The Word in the House 1/16/2020 - Back to Work

Names have power! Remembering someone’s name can give you an edge; forgetting a name I should know always makes me feel at a disadvantage.  In my first week back at the Statehouse I experienced both sides of that coin. By the end of the week, with a little help from a notepad and the legislative website, the names of most of my colleagues bubbled up from the six-month recess of my memory. We were all back to work picking up where we left off last May.

The first week was marked by Governor Scott’s State of the State address in which he laid out in general terms his agenda for the year. Lieutenant governor David Zuckerman presided over the combined House and Senate assembly. As Governor Scott began to speak with members of his cabinet, statewide elected officials, the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, and special guests in attendance, a group of climate activists began chanting from the gallery demanding that government act to fight climate change. They were peaceful but loud and succeeded in disrupting the occasion. To his credit, the Governor listened with the rest of us for about 5 minutes.  Then, with the chanting still continuing, he tried to continue but could not be heard. Lieutenant Governor Zuckerman then called for a recess and asked security to escort the protesters out of the gallery. No one was arrested, however, and the assembly reconvened after about 15 minutes.

“The state of the state is strong!” Scott began. He spoke of working together with the legislature respectfully while acknowledging our differences. He noted that Vermont had population declines in eleven of its fourteen counties, and also that the remote-worker brought 371 people into Vermont.  He talked about spending more money on after-school programs and after-school childcare without increasing property taxes. And he acknowledged that we need to work on climate change by continuing our transition to electric vehicles and buses and utilizing more battery storage in our electric grid. Achieving these objectives will depend a lot on the details in his budget address he will give later this month.

In the House Energy & Technology Committee we heard reports on work done by the Department of Public Service (DPS) and the Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation (FPR) regarding telecommunications, energy, and carbon sequestration. We learned that several installations of battery storage, including one in Hinesburg, are helping to reduce demand during the evening peak.  DPS is also proposing changes in legislation to provide utilities more control over storage to improve reliability. We also learned that several communities have started to take advantage of legislation we passed last year that allows municipalities to form Communication Union Districts to bring high-speed broadband to unserved and underserved parts of Vermont. FPR Commissioner Michael Snyder outlined the role our forests can play in sequestering carbon with proper forest management practices. Then at the end of the week we began our consideration of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which, if passed, will require Vermont to meet specific greenhouse gas reduction goals between now and 2050.  Vermont will be required to actively plan and take steps to reduce emissions to at least 26% of 2005 levels by 2025, 40% by 2030, and 80% by 2050 in keeping with Vermont’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan and the 2016 Paris Agreement.

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

Legislative Report 1/9/2020 - Session Preview on Climate Action

The Vermont legislature convened in Montpelier this week for the second half of the biennium, i.e. the two-year legislative term between elections. Legislative work did not stop when the session adjourned in May. Off-session work includes constituent assistance as well as study committees, oversight committees and workgroups that meet either in official capacity or to prepare for the coming session. Some of our unfinished business from 2019 will be on the agenda early in the session, including increasing the minimum wage, establishing a paid family leave insurance program and creating a tax and regulate system for cannabis sales in Vermont. I’m also looking forward to working with my colleagues once more to take significant steps to address the climate crisis through Vermont’s energy policy.

Over the last two years more and more focus has been on what effects human consumption of fossil fuels has had on the global climate.  Extracting and burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas emit enormous amounts of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) which build up in the atmosphere and increase the average global temperature.  In recent years we have seen the effects in more intense hurricanes, heavier rainfall and flooding, more persistent heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in the west. Melting glaciers and icecaps have contributed to measurable sea level rise leading to “sunny day flooding” in some coastal communities. These effects drive costs higher for everyone, including Vermonters. Climate scientists have overwhelmingly concluded that we have only a limited amount of time to act decisively to limit global warming and its effects on our environment, health and economy.  Last year Vermonters have joined people all over the world in climate demonstrations demanding that governments do something about climate change.

Several years ago, a group of legislators from the House and Senate formed the Climate Solutions Caucus.  This group, now numbering more than 60 members, is committed to take meaningful steps to reduce Vermont’s contribution to the climate crisis.  The Paris Climate Accord of 2015 calls for a 50% reduction of GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2028.  This goal was adopted by both the Shumlin and the Scott administrations. 

