Vt. Senate overrides clean heat veto

Published: May. 9, 2023 at 10:46 AM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Senate Tuesday voted to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the Affordable Heat Act, a climate measure that was a major priority for Democrats this session.

On the day of the first veto override vote of the 2023 legislative session, protesters at the Statehouse urged lawmakers to shoot down the Affordable Heat Act in exchanges which, at times, became overheated. Meanwhile, supporters pushed lawmakers to act on their signature climate bill of the session.

The bill creates a clean heat standard -- a marketplace for clean heat credits -- with the aim of weaning Vermont off of fossil fuels by making them more expensive and opening more ways to switch to cleaner forms of energy.

Supporters have focussed on the benefits of getting Vermonters off of climate fouling fuels with volatile price swings. Opponents worry about the upfront costs -- which lawmakers have admitted they still don’t know -- and the bill’s selective language about what is considered “clean heat.”

“If this bill were truly about greenhouse gas reduction, biofuels, biomass, and fracked gas wouldn’t get a pass,” said Sen. Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden County.

Senator Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, who had been on the fence, says lawmakers will be able to vote on the final clean heat standard in two years once it’s developed by the Public Utility Commission. “The hundreds of people I’ve heard from -- particularly senior citizens -- are worried and scared. It will be our job to help alleviate those fears,” he said.

But Sears adds that lawmakers may see the same results as the state did with single-payer health care, which fell apart when the Shumlin administration saw the massive price tag.

Opponents are even more worried about the cost to rural Vermonters and say they are disappointed. “I look at a governor that has 71% support from Vermonters. He vetoed it. I thought maybe these senators should have listened to their constituents a lot better,” said Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex-Orleans Counties.

Backers of the effort, including Vermont Senate President Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County, says voters elected the Democratic supermajority to deliver on climate change. “We’re looking for action on a problem that is the existential crisis of our time, and Democrats and Progressives were united on that issue,” he said.

The override vote -- 20 to 10 -- was over quickly with little to no debate, in part because Sen. David Weeks, R-Rutland County, was out of town attending his mother’s funeral and voted remotely.

Baruth says he didn’t push back against the governor Tuesday because time is of the essence in these final days of the session. “Anytime you change the time of a vote, you risk losing a vote. We had 20 -- which was the minimum to override. Had I pushed it an hour earlier or an hour later, you risk the fact that one person may say, ‘I can’t make that time,’” he said.

A number of environmental groups issued a statement celebrating the override, saying this will set Vermont on the path toward more affordable heating options and meeting the state’s climate requirements.

“The status quo isn’t serving anyone well,” said Johanna Miller, the Energy and Climate Program Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “Not people, and certainly not the planet. There are better solutions, and the process the Affordable Heat Act will catalyze is essential to understanding what those are so that no Vermonters are left behind in this inevitable transition.”

Governor Scott vetoed a similar bill last year and an override failed by one vote in the House. In a statement, the governor called the vote “unfortunate.” He thanked veto-supporting lawmakers and Vermonters and said he will continue to advocate against it. “I will continue to offer policy solutions that help people, not punish those who can least afford it. That is what you elected me to do.”

The House, where Democrats also have a veto-proof majority, is expected to vote in the coming days.

It’s the first of what is expected to be several override attempts this session. Lawmakers have already scheduled a veto session for the third week in June.

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