The Legislature convened for opening day at the State house in Montpelier on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS
MONTPELIER – In her speech to open the year in Montpelier, Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson asked all 14 policy committees to work on a bill related to climate change.
“Climate change affects every aspect of our lives, and we all need to be part of the solution,” said Johnson, D-South Hero, speaking to the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
“With that in mind,” Johnson continued, “I’m asking every committee in the House to work on some piece of legislation within your jurisdiction that lessens Vermont’s dependence on fossil fuels, reduces our carbon footprint and sets us up for a stronger, more resilient future.”
Johnson told reporters that she decided to focus on climate change after seeing a range of effects, including high temperatures in the fall.
“We have to stop talking about wondering if climate change is happening or whether or not it’s good for Vermont, and we have to start taking some sort of steps,” Johnson told reporters.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said he was surprised by the directive. Turner would have rather had all House committees focus on education costs and rising education property taxes.
“I don’t know anybody that doesn’t believe that climate change may be real,” Turner said, “but Vermont’s carbon footprint, even if it was zero, would have such a minimal change that I don’t know why we would spend a bunch of time and have all the committees spend a bunch of time focused on that issue.”
Turner added that lawmakers should consider how legislation will impact the climate, but that it should not necessarily be the overarching focus for all committees.
Johnson has already rejected one policy approach that would attempt to reduce fossil fuel use through a carbon tax. A recent version, called the ESSEX plan, would tax fossil fuel distribution companies, increasing the cost of gas and other fuels, and would use the revenues to reduce electric rates and give rebates to lower-income and rural Vermonters. Johnson favors a regional approach with other states.
“We will have to recognize that Vermont is not an island, and we will have to be able to protect lower income and rural Vermonters,” Johnson said in her remarks.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, also said Wednesday that the Senate is not prepared to support a carbon tax on the state level. A regional proposal, he said, would minimize the number of people who would cross borders to avoid taxes.
Johnson said she has a long list of ideas for responding to climate change through policy. She suggested to reporters that the House Education Committee, for example, might look at school heating and student transportation.
Other priorities in Johnson’s opening speech included expanding the workforce for opiate treatment and mental health treatment, responding to data security breaches, paying for clean water efforts, and examining wages and supports for low-income residents.
“The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral and economic issue of our time,” Johnson said.
Johnson also reminded the House to ensure a safe working environment free of sexual harassment and pledged to help create the “gold standard of policies, reporting procedures and training in harassment prevention.”
Members of the Senate were required to spend part of their first day in Montpelier in training about sexual harassment.
Ashe predicted that the year would bring “bigger policy topics with bigger implications,” compared to 2017, when top leaders in Montpelier were adjusting to new roles.