Legislative Report 2/12/2014 - Recycling Batteries

When the Moretown landfill was closed by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources last year because of contamination and odor problems, Vermont was left with only one active landfill for the entire state.  While some southern Vermont towns and solid waste districts ship their garbage across the borders to New York and New Hampshire, the rest of Vermont must rely on the Coventry landfill to meet its needs.  This location is also finite and will someday have to close as well.  To extend that day as far into the future as possible, we must learn to reduce the amount of waste we generate or else repurpose it and divert it from our remaining landfill.

The Vermont legislature has been addressing the problem of solid waste since 1987 when it passed Act 78 creating the first solid waste districts.  More recently, Act 148 addressing the diversion of yard waste and organic waste from landfills was passed in 2012.  And last year Vermont partnered with paint manufacturers to establish a paint stewardship program which will allow unused paint to be returned for recycling at participating paint retailers.  Other stewardship programs, in which manufacturers assume the cost of recycling, include electronic waste, mercury light bulbs, and mercury thermostats, which have all been banned from Vermont landfills.

There are other materials that we continue to dispose of in the trash because they are not currently recyclable by the methods available at Vermont recycling facilities.  One of these materials is single-use batteries, also known as primary batteries.  There are more than 190 manufacturers of primary batteries sold in the U.S.  According to an industry report, approximately 5.4 billion units of single-use batteries were shipped in the U.S. in 2010, including about 10 million in Vermont.  Recoverable materials from primary batteries include zinc, manganese and steel.  Offsetting the need for virgin materials is typically the best way to reduce a product’s overall lifecycle impact.  Material recovery reduces the energy consumption needed to acquire virgin materials as well as other environmental impacts from mining.  However, it is not economically feasible for our solid waste districts to pay for a primary battery recycling program.  While there is an active rechargeable battery recycling program run by the industry, single-use batteries have not been included.  This is now about to change.

Like the paint manufacturers, the primary battery industry has become proactive in supporting a battery stewardship program. Energizer, Panasonic and Duracell, which account for more than half of the batteries sold in the U.S., are ready to partner with Vermont and other states to collect, ship and recycle primary batteries.  House bill H.695, currently being developed by the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, will update Vermont’s solid waste laws to require all solid waste districts and municipalities, as well as retailers on a voluntary basis, to act as collection points.  It will also encourage other primary battery manufacturers to join an existing stewardship program or form one of their own.  Only primary batteries made by participating manufacturers will be allowed to be sold in Vermont beginning in 2016.  Finally, the bill will set up a process that will allow the industry-sponsored stewardship programs to recover recycling costs from each other and from non-participating manufacturers. 

While recycling and material diversion has come a long way in Vermont, we still have a long way to go.  Only 35% of the waste stream in Vermont is recycled.  In Chittenden County, it’s a little better at about 60%.  But I have seen too many recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic that is routinely thrown into trash cans and barrels.  It is incumbent on all of us to take personal responsibility for recycling our own waste and to remind others to do the same.

The Word in the House 2/3/2014 - Paid Sick Leave

You can be pretty sure that there will be a number of controversial issues during every legislative session.  These issues can involve easy to understand issues or they can be very complicated both to understand and to resolve.  I don’t envy members of the Education Committee who are trying to redesign education funding to take some of the pressure off property taxes; or members of the Health Care Committee who are tracking the efforts to provide health care to all Vermonters within an economically viable framework; or members of the money committees, Appropriations and Ways & Means, who always seem to be trying to fit 10 pounds of expenses into an 8 pound bag of revenues.

One issue generating controversy that I find easier to understand is whether all employees should be entitled to at least some paid sick days.  This issue seems to pit employees against small business owners.  The proposed legislation, introduced in the House as H.208 and in the Senate as S.255, would require employers to provide every employee at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, accruing annually up to 56 hours, i.e. seven days, of paid time off.  So, if an employee only worked 20 hours per week, they would accumulate almost 35 hours over the course of the year.  An employer with a paid sick leave policy that is comparable to or more generous than that required by the legislation is not required to provide additional paid health care time.  Furthermore, any paid time-off program such as vacation or combined time off (CTO) that is at least as generous and can be taken for the same reasons as sick leave counts as satisfying the requirements. 

Many small employers argue that they cannot afford to pay for this time off.  They hire a limited number of part time employees and depend on them to be on the job when scheduled.  The restaurant industry, which typically runs on very tight margins, employs workers at relatively low hourly wages which are supplemented by tips.  These workers can hardly afford to take time off without pay.  According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, 71% of employees in food preparation and serving related occupations in New England do not have access to paid sick time.  Yet, an employee sick with the flu puts both fellow employees and the clientele at risk.  According to Dr. Burton Wilke of the Vermont Public Health Association, a recent publication in the American Journal of Public Health found that the provision of paid sick leave could reduce the number of workplace-acquired cases of influenza by as much as 40%.

