Legislative Report 4/3/2019 - Steps to Address Climate Change

This past week in the Vermont House saw several major bills passed with significant floor debate. They included Broadband Deployment (H.513), Childcare (H.531), Workforce Development (H.533), and the major money bills including Transportation (H.529), Revenue (H.541), and the Budget (H.542) plus a controversial Weatherization bill (H.439) that increases the Fuel Tax by 2 cents per gallon.  After many weeks of long hours and input from all the policy committees, the administration, and individual legislators, the House Appropriations Committee presented a balanced budget, which passed 139 to 1, that is 2.6% higher than last year’s but less than the 3.1% increase proposed by the Governor.  These bills, now headed to the Senate, are significant and deserve describing in more detail than this article will allow.  Instead I will focus on elements of the budget that address climate change.

Three reports that were issued last year highlighted the importance of addressing climate change during this session: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on global Warming, the Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Update.  The IPCC report noted that we are already seeing the effects of a 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperature and gave a dire warning that we have to reduce global CO2 emissions 45% by 2030 to avoid a 1.5 degree increase which would have catastrophic geologic and demographic results worldwide. The Vermont DEC reported that Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased 16% over 1990 levels, mainly from transportation (43%) and heating (24%). We have a global problem which will require global action, including Vermont’s, to solve.

The House has taken a number of steps in this direction with the passage of the budget and revenue bills. The budget includes $1.5M for an electric vehicle (EV) incentive program, $300,000 for public charging stations, $500,000 for EVs and charging stations for state government, $250,000 to Efficiency Vermont for weatherization assistance for moderate income families, and $350,000 for weatherization workforce training.  While the budget passed almost unanimously, The Weatherization bill with the fuel tax increase was the most controversial.

We currently pay 2 cents per gallon on heating oil, propane, and dyed diesel fuel and 0.75% on natural gas. The revenues fund the Weatherization Assistance Program for families below 80% of median family income to reduce the amount of fuel needed to heat their homes.  Combined with federal funds, the program benefited 860 families in 2018. The need is much greater, however.  Because of the understandable prioritization to serve the lowest income families first, many eligible, low income Vermonters are waiting years to be served while thermal energy continues to be wasted, unnecessary amounts of fossil fuels are burned, and Vermonters continue to live in cold, unhealthy and dangerous conditions. By increasing the tax from 2 cents to 4 cents on liquid fuels and from 0.75% to 1% on natural gas, an additional 400 families can be assisted.

This tax increase was debated over two days with several amendments offered.  Opposition centered on the additional cost to the low-income families it’s supposed to help as well as the additional cost to farmers and loggers who use large amounts of dyed diesel. One amendment was passed to exempt farmers and loggers not only from the increase but also from the existing 2 cents per gallon. (The House earlier also approved an exemption from the sales tax for logging equipment.) This bill, which passed by voice vote, is beneficial for the following reasons:
1) The weatherization program, in existence from the 1970s, has been very successful in helping low income families reduce their heating bills, live healthier, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
2) The additional cost is minimal. A typical household using 750 gals of heating oil a year will have an additional cost of $15 over the entire heating season.
3) The price of fuel oil varies ten times as much during the heating season.  This year my deliveries ranged from $2.75/gallon to $3.00/gallon.  A 2 cent increase adds only $2 more on a 100 gallon delivery which today costs $290.
4) The savings are huge. Weatherization typically saves 29% of fuel use resulting in $500 to $600 savings per season and results in cumulative savings over time instead of cumulative wasted fuel and money heating a leaky house.  This is money that stays in Vermont compared to 80% of fuel dollars which leave Vermont.
5) It reduces dependence on LIHEAP and other fuel assistance which lasts only for the season.
6) It creates more construction jobs in the weatherization field.

I see this as a win for low-income families, a win for the economy, and a win for the environment!

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.  

