By Guy Page
The Vermont Senate on Tuesday morning voted by the required two-thirds majority to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of S.5, the Affordable Heating Act.
The 20 Yes, 10 No vote in the 30-seat upper chamber now sends the S.5 veto override to the Vermont House, where override supporters confidently predict a wide margin of “Yes” votes to override the veto.
S.5 has been by far the most discussed bill of the 2023 session. Supporters hope to incentivize — others would say coerce — home heating away from fossil fuels to electricity. The essence of the bill is to charge wholesale fuel dealers extra and convert the revenue to weatherization, heat pump, and advanced wood pellet subsidies.
Details, such as what S.5 will cost homeowners and how it would be implemented, are still to be determined. That job now falls to the state Public Utilities Commission, which is charged with answering those questions in a report due in two years.
Then comes the controversial ‘check back’ — a provision of S.5 that commits the Legislature to vote on the PUC plan and findings. Supporters say it’s a feasibility study that will protect Vermonters from the consequences of unanswered questions. Opponents say the S.5 decarbonization train will have picked up such speed by then that the report, and checkback, won’t be able to stop it.
Gov. Scott vetoed S.5 over the check back provision, which he called ‘confusing and contradictory.’ In today’s vote, the one senator who S.5 opponents hoped would ‘flip’ — Sen. Richard Sears — cited his faith in the check back process.
“It truly is a feasibility study,” Sears declared on the floor. He said he has heard from many Vermonters about their fears of what S.5 will bring. “It is our duty to allay those fears,” he said. He added that maybe S.5 will turn out ‘to be like single payer,’ a reference to the health care insurance bill that proved too costly for Democratic Sen. Peter Shumlin to support.
Another senator who some opponents hoped might vote no was Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia). She voted yes without comment.
Several Democratic senators did join the small Republican caucus: Robert Starr (D-Orleans), Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle/Colchester), and Irene Wrenner (D-Chittenden). (VDC erroneously reported earlier that Sen. Tom Chittenden had voted no.)
Wrenner skewered S.5 as a bill that, purporting to reduce Vermont carbon emissions, actually will encourage the combustion of Vermont-grown trees and imported natural gas. If S.5 were really a climate change bill, “biomass and fracked gas would not get a pass,” she said.
Before the vote, a large number of Vermonters opposing S.5 attempted to corner senators to express their views. They held a banner outside stating that S.5 makes Vermont ‘the Green Washing State,’ a reference to S.5’s use of carbon credits that allow fossil-fuel dealers like Vermont Gas to continue to sell their imported fracked gas by subsidizing low-carbon energy solutions.
The assembled protesters also protested Senate Pro Tem Phil Baruth’s request that pro-S.5 senators not offer floor speeches in favor. The purported reason was to allow Rutland Sen. David Weeks to participate in a family funeral, scheduled for late morning. Under the Legislature’s procedural rules, delaying the vote even a day would have jeopardized the override veto vote’s appearance in the House by Friday, the scheduled adjournment date. It also offered a procedural reason for pro S.5 senators to not have to go on the record explaining their votes.
Before the vote, Sen. Wrenner handed protester John Brabant of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and others with him a handout of her previous remarks on the Senate floor, explaining her firm opposition to S.5, a/k/a the Affordable Heating Act (AHA).
Wrenner – an Essex Junction community newspaper publisher – asked her senate colleagues:
“Will your AHA moment come this summer once we’ve left the State House? Next year when primaried by someone who runs on S.5 alone and reminds the public how the majority ignored their logical, heart felt pleas? Four years hence, when heat pump owners write to VTDigger that it’s a great air conditional, but they’re paying more than ever to keep warm, between the cost of electric heat pumps and the S.5 adder from their primary fuel dealer?”
Gov. Scott issued this statement after the override:
“Unfortunately, the Senate has chosen to override my veto on S.5, but I want to thank the bipartisan group of senators, including all seven Republicans and Democratic Senators Mazza, Starr and Wrenner for having the courage to put their constituents first by voting to sustain.
“I also want to thank the many thousands of Vermonters who have reached out to their legislators advocating against this bill. The House will take its final vote later this week. Please continue to make your voice heard, and I will continue to work to make it at the center of this debate
“Regardless of whether or not your representatives listen to you this week, Vermonters should know that I will not stop advocating on your behalf. 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.”
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.