The Vermont House voted Thursday to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act, legislation that would legally require the state to meet carbon emission reductions targets in the coming years, and allow individuals to sue the government if it fails to do so.
Two days after the governor vetoed the bill, H.688, the House overturned Scott’s decision on a vote of 103-47 — surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Rep. Jim Harrison, R-North Chittenden, said he was disappointed that the House was ending its special legislative session with an override, after working with the governor amicably throughout the Covid-19 state of emergency.
“I hope we would have been able to find some middle ground,” Harrison said of the differences between Democratic leadership and the Republican Scott administration. “I will be voting no today.”
Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, added on the virtual House floor that he, like the governor, was concerned that the bill dismisses the role of the Legislature in creating a climate action plan and for that reason could not support the bill.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, vice chair of the House Committee on Energy and Technology, gave an impassioned call for her colleagues to override the veto and said the only way lawmakers could punt on their duties involving climate change policy is if they chose to do so.
“The notion that somehow we are abdicating our responsibility, or that the governor is having his ability to be responsive, stripped in this bill can only be true if the following things are true,” Sibilia said. “If my colleagues do not intend to pay attention to what is happening.”
“This bill is not a big bogeyman. This bill brings technical and relevant people together to create a plan. That plan is going to require rulemaking, it’s going to require public process, it’s going to require funding if we are going to implement it,” Sibilia said.
“I hope that we are planning to do our job,” she added.
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The bill now heads to the Senate, which is expected to vote early next week on whether to override the veto.
Last week, the House voted 102-45 to pass the Global Warming Solutions Act, which the Senate had passed 22-6.
H.688 would require the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Emissions would need to be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050.
If the government fails to meet these goals, the bill allows individuals to sue the state.
While the legislation sets up new emissions reduction requirements, it does not spell out or dictate how the state will meet them. Instead, it forms a 23-member climate council — with the governor’s secretary of administration acting as the chair, and other members including state government officials, representatives from the manufacturing sector, citizen experts and others — to come up with a pollution reduction plan.
It would then be up to the Agency of Natural Resources to adopt new rules to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants by the following year.
In the last decade, other states — including Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maine — have enacted similar legislation requiring them to cut emissions in the coming decades.
As Vermont’s emissions have increased in recent years — with the most recent data from 2016 showing emissions 13% above 1990 levels — Democratic lawmakers made passing the Global Warming Solutions Act a priority heading into the 2020 session.
Throughout the legislative process, Scott and his administration signaled they are uncomfortable with the prospect of opening up the state to lawsuits if it does not meet emission goals.
The governor sent a letter to legislative leaders on Aug. 12, outlining his concerns and the changes he would like in the bill.
In that letter and in his Sept. 15 veto message, Scott said he agrees that the state must address climate change.
“I share the Legislature’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing the resilience of Vermont’s infrastructure and landscape in the face of a changing climate,” Scott said.
“H.688, as written, will lead to inefficient spending and long, costly court battles, not the tangible investments in climate-resilient infrastructure, and affordable weatherization and clean transportation options, that Vermonters need,” he said.
Scott worries that the plan could lead to costly litigation for the state, that the Climate Council creates an “unconstitutional separation of powers” and that the bill does not include a “process ensuring the Legislature would formally vote” on a climate action plan.
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“I’m a big fan of our governor,” Sibilia said on the virtual House floor Thursday. “He is wrong.”
After Scott’s veto, both Johnson and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, promised a prompt response.
On Wednesday, Ashe told his Senate colleagues to expect a vote next week on overriding the veto, and to let him know their plans so the vote will occur when as many senators as possible are available.
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