Addendum: While I normally don't link to other publications within articles I write, I want to link to this VTDigger column which speaks to the same topic for reasons you will find obvious.
Margolis: In the legislative arena, worthy goals can sometimes conflict

The Word in the House 3/28/2019 - The People's House

There are quite a number of museums in Vermont, including the Statehouse itself in Montpelier.  For 12 months of the year it is open to the public free of charge and includes guided tours. However, from January through the middle of May it functions as an active workplace as well. Besides the 180 members of the House and Senate, there is a full-time staff of lawyers and clerks who assist the members in researching and drafting bills, the Sergeant at Arms and her staff, the Capitol Police, and 30 young people (8th graders), divided into three groups, who serve as Pages for six weeks at a time.

Visitors to the Statehouse during the legislative session will also find dozens of professional lobbyists who are paid to represent the interests of the companies and organizations they represent.  They serve a purpose in bringing essential information to the legislative committees during hearings. This information is balanced by agency and department representatives and private citizens who have an active interest in issues under consideration. Most days there are one or more organizations that set up informational displays in the cafeteria or in the Card Room adjacent to the House chamber or in the Cedar Creek Room, named after the Civil War battle depicted in the mural that occupies an entire wall.

Most legislative work is done in the 14 standing committees of the House and the 11 standing committees of the Senate. This work takes place generally in the committee rooms.  Visitors to the statehouse are welcome to sit in on the committees at any time, no invitation necessary. Many non-legislators take advantage of these open meetings, and it can get pretty crowded in the committee rooms, especially when there is a topic of great interest.

I especially like when young people visit. Many of the high school championship teams come to hear a resolution read in their honor on the floor of the House. Not too long ago, the CVU Boys Volleyball team celebrated their third consecutive championship with a resolution sponsored by the six Representatives from the towns in the Champlain Valley School District. Although they may not yet be old enough to vote, students have also been making themselves heard on many important issues of the day, like gun safety, climate change, and equal rights. Last week a group of elementary school students from Shelburne and Richmond visited the statehouse to advocate for a ban on the sale of animal parts like ivory and rhino horns in the United States and in Vermont. They are to be commended for their participation in our democracy even without the right to vote. In fact, they have the most to lose if we adults in the legislature fail to do our jobs well, because they are the future. As Abraham Lincoln said, we “cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

I am delighted whenever someone from Charlotte visits the Statehouse, Your House, in session Tuesday through Friday. If you decide to visit, have one of the Pages, the youngsters in the green jackets, let me know you’re there.  I’ll be happy to meet with you. And, if you can’t make it to Montpelier, I will again hold “office hours” for anyone who wants to talk to me in person here in Charlotte this Saturday, March 30, from 10 a.m. until noon, at the Charlotte Library. Of course, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238) as well.

Legislative Report 3/20/2019 - Your Opinion Matters

Since former Senator Bill Doyle is no longer able to conduct the Doyle Poll, a tradition of Town Meetings in Vermont, I decided to create a survey that would help me gauge the opinion of my constituents with respect to some of the issues currently under consideration by the legislature. About the same number of people as last year took the survey, so I want to thank the 120 folks who shared their opinions this year.

Clearly, there is strong support for a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases, for gradually raising the minimum wage, for a fee to support clean water initiatives, and for a tax and regulate system for marijuana sales. The question about whether affordable child care is an issue was answered by respondents of all ages including many who no longer require child care for their children. Comments from some of the respondents spoke to the cost of childcare and the impact of having to stop working to stay at home. Several persons who answered “No” commented that their grown children find it difficult to afford child care.

Establishing a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program for employees was favored by a 2 to 1 margin, but almost 20% were not sure. There are three different proposals under consideration, including a voluntary program favored by the Governor, each with different coverage and costs for employees and employers. This week the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee voted out H.107, which is now being reviewed by the Ways and Means Committee.

While 60% of respondents are satisfied with their internet speed at home, the 30% who are not indicates a need for improvement. It was surprising that even some fiber customers were dissatisfied. Checking internet speed with a speed test application like www.highspeedinternet.com/tools/speed-test and conferring with your Internet Service Provider may help identify a problem with your connection.

