Legislative review: Vermont economy needs ‘Code Green’

I was happy the Speaker assigned me to another term on the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development. I believe ours is a committee well constituted to deal with the complex economic issues we are facing in Vermont.
The committee’s first few weeks were spent performing our oversight function of the government agencies within our legislative purview. We cover the Agency of Commerce and Economic Development, the newly renamed Department of Financial Regulation (insurance and securities), the Department of Labor, the Department of Public Service, the Public Service Board, and the Attorney General’s consumer protection division. We also took testimony from State Auditor Doug Hoffer, State Treasurer Beth Pearce and Attorney General William Sorrell.
So far, we have seen bills on workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance reform, a “lemon law” for used vehicle sales, and “independent contractor” status. It appears propane regulation is back with at least four member bills introduced to deal with some aspect of consumer protection within the propane industry. We have voted out one bill allowing workers’ compensation benefits to be paid with a debit card.
My focus in committee this year is developing a suite of legislative initiatives that I collectively call “Code Green.” Our economy is changing rapidly. New, growing economic opportunities will be built from “knowledge capital” — intellectual property (IP) like patents, trademarks, licenses — and manifest in software code. Vermont can stake out a position in this new economy by defining a framework of statutory initiatives that make our state uniquely attractive as a domicile for IP ventures. I am also working with Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, on workforce development for professions in “the trades.”
Budget and tax issues are naturally tense this year, as many more proposals and promises have been made than exists either funding or the willingness to raise funds. The tension will play out in big areas like education, transportation, health care and human services, but will also present serious challenges to some of the new state initiatives proposed — especially in light of the governor’s position on not raising “broad-based” taxes. Instead, we are likely to see increases in fees and consumption taxes.
We will be addressing a number of provocative issues this session. The agenda already includes “death with dignity/assisted suicide,” child immunization, gun legislation, GMO labeling of food, mandatory paid sick leave, and requiring non-unionized employees to contribute to the collective bargaining unit representing union members.
While that seems like a lot, by far the biggest effort will be a legislative response to calls for action on climate change. The governor wants Vermont to show leadership to the world on reducing carbon emission, even if it hurts us (or some of us). The Speaker invited “Vermonter of the Year” Bill McKibben to address the assembled House, and after, Bill testified in our committee. He has a grim take on the sacrifices necessary for planetary survival, though I believe his sincerity.
We are likely to see several legislative initiatives in this area including efforts to enact a moratorium on large-scale, ridge-top wind development. I support the moratorium, and I reject the argument that pausing for analysis of the impact of existing projects will signal a weakness on climate change resolve. Dissent on this issue does not mean the problem of climate change isn’t real; it means the proposed solution needs more study before we do things that can not be corrected. Vermont has actually sited some large scale wind projects along with a number of large solar arrays. We have biomass electric generating facilities, and we have seen expansion of methane-to-electricity projects on our dairy farms. I believe a well managed program — especially large-scale ones — should have a data collection, evaluation, and feedback loop. It’s just smart.
Vermont is also providing a major carbon sink in our forests. We are growing more than twice the amount of woody biomass than we harvest each year. This sequestration service is made possible in large part by our forward-looking state land use policies, our commitment to land conservation funding through Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and our tax policies that recognize the use-value of forest and farm land. Nowhere in the debate is this significant contribution to climate change abatement even recognized, let alone paid for.
The initiative to weatherize homes in Vermont is smart, logical and manageable. It will take significant investment — first to mobilize a statewide weatherization industry, then to perform all the work. If the potential savings are as large as advertised, I would like to see state bonding to capitalize the project on a large scale. This would accomplish the climate change goal while also serving as a major economic stimulus. The bonds would ideally have a revenue stream attached; this would be a good rationale for an all-fuels tax. But, that would run afoul of the governor’s “No increase in ‘broad-based’ taxes” position.
As always, I welcome and appreciate your feedback.
Rep. Paul Ralston can be reached at [email protected] or 802-349-7100.

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