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Limit the Summer Legislative Session

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By Renée Carpenter

Vermont, like the rest of the country, is experiencing unusual and challenging times as we try to address the parameters of containing COVID-19. People must focus on staying safe, or getting well; on having children home — and worrying about whether it is safe for them to start school in a few weeks. Almost everything we once took for granted has become more difficult — from shopping, to employment (those fortunate enough to have it), to basic communication beyond the immediate household. This upcoming summer session is not the time to take up major complex legislation. This is especially true with regards to the proposed H. 926, which calls for partial repeal of Act 250 in designated downtowns and village districts, and allows for repeals of previous Act 250 permits without fair adjudication by all original parties (and that’s only part of it.) More than 100 people with specific Act 250 experience testified before HNRFW Committee, pre-COVID. The Senate has not done due diligence, and cannot under COVID constraints. This upcoming summer session should be limited to the budget and to direct relief for COVID-19.

We see in national politics how the powers that be take advantage of COVID shock to increase wealth and push through policies detrimental to the public good. We think that, here in Vermont, we are not subject to that type of political power play; that we are exceptional, because we know each other, trust what and whom we know, and live in small communities of mostly kind and caring people. While much of this is true — especially of the reasons we want to trust — please beware.

This is exactly the kind of trust being violated by a core group of people who are sure their ideas are the correct ones. They are using their positions of power (and the money behind them) to overrule evidence and push their ideas into law.

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A recent Senate working group’s findings identified a wide array of problems with the legislative process under Zoom meeting protocols, and disturbing levels of disenfranchisement — of some legislators, citizen participants, and even many lobbyists. From limited bandwidth, insufficient digital access, limited time for committees to meet, and inability for citizens to gain access to hearing schedules, meeting times, and invitations to testify, what has been taking place in our legislature lacks the required openness and public access of democratic process. It is, however, the perfect opportunity for insiders with the determination (some would say arrogance) and will to push through their agendas, regardless of the lack of transparency or a fair participatory and democratic process.

While this limiting protocol may be necessary to take care of emergency legislation, it is certainly not necessary or desirable to address widely impacting legislation such as the repeal of important provisions of Act 250.

It took a legislatively appointed and funded Commission about two years to hold Future of Act 250 hearings around the state, to compile and assess the findings, and to deliver a report. Our major statewide newspapers have limited budgets, so what the public now hears about the “Modernization of Act 250” is rhetorical talking points being generated by public relations specialists, lobbyists, and special interests, some disguised as environmentalists. Do not be deceived!

What is lost in these reports:

  • Act 250 does need to be modernized, but the current proposals “miss the boat.”
  • Act 250 is unique in empowering citizens, organizations, and municipalities to affect the outcome of permits in their communities; it does not duplicate other permitting (and nothing duplicates Act 250), but implements a democratic process specific to ecological, economic, and community concerns.
  • Act 250 is the compromise between the environment and economic development.
  • Most Act 250 permits are issued, some with conditions that take into account our need and desire to protect Vermont’s ecology — social, economic, and environmental.
  • Act 250 has effectively protected Vermont for 50 years.

While it is important that the legislature “meet” using COVID-safe protocols such as Zoom meetings to address emergency COVID legislation and budgetary issues, the upcoming summer legislative session must be limited to these emergency legislative needs.

Democratic process requires broad participation by a diverse public. This concept underlies the hearing process at the legislature and also the First Amendment that identifies informed citizens as the foundation of a democracy. Under COVID parameters we have neither: Media are not fully informing the public; the current legislative process excludes public participation.

We are not exceptional here in Vermont with regard to human nature and the political power plays taking place in Montpelier and the techniques being used to keep most of us in the dark.

The upcoming emergency summer session must be limited to COVID-related emergencies. Act 250 and Vermont’s democratic process must be protected.