In contrast, however, Vermont’s emissions as measured by the Department of Environmental Conservation have instead risen by 16%. We have to bend that curve by addressing the biggest sources of GHGs in our economy: transportation and heating. This will help Vermonters save money by living in more efficient homes and driving more efficient vehicles.

While we took some steps in 2019 to help reduce Vermont’s emissions, including starting an EV incentive program, and increasing funding of low- and moderate-income residential weatherization, we know we have to do more. The Climate Caucus held several workgroup sessions over the summer to identify further steps we can take. Converting our renewable energy and energy transformation goals from the 2017 Comprehensive Energy Plan into statutory requirements by passing the Global Warming Solutions Act is the first step. To make our older housing stock more efficient for heating and cooling we’ll have to accelerate weatherization assistance to homeowners and landlords. Changing Efficiency Vermont’s mission to include using funds for moderate-income weatherization through the All Fuels Initiative will be part of the solution.

Transportation is the largest GHG contributor at 43% of emissions. We must continue to reduce transportation emissions by supporting EV purchases, electrification and expansion of mass transit options, expanding park-and-ride facilities, and promoting transportation alternatives like bicycling and walkways. We also know that Vermont can’t combat climate change alone. Alone our emissions are relatively small, but we have a responsibility to do our part. With the approval of Governor Scott, Vermont joined with 12 other eastern states from Maine to Virginia and the District of Columbia to consider a regional program to reduce GHG emissions from transportation.  This program, called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), would be a “cap and invest” system.  Details of the design were released this December and the legislature and administration will be working together to integrate this effort into Vermont policy. Reducing emissions will not only benefit the climate but will also reduce carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and asthma aggravating particulates in the air we breathe.

I plan to write more about these actions in the future as they develop. I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.  

Commentary: Democracy Is Our Responsibility - 7/11/2019

Celebrating our nation’s birthday on July 4th reminds us how lucky we are to live in a country built on democracy. We must also remember that our democracy was formed and is maintained by active participation of the governed, namely us. When we see that our government is taking us in a wrong direction, it requires us to speak out and take action to affect change. Peaceful protest is one kind of action.

We are all familiar with the situation on the southern border of the United States where thousands of hopeful immigrants from Central America either wait to enter the U.S. or risk crossing the border between checkpoints to seek asylum. Thousands of asylum-seekers have been arrested and are being held in overcrowded detention centers.  Children have been separated from their families or caregivers and whisked away to separate holding facilities.  We’ve seen the pictures on the news of children and adults crowded into chain-link cages with nothing more than a mylar sheet for sleeping on the floor. Social workers, lawyers and members of Congress report that these detainees are not given even the basic necessities of soap, toothbrushes, changes of clothing, or even the ability to wash their clothes.  These facilities, despite the objections of the Border Patrol, the Trump administration and Trump himself, fit the dictionary definition of concentration camps.

This is why I joined a protest last week in Burlington in front of the offices of Senators Sanders and Leahy to demand the close of the detention-center-concentration-camps.  Hundreds of Vermont citizens including many from Charlotte showed up for the march from the top of Church Street to the corner of Main and South Willard Street.  We marchers were determined to raise our voices against these policies of this administration, an administration that took an immigration policy that has been broken for decades and exacerbated it to the crisis of the present day.

I believe that America is better than this. Instead of walls to keep people of color out, we need changes to our immigration system that allow human beings who want to make a better life for themselves and their children into our great country.  When my grandparents came over at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were not educated, wealthy people.  Nor were the immigrants that preceded them from whom most of us are descended. But they came and worked at the hard labor jobs like coal mining, steel smelting, house cleaning or whatever menial jobs were available that allowed them to provide for their families. Some started their own businesses like my grandmother did after her husband’s back was broken in the mines. Rather than being a drag on the economy, they helped grow the economy.

This has been the history of this country, and it is just as true today. The migrant farm worker in Vermont is a benefit to our economy and should not be the target of ICE as so many in the last three years have been. Three young men were arrested a few weeks ago in St. Albans as they were shopping and using Western Union to send money back home to their families. Shamefully, they were turned in by a “concerned citizen” who apparently observed them and heard them speaking Spanish. They are just the latest in a series of arrests by ICE in Vermont of those who dare to take jobs that no one else wants in this country.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that as a result of our current immigration policy our country has reached a nadir with respect to its moral authority, but we have begun to swing back to a higher moral ground as evidenced by the 2018 election.  It is up to us to make sure it does not falter as a result of our inattention and inaction.

