best interests of Vermont and Vermonters as they perceived that charge, and she asked us to work together collaboratively to achieve the best results. Recognizing that climate change was one of the most critical challenges of society, she challenged each House committee to take at least one initiative within its purview that would reduce carbon emissions.

The second day was essentially a continuation of the veto session that convened last June to pass the FY18 budget after Governor Scott vetoed it and the marijuana legalization bill. While the budget was passed in June, the marijuana bill did not have enough support to suspend the rule requiring 24 hour notice published in the record before a bill could be voted on. Such a suspension would require ¾ of the body present to pass. So notice to take up H.511 was published in the House Calendar on January 3rd, and we proceeded to debate it the following day. Two hours of debate in the morning and three after the Governor's State of the State address in the afternoon, primarily consisted of amendments that were offered, only one of which was adopted. The bill to legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana and two mature and 4 immature plants per household in a secure area with penalties for distribution to persons under 21 years of age passed on a vote of 81 to 63.

This is an issue that continues to divide public opinion with strong feelings on both sides. Access to marijuana by young people and driving under the influence are valid concerns. My vote in favor of the bill reflected my opinion that the current status of prohibition is not working. More than 80,000 Vermonters admit to using even while it is illegal, and marijuana is more accessible to teens than alcohol. Like alcohol, it can be abused, but most users do not abuse it. I listened closely to the debate and supported several amendments that I felt would improve it. I don't believe the bill is perfect, but I came to the conclusion that legalization is inevitable. It will be available legally in Massachusetts by the end of the year, and Quebec is on the path of legalization as well. The bill increases penalties for distribution to minors and increases the number of State Police officers trained to be Drug Recognition Experts (DREs). In my opinion marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol. While this bill does not provide for that, I believe that Vermont will adopt a tax-and-regulate system in the next year or two.

I welcome your concerns and opinions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com). 

Legislative Report 1/10/2018 - Session Preview - 2018

Patience and persistence: these are two qualities that I learned are essential to working in the legislature. The issues that the legislature has to address are often very complex and do not lend themselves to simple solutions. Measures that are enacted sometimes fail to have the desired effect and have to be tweaked by subsequent legislation.

Governor Peter Shumlin in his 2014 State of the State speech to the legislature identified opiate abuse as a major crisis in Vermont. While Vermont stood alone at the time in putting a spotlight on this problem, it is now acknowledged to be a national epidemic. Since that time much attention and finances have been focused on the problem in Vermont. Yet it persists and continues to grow. Vermont is still one of the top five states for heroin use as a percentage of adult population. This has resulted in a 38% increase in caseload for the Department of Children and Families due largely to children of opiate-addicted parents. One piece of good news is that Vermont has the lowest rate of drug overdose deaths in New England. The opioid problem is one of several major issues the legislature will continue dealing with as we begin the 2018 session.

Another issue that will require many more years of attention is the condition of our lakes and streams. This is not only an environmental problem, but an economic one as well. Tourism is a major part of Vermont's economy. Algae blooms not only detract from the appeal of Vermont to tourists, but they lower property values and impact health. Treasurer Beth Pearce identified enough financial resources to fund a $25M/year mitigation program for two years. We're already through the first year, so we need to come up with a sustainable source of funds for this decades-long task. Governor Scott is advocating bonding to solve the problem, but this just pushes the cost of the cleanup to future generations. We need to be courageous enough to deal with this problem in the present.

Another persistent problem that will take courage and foresight to address adequately is climate change. We have to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Vermont's Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for a 25% decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) levels by 2050. However, while we have made healthy strides in reducing the carbon footprint of our electricity generation, the amount of GHG emissions in Vermont has increased by 4% over 1990 levels. Our transportation and heating requirements have driven this increase. Governor Scott's Climate Change Commission has worked during the summer to suggest steps that can be taken to reverse this trend. A group of legislators, including myself, have also been working with environmentally conscious businesses on a strategy that will be rolled out in January. We look forward to working with the Scott administration to adopt a plan that will be good for Vermonters and Vermont's economy.

I can't end without mentioning the challenges that the recently passed Trump Tax Act will cause for Vermont. The Green Mountain Care Board has already projected health insurance costs to increase because of the repeal of the individual mandate that requires everyone to have health insurance. The response of many Vermonters to prepay their 2018 property taxes to take advantage of the disappearing deduction for state and local taxes will impact revenues for 2018 and beyond unless we modify our own income tax formula. Federal budget reductions that will be required to balance the tax cuts will put further pressure on states to compensate for programs that will suffer, thereby putting many low-income Vermonters, our efforts to clean up our waters, and our state budget at risk.