Questions 5, 8 and 9 were interesting as a group. Four cents per gallon of gasoline is well within the price differences seen on Shelburne Road, and much smaller than price shifts we can see over a few weeks. Heating oil prices ranged from $2.75/gal to $3/gal this winter. Respondents were much more accepting of a 4 cent increase to raise revenue for maintaining municipal roads than they were for helping Vermonters reduce fossil fuel consumption in home heating and transportation. At the same time many of the “No” votes on question 9 voted “Yes” on question 8, supporting efforts to address climate change.  It may be easier to relate to the damage being done to our vehicles by potholes and to spend money to fix them in the short term than it is to relate to future economic impacts of a changing climate and spend the same amount. Unfortunately, we are already seeing those impacts in extreme weather events, increasing insurance premiums, longer and hotter summers, and invasive plants and insects in our environment.

Here are all the results of the poll in Charlotte.

Yes %
No %
Not Sure %
Are you satisfied with your internet speed at home?
Should Vermont establish a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program for all employees?
Do you support gradually increasing the minimum wage from the current $10.67/hr to $15/hr over the next 5 years?
Do you think there should be a 48-hour waiting period to purchase a gun?
Would you be willing to pay 4 cents more per gallon of gasoline to maintain municipal roads?
Would you support a fee based on the size of development to fund cleaning up our lakes and rivers?
Do you support a tax and regulate system for recreational marijuana sales?
Do you support efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to address climate change?
Would you support an increase of 4 cents per gallon on gasoline and home heating oil to fund incentives for electric vehicle purchases and home weatherization assistance?
Is lack of affordable child care an issue for your family?

As your representative in Montpelier, I appreciate your input on these and other issues.  Your comments help me look at issues from several perspectives, and that is a valuable opportunity for me.  You can always contact me by phone at 802-233-5238 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

* Note: The Vermont minimum wage is currently $10.78/hour, not $10.67/hour. Author's mistake. 

Greta Thunberg's TED Talk a "Must See" (11 minutes)

This TED Talk video makes one of the best cases I have heard for taking ACTION to reduce our use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions because of climate change.  A small investment today can save ... well, it can - it has to - save the future, which is ... priceless!


The Word in the House 2/28/2019 - Navigating the Abortion Issue

For members of the Vermont legislature who work diligently to craft legislation that will address problems, protect rights, and generally keep our “brave little state” as a great place to live and work, there comes along in every biennium one or two very controversial issues.  Last year it was gun regulation. A few years ago it was removing the philosophical exemption for vaccines. In my first term it was the single-payer health care system. This year, as a result of the recent appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court by President Trump and efforts in many states to make it much harder for women to obtain contraceptive and abortion services, efforts to protect reproductive choice for women flared up early in the session.

There is no doubt that, even before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, the abortion issue had been divisive because it involves deeply held beliefs on both sides. While the arguments are usually presented in black and white terms, the issue has many shades of gray.  At one extreme is the belief that as soon as conception occurs a new human being is created and deserves the full protection of the law.  At the other extreme is the position that the fetus does not attain the status of a human being with rights and protections until birth.  The reality of the human condition, however, includes a great many different circumstances in between such as rape, incest, non-viability of the fetus, the health of the woman, reproductive freedom of choice, and other considerations.

 This year a bill, H.57, was introduced in the Vermont House to place in statute a woman’s right to access abortion services even if Roe v. Wade is reversed. Weeks of testimony, including a heavily attended public hearing with pro and con testimony from Vermont citizens, were heard by two House committees, Human Services and Judiciary. This was followed by two days of debate on the floor with about a dozen amendments offered.

In making my decision to vote for the bill, which passed on a vote of 106 to 37, I learned as much as I could from advocates of both sides and from medical sources and considered my responsibilities as a legislator.  First, it is not the job of the legislature to legislate religious beliefs.  Our decisions must be evidence-based. It is, however, the responsibility of government to protect human beings. Second, we know from biology that a fertilized egg initiates a new human life with unique DNA. One can legitimately argue, however, that a fertilized egg or an embryo in the early stages of fetal development is not quite a “human being” yet.

