By Don Keelan
Once again, the Vermont Legislature is about to create another autonomous council: the Vermont Climate Council (VCC). The difference here is that the VCC will touch everyone’s lives and have unprecedented power and independence.
Over the last few decades, the Legislature has created councils and nonprofits that carry out the state’s business and are independently governed and operated. It has evolved so, that presently, much of the state’s business is carried out by such organizations.
To name just a few: The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Center (VCJTC), the 911 Board, Vermont Housing Finance, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (Efficiency Vermont), State Board of Education, Green Mountain Care Board, and One Care Vermont.
Not included in the above are other agencies that are nonprofit entities, governed by their own board of trustees and which received close to 90% of their funding from the state. Some are well-known and carry out critical services, such as the Brattleboro Retreat, the Howard Center, and the state’s five regional councils on aging. The question is, why is so much of the state’s services being delegated to non-state agencies, and just who are they answerable to? Certainly, not to the public.
Several years ago, there was a quasi-state agency (with state employees) that was in charge of overseeing the state’s involvement with the national EB-5 visa program. This is the program that affords a foreign citizen a green card if the individual makes a $500,000 investment in a Vermont project that creates value and, at a minimum, 10 jobs.
The agency was to have been overseeing a major project in the Northeast Kingdom, and at the same time a 200-plus million dollar scandal was taking place at the project. The U.S. government detected the fraud, and soon thereafter the federal government ordered the agency to close its doors.
The Vermont Legislature never took it upon itself to investigate, hold hearings, or determine why the quasi-state agency had failed, and investors lost over $200 million.
It addition to sending those with intellectual disabilities to the Brattleboro Retreat due to a lack of state-operated facilities, the state also transfers millions of dollars to the retreat. The media and the retreat’s labor union have not been kind with regard to how the retreat is being operated. The state is helpless because it has delegated its responsibilities, and is the Legislature involved? I doubt it.
These Legislature-created-entities can also wield a great deal of power and trying to deal with them as a private citizen can be daunting. The Vermont Board of Education believes that it acts independently without state interference. The Green Mountain Care Board and One Care Vermont also act with impunity and a great deal of independence.
Another case in point is the VCJTC, which operates the police and fire training facility in Pittsford. Ask any one of our state legislators how the training center is operating these days and I am sure they will not know. The fact is, it is in serious trouble, beginning with a lack of leadership — once again.
And what is so little noticed is how much of what these quasi-government boards and councils do has a critical impact on our lives. And don’t think for one minute that the soon-to-be-created Vermont Climate Council’s 22-member board will not have noticed the autonomy, power, and authority that other quasi-legislature created boards/nonprofits have.
The power and autonomy that is in H.688 and is to be granted to the Vermont Climate Council is unprecedented. The council and its subcommittees will reach into every Vermont home, farm, business, government, and nonprofit entity. And like with so many other legislature-created entities, we will have little or no say — regardless, that VCC mandates will be passed up to the Legislature for consideration.
Gov. Phil Scott needs to bring a halt to this delegation freefall once and for all, and a good place to start is to veto H.688. The state of Vermont should deal with greenhouse gas emissions through the Agency of Natural Resources, not through an all-powerful and autonomous council.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.