Lawmakers reconvene for the second half of the legislative session on Tuesday. And, despite budget woes and federal cuts, some of them are hoping to stay focused on a goal set at the beginning of the session: fighting climate change and promoting energy efficiency at the same time.
Given the climate crisis, one of the things legislators agree Vermont must do is to reduce its use of energy. Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, is pushing one of the few climate change related bills likely to be voted on. It’s a measure that proposes to make it easier for Vermonters to insulate their buildings – both commercial and residential – so they can save money on their heating bills and cut down on their carbon emissions.
"We have done well with electricity – with our efficiency and our ramping up of renewables – but we have not tackled the thermal problem, which is the heat problem, and we haven’t tackled the transportation problem," Cheney said. "They’re much harder to solve."
The measure comes from a thermal efficiency task force – 65 people who worked last year to study how Vermont could solve its energy problems. That task force found that Vermont would need $27 million to fully implement a thermal efficiency program during its first year, including additional money for the state’s Clean Energy Development fund. Rep. Cheney conceded there may be no money because of tight budgets.
"Funding is always a challenge but it is especially so this year. And we want to work with the governor to find a revenue source and a way to make this work," Cheney said.
In his budget released in January, Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed using $6 million from a tax on "break-open tickets" – essentially private lottery tickets sold at bars and social clubs – to make up for dwindling federal support for heating assistance.
The administration initially said the new tax would raise $17 million, with some of that money also going for home weatherization programs. But then the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office reported that the tax would raise only $6.5 million.
Two weeks ago, Shumlin announced that the state has run out of money for its Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. "Clearly, we’re not going to be getting more federal dollars," Shumlin said shortly before across-the-board federal spending cuts went into effect.
Rep. Cheney has said the energy efficiency bill would propose closing the funding gap by increasing the gross receipt tax on heating fuel, which currently pays for low-income weatherization. It also recommends systematically weatherizing those homes that receive the most federal emergency fuel assistance known as LIHEAP.
"We are vulnerable to rising energy costs when we rely on oil. That’s doubled and will continue to because it’s a finite resource," Cheney said. "If you’re worried about greenhouse emissions, oil is one of the biggest sources of carbon."
This week, the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee will vote on the bill that would promote energy efficiency in Vermont. Its supporters expect a robust debate on the House floor later this month.
House Speaker Shap Smith welcomes that debate and has said the discussion about climate change and energy efficiency is often too "up in the clouds."
"I think that we need to take it down so that people understand the realities of what we’re facing," Smith said in January. "There are real economic consequences to what’s happening in this state right now and that are happening all around the country."