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Climate Redaction: Report’s Slow Roll Sparks Skepticism

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Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke and Gov. Phil Scott - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke and Gov. Phil Scott

Roughly one year ago, with much fanfare, Gov. Phil Scott created the Vermont Climate Action Commission, whose charge was to produce recommendations for fighting climate change in Vermont. The commission was greeted with a fair bit of skepticism, partly because Scott's environmental track record is heavy on delay and incrementalism, and partly because he strongly opposes any measures that would add costs to the economy, especially taxes and government-imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Oh, and did I mention that the 21-member panel was heavy on business and administration figures and included only one environmental advocate? That didn't seem promising.

Well, the commission completed its work on schedule at the end of July and released its final report, which was lengthy and amorphous. There was no real summary, and there were no key points — just a list of 53 separate, unranked recommendations. Some were highly specific, such as No. 31: "Maintain large forest blocks by implementing the Act 171 Intergenerational Transfer Report recommendations." Some were perplexingly broad, such as No. 43: "Create an electric regulatory environment that promotes cost-effective innovation."

For commission chair and Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Peter Walke, the report's complexity is simply a reflection of reality. "There is no silver bullet," he said.

The commission's final deliberations were heavily influenced by some bad news on greenhouse gas emissions. In late June, the state Department of Environmental Conservation reported that Vermont's emissions had risen substantially between 2011 and 2015, ending the period at 16 percent above 1990 levels. Vermont has a legally established goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2028.

The increase added fresh urgency to the commission's work. "The question was, do we identify recommendations that will get us [to that goal]?" said Jared Duval, commission member and executive director of Energy Action Network, a nonprofit that includes businesses and public and private organizations interested in promoting renewable energy. "We decided we could only do so through means that many members didn't favor, like an emissions cap."

At the commission's July 12 meeting, its sole environmental advocate, Johanna Miller of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, proposed an addition to the final report recommending that an emissions cap be imposed in the year 2021 "unless there is significant progress in GHG reductions over the next three years."

That would have been a no-go for the governor, and commissioners voted it down, with seven in favor and 11 against. The commission then adopted a watered-down version suggesting "additional wide scale measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" if Vermont fails to reduce emissions, without mentioning 2021 or any other year.

The rollout of the report did nothing to assuage concerns about Scott's commitment.

The commission had planned to present its findings to the governor and the public on Tuesday, July 31. But the event was canceled with less than a day's notice for an almost unbelievable reason: Officials had failed to properly warn the meeting as required by law.

"It was an oversight on my part," said Walke. He believed that the panel had formally completed its work at its last regular meeting on July 12 and essentially didn't exist. For the session at the end of July, he explained, "I had assumed we would simply be a group of former commission members coming together to present our report."

That assumption was unfounded. On Monday morning, officials realized that most of the commissioners planned to attend. That meant it would be a public meeting subject to the legal requirement of at least 24 hours' public notice.

"Our feeling was that we should do it right and give the public and interest groups a chance to participate," said Jason Gibbs, the governor's chief of staff, explaining the decision to cancel and reschedule the rollout.

That may be true. But it was a bad look for the administration. The sudden cancelation seemed like an effort to bury the commission's report. And the following day at Scott's weekly press conference, he professed to be unfamiliar with the panel's conclusions. His lack of preparedness added to the perception that the commission was getting the brush-off.

Gibbs insists that wasn't the case. The meeting has, in fact, been rescheduled for August 20. But the delay has added to skepticism around Scott's commitment to fighting climate change.

Miller, Duval and others remain hopeful that the commission's report will be the first stage in a more ambitious effort to fight climate change. Hopeful, but unconvinced.

"The big question is, 'What is the governor willing to act on?'" Miller said. "I hope he will do something substantial, but I highly doubt it."

A Legislative Top Nine

The Democratic race for governor has been distinctly underwhelming, with candidates struggling to raise money and failing to raise awareness among voters (See this week's cover story.) The winner next Tuesday should enjoy a postprimary bounce, but it's very late in the game for a relative unknown to break through and seriously challenge Scott.

Given that reality, Democrats have turned their organizational attention toward the legislature — and particularly the House, where the Dems need to pick up seven to 10 seats (depending on who's doing the numbers) to gain a veto-proof supermajority. That would completely change the balance of power, even if Scott wins reelection. And the Dems have done far better than the Republicans in candidate recruitment.