This commentary was published in The Charlotte News on 7/11/2019 and in The Citizen on 7/12/2019.

Legislative Report 5/30/2019 - It's a Wrap for 2019!

The legislative session went into overtime last week with expectations that we would be able to not only finish a number of must-pass legislation like the budget and revenue bills, the Transportation bill, and the Clean Water funding bill, but also two bills that were on the high priority list for Democrats: paid family leave and increasing the minimum wage.  One thing that’s true of every legislative session I’ve experienced is that when it ends, we can look at a lot of legislative accomplishments as well as some significant disappointments.

The inability to pass paid family leave and a path to a $15 minimum wage, two separate issues that became linked as they moved between the House and Senate, came down to a failure to agree between the two chambers.  Both bills stalled in conference committees as the Senate refused to move on the House-passed family leave bill unless the House agreed to the faster schedule of minimum wage increases in the Senate bill.  Attempts to reach a compromise agreement failed on Friday after House Speaker Johnson offered to the Senate negotiators a menu of six possible solutions that the House could accept. Even with a decision on Friday, the House would have to come back the next week because the Republican caucus would not agree to suspend rules to allow immediate action on those bills.  Without a positive response from the Senate, Johnson asked the Senate to send the budget and revenue bills, which had been agreed to in conference, back to the House for consideration. The House passed those bills as amended, and she asked for a motion to adjourn. Both bills will remain in conference and can be worked on over the summer to be taken up in January.

To end on a positive note, here’s a recap of some of the important legislation that did pass this year.
 Economy
  • Broadband expansion – H.513 increases funding for the Connectivity Initiative and authorizes Communication Union Districts and municipalities to form partnerships with pole-owning utilities to build fiber-optic networks in rural areas.
  • Workforce Development – H.533 promotes training opportunities for small businesses and adult workforce development, creates weatherization training programs, decreases barriers for new Americans to enter the workforce, and creates a program to encourage members of the Armed Forces separating from active duty to relocate to Vermont.
  • Child care – included in the budget is $7.4M for child care assistance for both families and providers.
Climate Change
  • Weatherization – H.63 creates an all-fuels efficiency program to target low and moderate-income households for weatherization assistance.
  • Transportation efficiency – Transportation bills H.529 and S.149 create a $1.2M incentive program for electric vehicle purchases and assistance for Vermonters to fix vehicles that fail emissions tests, allocates $500,000 for state fleet EV purchases, and provides money for EV charging stations and Park & Ride expansion.
Environment
  • Clean Water – S.96 funds $50M for the clean water initiative.
  • Plastic Bags – S.113 bans merchants from providing plastic bags at points of sale and also bans styrofoam containers, plastic straws and plastic stirrers.
Health
  • Tobacco –S.86, H.47 and H.26 combine to raise the age of buying tobacco products to 21, tax e-cigarettes and accessories at the same rate as tobacco and prohibit internet sales of e-cigarettes.
  • Toxic chemicals – S.49 sets limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water and monitoring standards for public water supplies. S.55 requires a business responsible for a release of toxic chemicals to pay for medical monitoring of exposed individuals.
  •  Lead in Schools - S.40 provides funds to test and remediate lead in school drinking water fixtures.

These are some of the major pieces of legislation that will stimulate economic development, help Vermonters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to the health of Vermont children and families.

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

The Word in the House 5/23/2019 - It Ain't Over Til It's Over!

"It ain't over til it's over!" - Yogi Berra

The plan was to finish the legislative session by Saturday, May 18th, even working close to midnight again as we did the last couple of years. Alas, it was not to be. By Friday afternoon there were still about a dozen Committees of Conference working to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of bills, including the budget, transportation and tax bills. Speaker Mitzi Johnson recessed the House until the following Wednesday to allow the conference committees to finish their work in the interim.

Dozens of bills completed their ping-pong journeys through both the House and the Senate this week. Several bills engendered considerable debate on the House floor before the final vote including bills increasing the minimum wage (S.23), requiring a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases (S.169), and requiring businesses to cover medical monitoring for persons exposed to releases of toxic chemicals (S.37).
After a brief negotiation with the Senate in a Committee of Conference, the broadband expansion bill (H.513) received final approval as well.

