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).