Scott faces deadline on climate bill
MONTPELIER — The clock is ticking on Gov Phil Scott to make a decision about what to do with the Global Warming Solutions Act.
Scott has until 12 a.m. Thursday to make a decision: Sign the bill, which the Legislature sent to him last Wednesday, let it pass without his signature, or veto it and risk an override of his veto from the General Assembly, where it's passed comfortably.
As of Monday, the bill was still being reviewed by the governor's legal office and by agencies affected by its proposals, said Rebecca Kelley, the communications director for the governor.
The bill mandates greenhouse gas emissions reductions, starting with a 26 percent reduction by 2025, and provides teeth for those requirements by allowing Vermonters to sue the state for failure to meet standards. It also establishes a 23-person appointed climate council that would have rule-making authority.
As the deadline nears, Scott has no shortage of free advice on what to do.
On Monday, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility published an ad signed by 75 businesses calling on Scott to sign the bill into law. Southern Vermont businesses signing the ad included Brattleboro Savings & Loan, Mocha Joe's Coffee Roasters of Brattleboro, The Mountain Goat of Manchester, and Grassroots Solar of East Dorset.
Also on Monday, Republicans in the Vermont House of Representatives urged a veto, saying they could not support several of the bill's provisions, most notably its appointed climate council.
Which way is Scott leaning? His own words, in a letter sent to Legislative leaders on August 12 and in response to a question at last Friday's COVID-19 update, indicate deep-set concerns with the bill's provisions, particularly the 23-member appointed climate council and its aggressive emissions targets starting with a 26 percent reduction by 2025.
COUNT TO 100
If Scott does issue a veto, attention will turn to the House, where, based on votes last week and in February, it appears the bill has enough support to meet or exceed a two-thirds majority of 100 votes, and override a veto. It passed 105-37 with 6 absent on February 20, and 102-45 last week.
It's more clear-cut in the Senate, where the bill passed 23-5 on June 26.
While House Speaker Mitzi Johnson wouldn't offer a prediction — "I'll tell you after the vote," she said — she is confident that support for the bill and concern about the climate crisis hasn't waned, dispute the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week's vote showed continued support for the bill, she said.
"Even now in the midst of the pandemic, when they cast their votes [lawmakers] were clearly showing that climate change is not waiting for the pandemic to end," Johnson said. "We have to continue to do that work, do the planning and build resiliency and accountability into our system."
The House Minority Leader, Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, said in a news release that House Republicans remain ready to address climate change, but see the Global Warming Solutions Act as a flawed instrument.
"Let me be clear: climate change is real and must be addressed. Ironically, despite its name, this bill includes no real policy solutions — just talking points and a flashy headline," McCoy said. "It does not actually solve the problem or do the real policy work necessary. In a large sense, the Legislature is bucking its responsibility to an unelected council.
"In contrast, Vermont House Republicans have repeatedly laid out climate solutions that have been entirely ignored by the Majority party. Rather than focusing on bipartisan incentives and programs, the Majority party has made it clear that they prefer power grabs and government intrusion," McCoy said.
But Johnson questioned a lack of specific proposals from Scott, despite his having made Vermont one of 24 states and territories that agreed to uphold the Paris Climate Accord when President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that global climate agreement. Vermont needs to put a plan in place with the accountability to make that plan matter, she said.
"We're one of very few states that have seen an emissions increase. That has to turn around, and the Governor hasn't put anything on the table that would turn that turn around," Johnson said. "If he has something to really put on the table, he can let us know. But that hasn't been the case."
In a letter to House and Senate leaders on August 12, Scott listed concerns including the structure and charge of the Vermont Climate Council, the creation of a "cause of action" — in this case, the mandated 26 percent emissions reduction — which could lead to the state being sued, and the absence of the legislature adopting the climate plan put forth by the council.
"I share the Legislature's sense of urgency to reduce emissions and enhance the resiliency of Vermont's infrastructure and landscape in the face of a changing climate," Scott said. "I believe the most expeditious path is a step-wise approach that focuses first on developing an economically feasible and responsible plan to meet the emissions reduction requirements and putting in place the mechanisms — likely a mix of regulatory requirements and financial and technical assistance programs — needed to ensure that the work will be sustained."
But he doesn't share a belief in an appointed climate council, Scott said.
"I believe the way the Council, as currently composed, would constitute an unconstitutional usurpation of executive authority by the Legislature," Scott said. He counter-proposed the council be appointed by the executive branch, supported by an advisory board of legislative appointees, to "avoid the constitutional conflict that will arise around separation of powers." And he proposed that the Legislature vote on the council's climate plan.
Asked about the bill at his twice-weekly COVID-19 briefing last Friday, Scott reiterated those concerns, and said he saw more mandates than solutions in the legislation.
"They didn't address any of the concerns I have" with the bill Scott said Friday. "It's problematic in a number of different ways ... I just don't think it's good government. I think there;s a better way to do it." That better way, he said, could follow the model of the Lake Champlain cleanup.
"The most valuable lesson of our clean water package is with careful work, tied to specific outcomes, we can develop, fund and implement a plan that has both positive economic and environmental results," Scott said in his August 12 letter. "Further, we know that litigation is time-consuming and expensive and, as such, should be viewed as a last resort."
As for the constitutionality of the climate council?
"The short answer is yes,we took testimony from legislative counsel and the Attorney General's office on several issues of constitutionality, and we determined it was constitutional and went forward," said State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, a co-sponsor of the bill and vice-chair of the House Committee on Energy and Technology. The Legislature also received an opinion from the state Attorney General's office saying that the bill "provides sufficient policy
guidance to pass constitutional muster" in its charge to the council.
Sibilia challenged the notion that the Legislature is giving up its responsibility and authority with the bill, or that it's creating a runaway entity with no responsibility to the voters. And she noted that the state has several appointed councils that advise lawmakers and officials on policy.
"This council has to act in public," Sibilia said. "If they need new rule-making authority or if they need dollars they have to come to the Legislature. The rule-making process is public and transparent."
Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.
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