I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018 and look forward once again to keeping you informed about the legislature while we are in session. I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Catching up - Renewable Energy & Landscape; Wind Turbine Noise

It appears that I have been remiss in updating my website with articles I wrote for the Charlotte News over the summer. The two articles below were published as commentaries rather than Legislative Reports.  Read on.

Report from the Legislature
-- Rep. Mike Yantachka

Blowing in the Autumn Wind

Although the legislature is not in session, many legislators serve on special committees that meet between sessions. The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (LCAR) is one such committee, and it's been keeping me busy this summer. LCAR consists of four Senators and four Representatives and is responsible for reviewing rules proposed by agencies of the executive branch of state government. Rules spell out the process by which an agency administers laws. Examples include the health standards of hotel accommodations, licensing of professionals, and standards for fuel oil tanks in our homes. It is LCAR's job to review the rules to ensure that

(1) the rule is not arbitrary,
(2) the rule is within the authority delegated to the agency,
(3) the rule is not contrary to the intent of the legislature,
(4) the agency provided an opportunity for maximizing public input,
(5) the rule is written in a satisfactory style, and
(6) the rule is accompanied by an adequate economic impact statement.

While many rules are fairly straightforward, others generate a substantial amount of contention and involve lots of analysis, testimony, and legalistic considerations. LCAR is not a policy-making committee and can only object to a rule or a portion of a rule if it violates one of the criteria listed above. Some rules require more than one meeting to pass muster, and LCAR can point out shortcomings and ask for revisions.

One of the most complex rules we had to consider is the one dealing with limits on noise produced by wind turbines. This rule came before LCAR in May from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) with close to a thousand pages of comments both pro and con and wasn't adopted until this week, after several LCAR objections to certain elements on the basis of being arbitrary or contrary to legislative intent. The objections focused on a setback, the maximum sound levels for nighttime and daytime, sound propagation modeling, and post-construction noise monitoring. I apologize at this point for the following very technical explanation of our consideration of this rule.

The PUC was tasked by the legislature in 2016 with determining maximum allowable noise levels near residences to safeguard public health. This legislation was passed in response to complaints by some residents living near existing utility-scale wind facilities. The PUC examined a variety of studies and heard testimony from numerous proponents, opponents, environmentalists, and developers. One provision required a wind turbine to be located no closer than ten times its height to the nearest residence, nearly a mile in the case of a utility-scale turbine. In addition, based on a 30 decibel indoor World Health Organization criterion for undisturbed sleep and an assumption that sound levels would attenuate, i.e. diminish, by 10 – 15 decibels from the exterior of a residence to the interior, the PUC set the nighttime limit to a more conservative 39 decibels measured 100 feet from a residence. They also assumed that using a Noise Reduction Operation (NRO) mode, turbine noise could be reduced by 3 decibels, and therefore set the daytime limit to 42 decibels. To obtain a Certificate of Public Good (CPG), a developer would be required to model the sound propagation using a standard acoustic model based on the location of every proposed turbine and existing residence using the maximum output noise level of the turbines. If the CPG were granted and the turbines built, the developer would then have to conduct measurements of the turbine sound filtering out ambient, i.e. background, sounds according to a specific protocol. Up to 200 measurements per second would be taken over several hours both during the day and at night and then analyzed and reported to the PUC periodically. You can imagine the detail that LCAR had to deal with in evaluating whether the rules as proposed satisfied the criteria above.

In objecting to the ten times height setback rule, the majority of LCAR members agreed that a distance requirement was arbitrary because there is no direct correlation between distance and sound levels. The sound levels in general decrease with distance, but the amount of decrease depends on topography, atmospheric conditions, temperature and season. In setting sound level limits, the committee agreed that decibel levels at a residence were an appropriate standard, but not distance. Setbacks are appropriate for safety and other considerations, but not for sound levels, which is what this rule deals with.

The sound level limits themselves were considered to be somewhat arbitrary in that there were various studies that specified different attenuation estimates from outside to inside. Furthermore, the most conservative values were used by the PUC, and the estimated uncertainty in both the modeling algorithm and the manufacturer's specifications would have to be added to the model results. Environmental groups asserted that the rules would effectively preclude utility-scale wind development in Vermont. That result would be contrary to the intent of the legislature which recognizes in statute that large wind generation is an effective and competitive source of renewable energy.

