Updated at 3:36 p.m.
The final chapter of one of this legislative session’s fiercest political battles came to a close Thursday, when the House cast the final vote required to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of S.5, or the Affordable Heat Act.
In a 107-42 vote, the lower chamber ensured the Legislature’s highest-profile climate bill will become law despite the governor’s opposition. With 149 members present, 100 votes were required to override Scott’s veto.
It’s been a tumultuous, yearslong battle for the bill through its various iterations. This year, debate over S.5 devolved into a political tit-for-tat between Scott, who refused to budge in his opposition, and House leadership, who plowed forward with the legislation.
For weeks, the respective parties pointed their fingers at one another, accusing the other of disseminating misinformation on the bill. Meanwhile, protesters took to the Statehouse to demand climate action, while representatives of fuel dealers confronted lawmakers ahead of key votes, and legally questionable opposition ads went live on the airwaves.
Ultimately, the Legislature passed the bill as scheduled, and as he promised, Scott vetoed it.
The Senate voted 20-10 on Tuesday to override the Republican governor’s veto, narrowly clearing the required two-thirds majority of members present in the chamber.
Proponents of the bill say its ultimate goal is to move Vermont away from primarily heating buildings with high-carbon fossil fuels — a mission that Scott says he agrees with, in principle.
To move toward that goal, S.5 will establish an on-ramp to an eventual statewide “clean heat standard” system aimed at funding the widespread transition to heating systems that pollute less.
To do so, Vermont’s Public Utility Commission will craft a credit system by which homeowners, plumbers, fuel dealers and others could earn credits by installing certain “clean heat” measures. Those include improving home weatherization; installing cold-climate electric heat pumps, advanced wood heat or solar hot water systems; and using some biofuels, among other measures.
Vitally, the bill rests much of the responsibility for the transition on heating fuel dealers, who would owe credits to offset the carbon footprint associated with fossil fuels they bring into the state. They could either offset their owed credits with their own clean heat measures, or pay a fee to the state, which would be used to fund clean heat measures.
Supporters of the bill say the concept is simple: Fossil fuel usage is among the number-one drivers of climate change, and home heating is among the top sources of Vermont’s own emissions. Proponents say that fossil fuel dealers have a financial obligation to help fund the transition to more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Detractors of the bill, meanwhile, warn that there’s little the state can do to stop fuel dealers from passing on the cost burden to Vermonters themselves, who are already feeling the pinch of sky-high home heating fuel prices. And fuel dealers themselves have admitted that they would likely do so.
In a written statement following the House vote Thursday, Scott was grave, warning that he believes “this law could impose significant costs on Vermonters who can least afford it, and make Vermont even less affordable.”
At a press conference celebrating the House vote later Thursday afternoon, Sen. Becca White, D-Windsor, one of S.5’s top proponents, told reporters that she understands Vermonters’ fears over rising fuel prices, saying it’s “based in reality.”
“Vermonters are scared about fuel costs now,” White said, pointing to steadily increasing prices over recent years. “The concern that price volatility will continue is very, very real. However, the status quo… is so much worse than the design and functionality of potentially doing this program.
“So for Vermonters who are concerned that they would have limited choices (under S.5), my comment to that is, you have limited choices now,” White continued. “And the only way that we’ll move beyond you being locked into fossil fuels until it’s too expensive to heat your home or cool your home, is if we design a system out of it.”
High political tensions over implementing a clean heat standard have been festering. The debate over a previous iteration came to a head last year when the House failed to override Scott’s veto of the bill at the time — then referred to simply as the clean heat standard — by only a single vote.
Last year’s failure was cast in stone by then-Rep. Thomas Bock, D-Chester, who did not tell House leadership he had changed his mind on whether to override at the last minute. The episode shone a spotlight not only on House leadership’s failure to whip members on two back-to-back high-stakes votes (notably, a new House whip was elected this biennium), but also the schism within the Democratic party on the clean heat standard itself.
Even a year later, Republicans like Scott remain the bill’s most vocal detractors, but Democrats are not unanimous in their support. In the Senate on Wednesday, the override effort barely eked through with three Democrats — Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Orleans, and Sen. Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden North — joining seven Republicans to vote no on the override.
The difference in the House between this year and last, though, was in the numbers. House Democrats picked up more seats in the 2022 election, securing a historic 104-seat majority. And with another five Progressive legislators beefing up the left flank, Democrats could, in theory, afford a handful of defectors.
S.5 will not implement the credit system right away. Rather, it requires the Public Utility Commission to design and study the impacts of a clean heat standard, then present its findings to the Legislature two years from now. For the clean heat standard to go into effect, that body would need to authorize the system in the form of a new bill. That so-called “check back” provision was one of Scott’s major asks of the Legislature in reshaping the bill this year, though he remained critical of how it was written.
Other parts of S.5 will take effect immediately, including a requirement that fuel dealers register with the state.
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