Commentary: Legislature Pushing Through Major Changes

The Vermont legislature is moving swiftly into its final six weeks. A major issue, as always, is parceling out revenues to cover  the $8.1 billion Fiscal Year 2023 general plus transportation fund budgets. That process is eased this year by the tsunami of Federal dollars rolling into the state, allowing the solons to fund programs and causes that in ordinary times, with normal state revenues, would not make the cut.

A major feature of next year’s spending bill is the Climate Action Plan’s imperative to put an astounding 170,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030 - 164,000 more than the state has now. To race down this pathway, the state will spend $10 million to install charging stations and pay people $12 million to buy EVs.

 Of especial interest are bills that change the rules or add new restrictions and entitlements. One such is the child tax credit proposal (H.510) that the House approved 102-46. This would confer $1,200 a year on families for each child under age 7. Lest it be seen as a nontaxable handout to the wealthy, the credit would phase down at $200,000 of adjusted gross income, disappearing at $220,000. Above that, families will have to make do without this benefit.

Once approved, no legislature will ever vote to repeal ths. With inflation taking its toll, there will be regular efforts to increase the $1,200, expand eligibility to age 12, or make it available to struggling families with AGIs greater than $220,000.

The House has passed (98-42) another Climate Council must-have bill, titled the “Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act” (H.606). It loftily declares that “Nature is facing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, both globally and locally.” Thus we must “invest in “strategic conservation to increase the pace of permanent conservation towards 30 by 30 targets, Thirty percent of Vermont’s total land area shall be conserved by 2030, and 50 percent of the State’s total land area shall be conserved by 2050.”

Rural land is “conserved” when the state and Federal government owns it, or an environmental organization or trust owns it, or you own it, but can’t do much of anything with it except pay taxes on it. This is a reincarnation of the “conservation areas” of the 1972 State Land Use Plan of unhappy memory, that expired without action in 1976.

The bill charges the Secretary of Natural Resources with working out the details, and the legislature will impose the needed regulations in 2024. At least there’ll be a legislative vote before rural landowners are “conserved”, which is more than the Climate Council can say for its disgraceful PUC-enforced Clean Heat Standard.

That measure (H.715) passed the House 96-44. Simply put, it will make your fuel oil and gas bill constantly go up. The extra dollars you’ll have to pay will end up in the pockets of the heat pump installers, weatherization contractors, and the army of bureaucrats required to track and police an unlimited flow of Public Utility Commission-created credits bestowed on politically favored businesses. No legislator will vote on putting this stealth tax into effect.

Another Senate-passed bill (S.234) adds “no adverse impact on forest blocks and connecting habitat” as one more criterion for Act 250 permit approval,  and authorizes requiring costly and unpredictable mitigation requirements..

 Then there’s the omnibus housing bill (S. 226) that just passed the Senate 28-0. It does relax some strictures on multifamily and accessory housing units, which is good. It also authorizes newly-created municipal or regional land banks to accept title to blighted properties and presumably arrange for their improvement and reoccupation. The land banks won’t have the power to tax, so it’s not clear what funds they’ll use to pay their operating and legal expenses and finance their properties.

The bill would exempt residential housing in bureaucratically designated neighborhood development areas from compliance with Act 250. This is another example of setting a high and expensive bar to development (Act 250), and then exempting politically favored projects in politically designated places.

The same bill would create a homeless bill of rights, to protect people who are homeless or are perceived by somebody as being homeless. The bill exempts homeless people from prosecution for panhandling, an exemption not available to people who have homes.

Nor could a homeless person be denied voter registration for being unable to offer evidence that he or she actually lives in the town. This can be viewed as a green light for election day tourism. 

These are only a few of the measures rapidly moving through our House and Senate that, aside from the EV subsidies, don’t merely make questionable use of money. They’ll make real changes, and in some cases (notably the Clean Heat Standard) they will make a mockery of the Constitution’s prescription of legislative accountability.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute


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