Other objections were raised because the rules were not clear as to why the monitoring data had to be so granular (200 data points/second) and what constituted a violation of the sound level limits. The PUC responded to LCAR's objections with modification to the rules to clarify modeling and monitoring protocols as well as to remove the setback requirement which they agreed was redundant with the sound limits. The use of the NRO mode to model nighttime levels was allowed, and the modeling and manufacturer uncertainties will be used as guidance rather than as a penalty for the modeling results. The monitoring measurements will be done in 1 second intervals to reduce the amount of data which will be averaged over 2 hours of data to determine actual noise levels. With these changes to the rule, LCAR voted to approve them.

Unfortunately, the conservative application of the nine decibel exterior-interior attenuation was not changed. However, since enough of the conservative assumptions were mitigated, and since the PUC asserted that the rule would not preclude utility-scale wind projects in Vermont, I felt that the rule met the criteria for approval and voted in the affirmative.

As always, feel free to contact me anytime. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com). 

-- Rep. Mike Yantachka

Renewable Energy In Our Working Landscape

I was disappointed to read about the Public Utility Commission's denial of a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for the proposed solar array off Route 7 near Mount Philo. Viewed from the western overlook of Mount Philo, the area covered by the solar array would look no larger than a postage stamp in the expanse. While I understand the desire to maintain the magnificent views of the Champlain Valley from the park's overlooks, I question our inability to accept renewable energy infrastructure as part of Vermont’s working landscape. Why is it that we accept certain man-made structures such as barns, silos, inns, etc., as acceptable and others such as a solar array as blights on the landscape? If the landowner were to erect a number of hoop houses covering the same area for growing plants, the visual effect would be about the same but probably would not elicit a peep from the public.

I think a lot of this attitude has to do with what we're used to seeing. How often do we notice the utility poles that line our roadways? We may not like how a gas station convenience store along Route 7 looks, but we are willing to accept it. These structures could be considered unsightly, but we don't object to them because we see them as being necessary for providing the services we value.

The two super-storms of Harvey and Irma, whose power was magnified by the warming oceans, are the most recent extreme effects of climate change. There is no denying that climate change is being caused by the exponential increase in our use of fossil fuels over the last 150 years. Many people choose to take actions to mitigate their own carbon footprint, such as improving the energy efficiency of their homes, installing solar panels or small wind turbines for household use, driving an electric vehicle (EV) or using alternative transportation. While these individual actions help, they have a limited effect even when taken cumulatively because they are often unavailable to the majority of people due to factors such as income, availability, location, or circumstance. For example, it doesn't make sense for a renter to install solar panels or a heat pump in their unit. Likewise, landlords don't have the incentive because renters are generally responsible for their own utility bills. As a result, to achieve the renewable energy goals we desire, there have to be societal efforts to provide opportunities for those who are otherwise shut out of the renewable energy economy. Climate change is a global problem with society-wide consequences, and it will take society-wide efforts to address it.

This is where large scale solar and wind power can help. Currently 55% of our electricity comes from renewable sources. About 25% of Vermont's electrical energy comes from hydro power, 20% from biomass, 8% from wind and about 2% from solar. Vermont has a statutory goal of reaching 75% renewable electric energy by 2032. Our utilities are required to reach this goal by the Renewable Energy Standard Act (Act 56) of 2015. Achieving these goals will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health, create more high paying jobs that already make up 5% of our workforce, and improve the reliability of our electrical system through distributed generation. While solar net metering and wind are currently a small part of our energy mix, they are the fastest growing segment of our renewable energy economy.

However, there seems to be a disconnect between our desire to achieve these goals and our acceptance of the necessary infrastructure. Just as we have become used to seeing a variety of alterations to our landscape from buildings, roads, and utility poles, we need to start seeing solar arrays and wind towers as part of our working landscape too. They don’t have to be everywhere, but they need to be somewhere. A harvest of solar energy is just as useful and valuable as a harvest of corn, barley, hay or grapes. A line of wind turbines on a ridge brings as much or more to our lifestyle as the ski trails cut into a mountainside. To meet our current and future energy needs, only a small fraction of our landscape is required for this infrastructure. Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell, the largest wind farm in the state, occupies only 4 of Vermont’s 400 miles of ridgelines. Over time, I expect that we will get used to seeing these elements as part of the Vermont character. This needs to happen sooner than later.