Women, who make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers nationwide, are more likely than men to have jobs without earned sick days or paid time off of any kind.  Lindsay DesLauriers, a public policy advocate at Voices for Vermont’s Children, recently testified before the Human Services Committee that "The workforce has shifted in the past 70 years to include more and more female breadwinners and female heads of household, and yet our workplace standards have not adjusted at all. Women continue to disproportionately bear the responsibilities for family life and are much more likely than men to report working part time so that they can manage the demands of family. Half of all women must miss work to care for their children when they are sick compared to 30% of men, and half of these working mothers report that they do not get paid when they stay home."
Whether it is because of personal illness or the illness of a dependent child or other family member, or because of an accidental injury, workers should be able to take a reasonable amount of time off without risking their livelihood.  As a co-sponsor of H.208, I will be voting for its passage when it reaches the floor of the House.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell Interviewed - 1/6/2014

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on CCTV Channel 17, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell in January.  Attorney General Sorrell discussed the negotiations regarding the Vermont Yankee closing, a bill proposing that the office of Attorney General be appointed rather than elected, and the opiate abuse problem in Vermont and its relationship to other criminal activity. Other topics included electronic cigarettes and "cramming", the practice of including unauthorized charges on phone bills.  Watch the interview here.

Legislative Report 1/31/2014 - Beating the Cold

With the super-cold temperatures we have been having lately, this past weekend’s cold but sunny weather was a welcome break.  I took advantage of it and brought in more wood from my woodpile.  I, like many other Vermonters, am lucky to have a wood stove to supplement my oil heat.  Burning wood, along with turning down my thermostat, has saved quite a bit of heating oil despite sub-zero temperatures for extended periods of time.  As I pulled the sled across the yard and up the steps I got to thinking about how other less fortunate families and individuals have to deal with the cold.

The most immediate challenge when temperatures drop is how to take care of people who do not have a permanent home.  The person standing at the end of I-189 by Shelburne Road asking for a handout; the Vietnam vet who usually lives in a tent somewhere in the woods around the Intervale; the family that is living in a homeless shelter because the breadwinner lost his/her job and can no longer afford to pay the rent.  Less immediate, but still important, are those who do have homes but are struggling with their heating bills. For someone who hasn’t had to struggle with situations like these, it is easy to look away and think about something else.  We can ignore the inconvenient realities that blemish our otherwise comfortable world.  But we are our brothers’ keeper, and a moral conscience dictates that those who can, the majority of us, must help.

As a society we have many vehicles to provide assistance to those who need it in such emergencies, from the non-profits like COTS and the Red Cross to federal and state assistance like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).  LIHEAP, a program that provides emergency heating fuel to individuals and families who have or are about to run out of fuel during the winter, has been hit hard by the federal budget cuts over the last 3 years.  This program is available to families whose income is less than 125% of the federal poverty level.   While no state funds were contributed to the LIHEAP prior to federal fiscal year 2005, in recent years, federal funds have steadily declined from a high of $38.6 million in 2009 to $17 million this year.  As federal funding declined, Vermont has supplemented the program with additional funds to try to keep at least $25M available.  The number of Vermont families served has consistently been around 27,000, with a spike to more than 45,000 in 2011 at the peak of the recession. 

As more of the burden of funding this program falls to Vermont, the question becomes how to fund it and whether a better solution can be found to address the problem.  With most low income families living in poorly insulated housing, much of their heating dollars literally fly out the window.  The key to increasing the effectiveness of LIHEAP funds is to reduce heat losses, that is, to weatherize homes.  The Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) of 2011 called for 80,000 homes to be weatherized by 2020.  Weatherization assistance has been available through Efficiency Vermont for all income levels, but especially for low income homeowners.  However, funding for weatherization programs has been inadequate and the state is currently about 2 years behind on reaching this CEP goal.  A study committee recommended that reaching the goal would require about $24M/year until 2020.  Funding for 2014 through a one-time source of money is $11M.

Last year Governor Shumlin proposed a tax on break-open lottery tickets sold at bars and social clubs to raise $17M, including $6M for weatherization programs.  The House Natural Resources & Energy Committee proposed a half-cent per gallon tax on fuel oil to raise $6M.  Both ideas were rejected by the legislature, the first as unfeasible, and the second as politically unacceptable.  As this session of the legislature moves forward, I will continue working to increase funding for weatherization and give a high priority for these services to LIHEAP recipients so that their future needs for assistance are reduced.