Commentary: A Victory for the Opponents of the Affordable Heat Act: Potentially a Poisoned Chalice

Yesterday afternoon I sat through the Vermont Senate debate concerning the Affordable Heat Act (“AHA”). The bill with one amendment passed through the body by a count of 19-10. However, opponents won a victory by forcing its supporters to attach an amendment which delayed a vote enacting the legislation until January 15, 2025.

Any delay is a win for opponents. So, in that regard, opponents need to appreciate and thank the steadfastness and determination of Senators Brock, Collamore, Ingalls, Mazza, Norris, Starr, Weeks, Westman, Williams, and Wrenner. Watching them drill down on key issues within the bill was impressive and should give Vermonters hope for the future as long as these thinkers are present in the Senate.

But a lot had happened to get to that moment. It is clear that the education and economic analysis of the true costs and morality of the bill by the Ethan Allen Institute had an impact. The turnout of the fuel dealers and associated lobbying, led by Matt Cota, had an impact. The grassroots organizing done by Annette Smith, Alison Despathy, Karen Bufka, John LaBarge, and Wendy Wilton had an impact. And the stunning investigative journalism by Rob Roper and Guy Page also clearly had an impact.

The public pressure built by these efforts on the bill’s supporters forced them to fold and to promote the idea of a “study period” instead of calling it a mere “check back.” However, there is cause for concern about the study period. This study period establishes the first part of the expanding bureaucracy necessary to implement and supervise the program. And, of utmost concern, it only allows for the refinement of the “rules “of the program, not for any new program to take its place. The check back vote in January 2025 is for rulemaking on the legislation only. It is not a vote at that time on whether there are other solutions or other structures to solve the emission limits problem.

The reframing of this delay by supporters as a study period is misleading. The introduction of the study period appears mostly as a political calculation by the supporters. By calling it a study period, they accomplish at least four political objectives. First, they appear to be listening to concerns about the myriad unanswered questions, and they appear even handed. Second, a study period allows them to change the narrative to a favorable one over the next two years since they will control all the studies being done. Third, the study period cannot change the actual structure that the opponents dislike, it can only affect legislative “rules” around the program. Remember that rules are created in concurrence with legislative intention, and the intention is to design and implement the existing structure. Fourth, the study period gives them the opportunity to campaign on this issue and use it, like they used Prop. 5, to increase their numbers of representatives and senators. So, while they appear to have lost a battle, supporters of the bill have now cleverly turned the opposition to their advantage and are poised to ride the study period to further electoral victories in deep blue Vermont. Clever on their part, right?

The next step is for the bill to go to the House after town meeting week. We understand that there is a movement among House representatives for opponents to join with disaffected progressives who see the bill as oppressive to low and moderate people, both white and BIPOC. While incremental progress has been made in building a coalition by individual representatives, legislative leadership in the House (i.e., Minority Leader Patricia McCoy) must coalesce and support these efforts at alliance for them to become successful.  If opposition leadership in the House falls short, then the bill meets with Governor Scott. He is expected to veto it. At that point, it would come back to the legislature to override or sustain the veto. Yesterday’s vote was one vote away from sustaining a veto. In the crucible of time after the veto, can one or more senators be brought to oppose the Affordable Heat Act? Or can one or more senators be convinced to support the Affordable Heat Act?

Expect utmost pressure on the ten senators who took a stand in opposition yesterday. Will opponents get to eleven senators to sustain the veto and cause the program to be rethought? No one knows. But we do know that if the opponents of the Affordable Heat Act don’t double their efforts to win over one more senator for sustaining a veto, then the bill will become law. And opponents, who yesterday won a victory, will be handed a poisoned chalice, the other name for a study period.

Myers Mermel, President of the Ethan Allen Institute.


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