This week was also marked by an interruption of the debate on S.37 by climate crisis protestors.  The House was startled when several protestors in the balcony started speaking loudly about the failure of the legislature to do more about the climate crisis, unfurled a banner, and tossed hundreds of index card messages into the chamber.  Speaker Johnson gaveled the House to Order and asked the Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol police to remove the protestors to restore order. When that didn’t stop the protestors, she ordered the legislators to leave the floor. All but two members complied.

While I don’t condone the actions of the protestors, I understand their frustration. For all the ominous science-based reports on what we are doing to the global climate, all the peaceful marches and lobbying by students and activists including the march from Middlebury to Montpelier, the legislature took only small steps to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The $1.5M EV incentive program has been cut to $1M. The two-cent increase of the heating fuel tax to raise $4.6M for weatherization of Vermont’s old housing stock has been replaced by the Senate with a transfer of one-time money from Efficiency Vermont surplus funds. In the Senate version, the number of low-income families benefitting will be the same as the House version for the next fiscal year, about 1300, but falls back to the current number, about 850, for future years. Efficiency Vermont will continue to help moderate-income families with weatherization assistance.  

However, if we are going to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner electricity in both the transportation and heating sectors of our economy in the next decade, we’ll need to make an investment to accelerate adoption of those technologies. This can be done in a way that grows jobs, reduces use of fossil fuels and saves Vermonters money. What we’ve done this year does not accomplish this in a sustainable way. Our Climate Solutions Caucus made up of concerned Representatives and Senators will be meeting between now and January to define a strategy to move forward in 2020.  Last year the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that we have 12 years to reverse the buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to prevent a rise of 2 degrees-C (4 degrees-F) in global temperatures. We must act as soon as possible with our regional partners to do our part for the sake of our children, grandchildren, and future generations.

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

Legislative Report 5/16/2019 - E Pluribus Unum

All members of the Vermont House of Representatives meet at least once a day as a body during the legislative session to consider the bills on the day’s Calendar. These floor sessions begin with an invocation delivered most of the time by a member of the clergy. The Reverend Susan Cooke Kittredge, Associate Pastor of the Charlotte Congregational Church, has done so several times. On other occasions a musical performance by an individual or a group will be provided, and occasionally a member of the House will provide a reflection. Last week it was my privilege to offer some thoughts for consideration. The motto on the currency of the U.S., E Pluribus Unum, translates to “Out of Many, One.”  That motto and the Pledge of Allegiance inspired my thoughts and the following comments.

Every Tuesday morning we begin by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.  The last line of that pledge includes the phrase, "with Liberty and Justice for All."  What does the word "All" mean?

Some people think it means citizens of our country and nothing more.  But I would suggest that the composer of this pledge meant it to include all human beings. The pledge was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister's son from upstate New York. While there is considerable documentation about different iterations of the pledge from the original text, there is no documentation as to what Mr. Bellamy considered the word "All" to mean. What we do know is that in the post-civil war era, the idea included those who were at one time enslaved. Since then, waves of immigrants have come to America from various places - Ireland, Eastern Europe, Italy, Latin America, Asia and Africa - every corner of the globe, and each wave, other than enslaved persons who were forced to come, faced resistance from those who were already here.

Like immigrants that came before them, today's immigrants generally start out near the bottom of the economic ladder and, with hard work driven by a vision of a better life for their children, rise over generations to a place higher on the ladder. Many, perhaps most of us here today, can recognize our own grandparents or great-grandparents in today's immigrants.  This illustrates a simple fact: our differences are superficial.  At our core, we are all alike.

Those who seek to focus on the perceived differences among us - color, race, ethnicity, gender preference, religion, even politics - create division and weaken us as a society. The true cement that binds us together is love, altruistic love, agape in Greek. It is the core belief of the Judeo-Christian tradition as expressed in the Greatest Commandments to Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves. And who is our neighbor? Jesus answered the question with the parable of the Good Samaritan at a time when the Samaritans were the outcasts of the Judaic community. It is expressed in the Quran in which the Prophet states that it is the duty of believers to "show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and to the neighbor that is a stranger."

In his new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Bill McKibben states,
 “Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love that lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth and makes us okay with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die.”

So, if we really mean it when we pledge Liberty and Justice for All, it truly has to be for all, and our actions should reflect it.

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