By Rob Roper
The very last witness brought into the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, just minutes before a vote on S.5, the Un-Affordable Heat Act, was Xusana Davis, Vermont’s director of Racial Equity. Given how much high-minded rhetoric has been dedicated to “a just transition” away from fossil fuels, the committee’s failure to even consider reaching out to Davis except as an afterthought was revealing.
Over a month ago, Behind the Lines broke a story (eventually — and tepidly — picked up by Vermont Digger) highlighting accusations of “racial tokensim” by the Vermont Climate Council and an unwillingness to respect the concerns of marginalized communities. (See Video.) That should have sent a strong signal Chairman Chris Bray to at least have a robust discussion about equity issues and how S.5 might address them. It didn’t.
Davis went through the bill point by point, highlighting positive and negative aspects from her perspective. At the end of her testimony, Senator Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) asked, “Are you prepared to sign off on the bill in terms of its equity?”
Davis responded, “I don’t think the bill in its current version quite meets the mark on equity.”
“Simple things can be done to bring it closer, but at the end of the day I think that the implementation is really going to be – we’ll see what the commitment really is.”
She recapped her list of problems with the bill that need to be addressed, including:
- Rethink the credit system.
- Rethink the timing and the funding necessary to roll out the program.
- Incorporating language (translation) access in public outreach efforts.
- Address the privacy and data concerns for low-income Vermonters.
- Define more specifically what constitutes low income and what constitutes moderate income.
- Provide some analysis about who is not just bearing the benefits and burdens not just from a regional or geographic perspective but also from a demographic perspective.
- Understand and explain how frontloading versus backloading costs impacts households.
Some of these things are simple, as Davis says, but some are definitely not. “Rethink the credit system” means fundamentally change the central concept of the proposed law.
“Address the privacy and data concerns for low-income Vermonters” is also a sticky topic, as much of the “equity” promised in the bill requires that low-income Vermonters be first identified as low-income via private data collected about their income status. The problem is you have private fuel dealers and a private “Default Delivery Agent” collecting private data on private citizens for public purposes. It is a fundamental, and perhaps unresolvable, flaw in the bill.
Providing analysis about the “demographics of who is bearing the benefits and burdens” is precisely what this committee has assiduously avoided throughout this entire process because the answer would certainly reveal that the “Affordable” Heat Act is painfully unaffordable and severely regressive. As Davis pointed out, it may be true that low-income and marginalized communities are hardest hit by a changing climate, but S.5 won’t change that. The hurricanes and floods will still come. The question is, will low-income and marginalized communities also be hardest hit by this supposed solution that doesn’t actually solve anything. The end result is a double-whammy hitting squarely on the heads of the poor.
Also in this categories-of-questions-that-may-not-be-asked is Davis’ request to understand how the costs associated with this program will impact individual households. The answer is like a wrecking ball, but we’re not allowed to explore that eventuality.
Senators Bray and White argued with Davis that there are opportunities to fix these social justice and equity shortcomings later in the legislative and rule making process.
Davis was having none of it, “I appreciate the point about there being more opportunities to perfect, and I just need to express a real concern or perhaps a warning about that. It’s now my third or fourth session in the state and one of the things I often hear from legislators is, oh yeah sorry the equity piece isn’t quite there but we’ll fix it in January. We’ll fix it later. And what that says to me is there is something that motivates us to do this that is more important to us than justice. So the justice will have to wait…. I want to caution against the expectation that it will get resolved at some point.”
Davis is right to be concerned. Equity and social justice are just window dressing for S.5. As Richard Cowart, the architect of the Clean Heat Standard for the Climate Council testified, addressing social justice concerns and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are mutually exclusive propositions. And, as Senator Mark MacDonald put it so succinctly, “”We don’t do things based on helping poor people. We do things to save the world.”
After Davis left the committee room, Senator Bray urged his colleagues to, regardless Davis’ testimony, “advance the bill as is,” insisting it can be fixed it later.
The committee voted the bill out unanimously in favor, 5-0 (Senator McCormack who just days ago said he couldn’t vote for a bill he couldn’t explain to his constituents voted “yes”), and the expectation is for a floor vote the week of February 27-March 3 following a stop in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com