This commentary is by Joe Gervais, of Arlington.
In the lead up to the votes on S.5, the misleadingly named “Affordable Heat Act,” thousands of Vermonters called and wrote their senators and representatives urging them to vote “no” on a bill that will increase our costs to heat our homes. By all accounts, citizen opposition to the bill was overwhelming, and support for it minimal. Nobody wants, and many simply cannot afford, to pay taxes, fees or whatever euphemism you want to call it on top of the already high price of oil, propane, and kerosene.
Sadly, our two Manchester representatives, Kathleen James and Seth Bongartz, both Democrats, were among the 103 Democrat, Progressive and independent legislators who didn’t listen to their constituents. Despite the repeated public appeals to vote no, they voted yes. First to pass the bill, and then to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the bill.
This is not how representative democracy should work. We elect representatives to, as the title suggests, to “represent” us, not to disregard us. Yes, there are times when controversial issues split constituencies down the middle and there are good arguments on both sides, and here we expect our representatives to apply their best judgement about which path to take. But this was not one of those times. Opposition to S.5 was nearly universal. James and Bongartz simply didn’t care.
Adding insult to injury, their justifications for thwarting the will of their constituents are based on misleading half-truths and flat-out falsehoods about the policy they put into law.
At a recent public forum and in email responses to me, Rep. James kept insisting that S.5 is “just a study.” It is not. While the bill does include a study of the impacts of the program, it also “stands up” the Clean Heat Standard program. They are not studying the program to determine if we want it or if it is even feasible or affordable. They are establishing the program – it is now fixed in law – and the “study” is being employed as a tool build the program, not to evaluate it.
The so-called “check back” provision in the law does not require a vote to determine whether or not Vermonters will have a Clean Heat Standard or not. We have it. The PUC is already advertising to fill positions authorized by the legislation. The “check back” is only a review and vote on the final rules that will govern the program. All elements of the program – the bureaucracy, the IT system, and hiring a non-governmental agency (likely Efficiency Vermont) to run the program to as much as a 12-year contract – are put in place before the check back vote occurs in 2025.
The only cost estimates for the Clean Heat Standard indicate it will add 70¢ to $4.00 to a gallon of home heating fuel. Reps. James and Bongartz insist these estimates are high, yet they offer no cost analysis of their own to refute these numbers. At the Arlington Town meeting, Rep. James said it could cost as little as 10 cents, based on an Oregon motor vehicle program, and repeated that assertion in subsequent communications. At the Arlington Town meeting, Rep Bongartz reported that the 70¢ per gallon estimate had been “widely debunked”, but he “did not know the answer” to the true cost.
In fact, Rep. Bongartz, who sits on the Energy and Environment Committee that vetted the bill never even asked a single question about how much it might cost his constituents during weeks of testimony. Not only did he not know the answer, it appears he did not want to know the answer. This is something he and all of his colleagues should have insisted upon before voting for the bill. But it is telling that both Bongartz and James voted against an amendment that would have capped the per-gallon impact at 20¢.
In an appeal to Reps. James and Bongartz for upholding the veto, I provided an analysis of why her 10¢ assertion was more likely around $2.70 a gallon. Rep. James responded: “Your calculations from Oregon are interesting! I have indeed quoted that state a few times as an example of a similar program, but S.5 has evolved in ways since Town Meeting that, at this point, make the example of other states moot.”
Not knowing the cost impacts of before voting for the bill is an act of willful negligence. Not listening to the people who elected them is an act of supreme arrogance. Responsible representation means doing the homework, being transparent with people regarding the facts, and ultimately listening to the people who elect you. This is not how James and Bongartz operate. The voters of Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and Sunderland deserve better than this.