That strength is apparent in a list of the most competitive primary races around the state; nearly all of them are Democratic contests featuring an oversupply of qualified, credible candidates. Here are my top nine legislative primaries to watch:

Rutland County Senate:

Newcomers sense opportunity in the three-seat district because longtime Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) is retiring and Sen. David Soucy (R-Rutland) is in his first campaign after being appointed to the Senate last year. Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) is seeking his third term in office. Three challengers face Soucy and Collamore for three nominations, including former state representative James McNeil, former Rutland alderman Ed Larson and former Poultney Selectboard member Terry Williams. The Dems didn't field any candidates, perhaps missing an opportunity in a district that Democrat Bill Carris represented as recently as six years ago.

Washington County Senate:

As I wrote in my July 25 column, three Democratic nominations are up for grabs in central Vermont, and six credible candidates are in the race. They include incumbent Sens. Ann Cummings (D-Washington) and Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), and challengers Ashley Hill, Andrew Perchlik, Andrew Brewer and Theo Kennedy. Cummings and Pollina are likely to win, and the Dems would be happy with any one of the others.

Vermont House, Windham-2-1:

Democrats have a rare intraparty challenge to a sitting lawmaker in southern Vermont. Four-term Rep. Valerie Stuart (D-Brattleboro) has a Democratic opponent for the first time since she took office. Emilie Kornheiser, director of workforce development at Youth Services, Inc., has mounted an energetic campaign and, as of July 15, had outraised Stuart by more than 3-to-1. Stuart professes confidence, but it's highly unusual for a challenger to gain so much traction.

Vermont House, Windham-4:

This is a solidly Democratic, two-seat district just north of Brattleboro. Rep. David Deen (D-Westminster) is retiring. Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) is seeking reelection. And two other Dems are in the race: Nader Hashim, a state trooper, and Cindy Jerome, former head of the Holton Home and Bradley House senior residences in Brattleboro. She's faced some bad publicity over allegations that residents of the Holton Home were improperly solicited for donations. Jerome has denied any wrongdoing.

Vermont House, Windsor-1:

In a two-seat district in the Upper Valley, Reps. Paul Belaski (D-Windsor) and John Bartholomew (D-Hartland) are being challenged by Zachariah Ralph, program coordinator for Sustainable Woodstock. Ralph is progressive on most issues but opposes the gun restrictions that became law this year.

Vermont House, Addison-4:

A two-seat district represented by Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol), who is not seeking reelection, and Rep. Fred Baser (R-Bristol), who is. Four candidates are seeking the two Democratic nominations: registered nurse and progressive activist Mari Cordes, health care policy consultant Paul Forlenza, contractor Rob Demic (who earned the nickname "Miracle Man" after surviving a 40-foot fall in 2008), and Caleb Elder, solar project developer and bluegrass musician. House Dems believe any combination of the four would be capable of sweeping the district in November. Baser's running mate is Valerie Mullin, who lost bids for the House in 2014 and 2016.

Vermont House, Washington-1:

This two-seat district is usually Republican territory. Rep. Patti Lewis (R-Berlin) is retiring; Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) is running for another term. There are four Democrats in the primary: Norwich University computer science associate professor Jeremy Hansen, retired college administrator Denise MacMartin, retired Norwich engineering prof John Stevens and prisoner advocate Gordon Bock. The Dems see Donahue as essentially unbeatable but hope to pick up Lewis' seat.

Vermont House, Washington-3:

The two incumbents, Rep. Tommy Walz (D-Barre City) and Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre City), are both running for reelection. Two Democrats are on the primary ballot along with Walz: former Barre mayor Peter Anthony and onetime Barre City Council candidate Paul Flint. This is the first time since Poirier switched from Democrat to independent in 2008 that the Dems will directly challenge him. Poirier used to be a stalwart of the Democratic caucus, having chaired multiple committees and served in leadership posts. The presence of Anthony and Flint appear to signal a growing distance between Poirier and the Dems.

Vermont House, Bennington-3:

Incumbent Rep. Alice Miller (D-Shaftsbury) is retiring after 11 terms, and two Democrats are vying to replace her: David Durfee, manager of a food co-op and a member of the Shaftsbury and Mount Anthony Union school boards, and Tim Scoggins, retired geophysicist and chair of the Shaftsbury Selectboard. House Democrats would be pleased with either candidate, and there is no Republican on the ballot.

Media Note

The Valley News, the Lebanon, N.H.-based daily serving the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, is losing one of its most experienced hands. Chief editor Martin Frank has decided to retire early next year, after more than three decades at the paper. He spent much of that time as editorial page editor and has also served as news editor.

Retirement will provide a slower pace and fewer deadlines. "I've always enjoyed working, and I've always enjoyed not working, too," he said, and then reeled off a formidable list of "not-working" pursuits: "backcountry skiing, bird-watching, hunting mushrooms, reading, gardening, cooking and playing poker."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Climate Redaction"

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