Gov. Scott vetoes Affordable Heat Act, fate now hangs on override vote
On Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the Affordable Heat Act, the biggest emissions cutting bill of the session.
The move comes days after the Agency of Natural Resources warned Vermont is not on track to meet its statutory climate commitments.
More from Vermont Public: State report suggests Vermont is not on track to meet legal climate commitments
The Affordable Heat Act aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heating buildings. It directs the Public Utility Commission to design and study new market-based regulations on the companies that import fossil heating fuels for sale in Vermont.
The bill’s proponents say it will push businesses that supply fossil heating fuels to change their business models over time, to favor heating appliances that lead to less carbon pollution. And they say the program will create a revenue stream to help lower- and moderate-income households get access to things that will save them money long-term, like cold climate heat pumps and weatherization.
The bill’s opponents, including Gov. Scott and most Republicans, have expressed concern that it will raise the cost of fossil heating fuels in Vermont. They say the bill will strain small businesses, who will be forced to pass on their new costs to their customers.
The bill does not require Vermonters change the way they heat their homes, but it does require that companies help their customers use less fossil fuel heat. And it strives to create a revenue stream to fund at scale things like home weatherization and cold climate heat pumps, as well as switching to advanced wood heat.
The legislation directs the PUC to design the program — and do a cost analysis of how much it will affect fuel prices in the near and long term. But Scott’s veto message says the legislation doesn’t go far enough to ensure this will happen.
In his veto message Thursday evening, Gov. Scott said he was vetoing the bill over the so-called “check-back” provision.
“The ‘check-back’ language in the bill is confusing, easily misconstrued and contradictory to multiple portions of the bill,” Scott wrote.
He reiterated his support for climate action.
“It’s important to note despite significant concerns with the policy," Scott said, "I would not veto a bill that directs the Public Utility Commission to design a potential clean heat standard — provided it’s returned to the Legislature, in bill form."
Key legislative leaders object to this claim, saying the policy will have to come back to the full Legislature to be approved a second time, as a bill, before it can go into effect.
Speaking from the floor last week, Caledonia County Senator Jane Kitchel, chair of Senate Appropriations, told her colleagues, “Nothing moves forward without the specific enactment of the full General Assembly. I have been assured by legal counsel ‘enactment’ means we have to pass a law."
Democratic leadership preps for an override effort
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth said Republicans in Vermont and nationally are opposing climate action for political gain.
Baruth critiqued the governor’s claim that his veto serves low-income Vermonters.
“Is he protecting them by leaving them at the mercy of the fossil fuel industry? If you look at the spikes in fuel prices over the last few years, they’ve been dramatic,” Baruth said. “Ask anybody right now if they’re happy with the price they’re paying for fossil fuels.”
Baruth says the governor is delaying action as Vermonters continue to see the effects of climate change accelerate.
“Again, what is the governor’s plan? I think there’s a resounding silence. And in that silence, people like me from the Democratic Party get asked again and again about our plan,” Baruth said. “Voters focus on the disruptions that our plan might produce. But our plan is the only plan being put forward to address climate change.”
Lawmakers will need roughly 20 votes in the Senate to override Scott’s veto. Margins look to be slimmer there than in the House. The Senate voted 20 to 10 last week to send the bill to the Governor’s desk.
Several environmental groups, including VPIRG, Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation are urging lawmakers to support an override.
But Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, a Republican from Franklin County, supports the governor’s veto. He has questions about whether the funding mechanism in the bill will work, and whether Vermont has the workforce to make it all happen.
“How is that going to be paid for for the average Vermont family?” Brock said. “Where are we going to get the resources to do that, not just in terms of money, but in terms of people? Because we don’t have enough people to install the heat pumps that we have [demand for] right now.”
The bill attempts to create a revenue source by requiring that suppliers of imported fossil heating fuels in the state satisfy a substantial percentage of their annual obligation by helping low- and moderate-income households use less fossil fuels.
But Republicans say the cost of doing that work will get passed on to customers. The bill's proponents point out that lower carbon heating options stand to save consumers money over the long term, even if they require substantial upfront investments.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, an Independent from Dover, is vice-chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee. She supports the bill, and she says Vermonters who can afford to do so are already insulating their pockets from the fluctuations of fossil heating fuel prices by installing appliances that make them less reliant on them.
Absent a policy like this one, Sibilia says low-income and rural Vermonters will get left behind.
“It is imperative that we ensure that that energy transition includes all Vermonters and we need to do that in a systematic way, not in a one-off way, not in a way that utilizes just one-time funds,” Sibilia said.
If lawmakers mount an override effort, the Senate will vote first in the policy. From there, it would go to the House.
Leaders say they’d like to move forward with a vote as soon as they can.
Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.