Third, again from a biological perspective, a fetus immediately before birth is the same human organism as it is after birth except for location and is, therefore, a human being. It then follows that the fetus attains the status of a human being at some point before birth. The Supreme court recognized as much in Roe v. Wade but declined to define that point other than the viability of the fetus. Fourth, by today’s medical capabilities, 23 weeks of gestation is the currently recognized point of viability of a normal fetus.  Medical practice in Vermont does not allow elective abortions to be performed after 22 weeks and six days without a prior consultation of the physician with the Medical Ethics Board of the hospital to determine if the abortion is medically necessary, such as a non-viable fetus or a danger to the life of the mother. Almost all unwanted pregnancies are terminated within the first 12 weeks. When abortions take place late in pregnancy, it is at great emotional expense for the parents who wanted the child. Finally, government should respect a woman’s autonomy over her reproductive decisions.

When confronted with controversial and emotional issues such as abortion, it is a legislator’s duty to listen with an open mind, to educate himself or herself as to facts, to weigh the facts carefully and logically before making a decision, and then to vote without fear or favor according to his or her conscience. This is what I try to do.

I will again hold “office hours” for anyone who wants to talk to me in person this Saturday, March 2, from 10 a.m. until noon, at the Charlotte Library. Drop by for a chat. Of course, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238) as well. 

Legislative Report 2/20/2019 - Broadband Key to Economic Development

Vermont's economic growth has been nearly stagnant pretty much since the turn of the century.  Looking at employment statistics since 1999 we can see that Vermont's employment numbers have remained fairly level at roughly 340,000 even during the 2008-2010 recession. On the other hand, they haven't grown since the recession either. While Chittenden County has experienced growth, the rest of Vermont has not.

The factors affecting the overall economy in Vermont are many, and the interaction among them is complex.  I am not attempting to address the issue comprehensively here. However, the House Committee on Energy & Technology is looking at one aspect of the challenge -- how the limited access to high speed internet affects Vermont's economy.  For the past two weeks we have heard testimony from Vermont's telephone companies, cable providers, community broadband companies, small businesses, municipalities, and the farming community which utilizes access to the internet for GPS controlled tilling, fertilizing and harvesting. One thing is clear: outside of Chittenden County and city centers, Vermonters' internet speeds are slo-o-ow. While most Vermonters are able to get DSL with speeds of 4 Mbps (Megabits per second), many in more remote locations have only dial-up. The federal standard for satisfactory speeds is 100 Mbps, which requires cable or fiber connectivity. As we become more of an information-based economy, access to high-speed internet is essential for economic growth. So, the question becomes, how do we achieve this in Vermont?

The limiting factor when it comes to building high-speed broadband is cost per connection.  In rural areas where customers are relatively far apart, the investment required to run miles of cable for few connections is prohibitive. Wireless connection is possible, but the wireless transmitters require a fiber or cable connection, and Vermont's terrain often limits the effectiveness of those devices. Some communities have formed organizations called Connectivity Union Districts (CUDs) that are non-profit entities that aggregate investments from several municipalities to build independent fiber networks to serve the member communities.  There are several in Vermont including EC Fiber in the Connecticut River Valley and Kingdom Community Fiber (KCF) in the Northeast Kingdom.  KCF has been given permission from the state of Vermont to connect to an existing fiber network owned by the state. State connectivity funds will be used to install the connection interfaces at various locations that will be leased to KCF to build fiber networks in communities running from St. Johnsbury north and west to Highgate.
The Energy & Technology Committee is now working on legislation that will encourage further development of fiber networks throughout rural Vermont. The 2 percent VT USF charge on our phone bills supports the E-911 system, the Lifeline phone access program for seniors, and the TTY service for hearing impaired persons. What is left over from those revenues is used to support the Connectivity Initiative Fund.  Governor Scott has proposed a $1M infusion to the fund to increase broadband.  We believe that we can do better. We are working on a bill that, in addition to the Governor's proposal, will increase the USF charge to 2.5 percent with the additional revenues dedicated to connectivity.  This would amount to a 50 cent increase on a $100 phone bill.  We also hope to benefit from additional federal dollars as a result of the recently passed federal Farm Bill.  Back in the 1950s Vermont made a concerted investment in getting electricity out to the last mile. Broadband is the 21st century equivalent to that effort.  It's a key ingredient necessary for growing Vermont's economy.

I am very happy to have been able to meet with constituents during my “office hours” at the Charlotte Library and most recently at Spear's Store in East Charlotte. My thanks to both venues for their hospitality. The next “office hours” opportunity will be announced on Front Porch Forum.   I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.