Together, We Will Move
I’m offering alternatives to the general goals that everyone uses (and everyone agrees with) like “Boost the Economy” and “Create Jobs”. I’ve been running small but specific ads in the Lakes Region Free Press. They are called, “Where I Stand…” and offer voters short policy positions; more than a bullet point but less than a full report.
GET MOBILE ALERT
Text STOP to 2233 to stop receiving messages. Terms & Conditions
This is the point in the legislative session when the hard work of committees comes to the House floor. This week we debated a number of important bills including the budget. After a detailed explanation, the budget passed 139-1, indicating approval of not just the Appropriation Committee’s proposal but the process. Appropriations held numerous public hearings, solicited advice and suggestions from legislators and other committees, and worked with the administration’s recommendations.
Representatives each have their budget disappointments that more wasn’t allocated for their areas of concern, which are many. But overall the Appropriations Committee has done a remarkable job of moving state priorities with limited current means and some grim demographic projections.
Many other bills were also approved, including the Capital Bill which consists of $125 million in bonding, focusing on “bricks and mortar”: upkeep of state buildings, grant programs, clean water and housing. A workforce development bill, a critical child care assistance bill, and the broadband expansion bill passed as well.
The biggest fireworks were reserved for H.439 “The Home Weatherization Assistance Program.” Legislators are in nearly unanimous agreement that home weatherization provides great return on investment in terms of health, job creation, fuel savings, and participation in work and school. Disagreement comes on how to raise the money.
The existing program is funded through a 2¢ per gallon tax on heating oil, propane, kerosene, and dyed diesel fuel, and a 0.75% levy on natural gas and coal. The bill proposed expanding the program by increasing those charges to 4¢ a gallon, and 1% and 1.5% respectively. That would raise $4.6 million.
Heated debate (no pun intended) followed on whether this is a regressive tax, though my amendment to shift the program cost to a progressive tax on the highest income bracket was soundly defeated. There was debate on whether other fuels are similarly taxed – and they are, one example being the charge on our electric bills which pays for efficiency programs. And we debated whether this is a “carbon tax” in disguise.
On that question I side with those who say it is not. A carbon tax is generally understood to 1) be set much higher in an effort to influence behavior, which this does not do, and 2) to vary with the carbon content of the different fuels, which this also does not do. This is like the existing gasoline tax which taxes a specific produce (gasoline) to raise money for a specific purpose (highways).
In the end the bill passed with an amendment to exempt farming and logging operations, which I supported. All these bills and others now move to the Senate for consideration.Read More
Hundreds of high school students converged on the Statehouse last Friday to stage a rally and a press conference, and to testify in various committees. They came to demand action on climate change. Those who spoke in the Energy Committee were articulate, informed, and frustrated. And they weren’t wrong.
The Legislative Calendar for Tuesday, March 19th is packed with 25 different bills for action or taking their place in the lineup. Some are minor adjustments to or streamlining of existing law. Some break new ground. None of them relate to climate change.
That doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t getting serious attention, just not the attention that it deserves. However, in legislative speak “attention” usually means money; how best to raise it and how best to spend it.
Two general ideas are getting a lot of traction. One is a proposal to increase funds for weatherizing Vermont’s old drafty housing stock, which has multiple benefits. In addition to reducing fuel consumption and saving money, warmer homes mean healthier people in them – less time lost from work and school, lower medical costs, and less family stress.
The other idea is a proposal to incentivize the transition to electric vehicles, a change that most major manufacturers will be making in the near future, worldwide. This also requires simultaneous development of a statewide system of charging stations, both publicly and privately owned.
Both plans have plenty of wrinkles to iron out. What are the specific goals? What is the most effective program? How much do we spend? For how long? What is the revenue source? Who is eligible to benefit? What are the consequences of acting? (Fewer gasoline engines means less gas tax money collected means less revenue for the highways.) What are the consequences of not acting?
I look forward to theses proposals taking their place on the House floor soon.Read More
High speed internet is no longer a luxury. In addition to being indispensable for virtually all businesses, it is the lifeline for many of Vermont’s cottage industries or work-from-home artists, craftspeople, and start-ups. Unfortunately, for too many people it is a frayed and unreliable lifeline.
How did we get here?
In Vermont, electric and telephone service are provided by regulated monopolies. The agreement is that providers of both services will operate under tight state regulation in exchange for a designated territory. A look at the map of electric utility territories clearly illustrates the history of private electric companies expanding only into territories with enough population density to earn them money. It was left to the electric co-ops to provide this now essential service into the boondocks, which was only feasible with serious federal commitment in the form of the Rural Electrification Program. But it worked.
The growth of broadband service is following an identical track. But broadband is federally regulated – and the federal government is clear that they still prefer a lightly regulated “free enterprise” approach. Private companies like Consolidated, xFinity, and VTel will build out service where they can make money, or where they receive subsidies. Any area providing fewer than about 15-20 customers per mile just don’t interest them. Unless there are subsidies. Most telephone companies are offering service to their existing customers but that is often a copper wire-based DSL internet in rural areas which has many limitations.
So what can we do?
The House Energy and Technology has approved a bill which takes a three-pronged approach.
- Currently, incentives for broadband providers to expand unto unserved or underserved areas come from the Connectivity Initiative. That is funded by the Universal Service charge on your phone bill – currently a 2% tax. But that tax first funds the E-911 service and some other programs as well. Then whatever is left over gets split and one of those portions is the available money for broadband expansion. In 2018 it was about $200,000. In 2019 it is forecast to be $0.
The Committee’s proposal is to add another 0.5% to that tax; that would generate about $1.5 million annually. On my home’s phone bill it would be an extra 4.5¢ per month.
2) The bill also requires a feasibility study of electric utilities providing broadband service, as is already happening in some states. Certain synergies exist: electric utilities already service almost every building in the state. Utilities require more intensive data handling to become efficient real-time energy managers; they also require a comprehensive, high speed communications network
There are obvious challenges as well. Utilities do a good job operating within the regulated monopoly sphere. But broadband is lightly regulated and highly competitive, so we are asking utilities to operate two very different business models together.
3) Recognizing that to date, neither private enterprise or the state has been able to resolve these issues the bill also creates a “toolbox” to assist communications union districts and other entities to take on broadband network expansion and operation. Learning from the experience of EC Fiber we are offering three tools: a new technical expert position created to advise these entities; grants and low interest loans for planning and construction; and a streamlined process for “makeready” – getting wires onto the poles.
These three options are not the only ones, but they represent a variety of approaches. Different areas require different solutions, and hopefully these options will fit different needs in different places.Read More