Tuesday February 5, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- On a chilly February morning in Brattleboro, local lawmakers were thinking about home heating.

Specifically, several officials who attended a legislative breakfast on Monday spoke about the need to weatherize tens of thousands of Vermont homes in order to save money and curb carbon-dioxide emissions.

State Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Townshend, believes such an effort is far more valuable to the environment than building wind turbines.

"The best form of renewable energy is the energy you don't use - conservation," Galbraith said.

A recent report from a state Thermal Efficiency Task Force makes the case for a significant push to weatherize homes and businesses. By doing so, a report summary says, "Vermonters will be less vulnerable to volatility in the fuel market and to effects from dramatic weather fluctuations, and more money will stay within the Vermont economy."

Legislators had set a goal of improving energy efficiency in 80,000 homes by 2020.

But state Rep. Mike Hebert noted on Monday that "we're not anywhere near meeting that goal."

The efficiency task force lobbies for tens of millions in state investment annually to meet efficiency goals. That investment, officials said, will pay off.

"Each new public dollar invested would secure $6.18 in direct fuel-price benefits over the life of the measures installed," the task force report says. "Overall, gross state product, including direct and other interactive effects of the recommended new spending and savings on the total economy, increases $1.47 for every $1 invested."

The question, though, is where that state money will come from. Hebert, a Republican who serves Vernon and Guilford, said he does not support a proposal to impose an excise tax on homeheating fuel. Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed taxing "break-open tickets" - a form of gambling - to generate money for clean-energy development, thermal-efficiency improvements and a state contribution to a heating fund for low-income residents.

Shumlin envisions raising $17 million from that ticket tax, and he said in his budget address that $6 million could be applied toward weatherization.

But Galbraith is not buying the governor's revenue projections.

"I think that's very unrealistic," he said. "I think we're going to have to find a more realistic source of revenue."

Galbraith said many homeowners are unwilling to reach into their own pockets for weatherization. That may be because they simply don't have the money, or they may wonder whether they'll own a home long enough for such a project to pay for itself through energy savings.

One way to get around those problems, Galbraith said, is a revolving loan fund.

For instance, homeowners could take out a weatherization loan that then attaches to their property tax. If the home is sold, the purchaser would be responsible for the balance of the loan.

Adding loan payments to a property owner's utility bills is another possible approach, Galbraith said.

Of course, he noted that still leads to an important question at the state level: "How do we raise the money for the revolving loan fund?"

Lawmakers discussed a variety of other topics at Monday's breakfast, including: - State Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said legislators are working on solutions to projected shortfalls in transportation funding.

That could include tweaks to the state gas-tax formula, which would lead to paying more at the pump.

Burke also said boosting the state's transportation funding is critical because that leverages significant federal cash.

"We do not want to leave federal money in Washington while our roads and bridges need attention," Burke said. - Hebert, who serves on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said legislators are undertaking a comprehensive review of Act 200 and Act 250, Vermont's land-use regulations.

"It seems we're opening a can of worms," Hebert said. "I'm hearing from everyone who's ever had an issue with Act 250."

-- State Rep. Tristan Toleno, a Brattleboro Democrat serving on the Agriculture Committee, said there have been applications for more than $10 million in funding from the state's new Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.

That's 10 times the cash available under that program this year.

While noting that board members face a tough decision in deciding which of those projects are worthy, Toleno saw a positive in the program's immediate popularity.

"It shows the richness that's happening in that sector," Toleno said.

-- State Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat, said she expects the Legislature to tackle campaign-finance reform this year.

White also said her Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony this week on a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients who ask for it.

The bill passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week.

White noted the various labels attached to the bill by supporters and opponents.

"I'm not calling it 'death with dignity' or 'assisted suicide,'" she said. "I'm calling it, 'patient choice.'" - Galbraith said Vermonters must "play to our strengths" - including a clean environment and low crime - in order to attract more people and jobs.

But he also said the state desperately needs better high-speed Internet coverage.

"I know from talking to Realtors that houses without broadband sell for 20-percent less than houses with it," Galbraith said.

Shumlin has pledged that all Vermont homes will have broadband access by the end of this year. The state also has pushed for better cell-phone coverage.

Noting an earlier reference to a bill that would prohibit talking on cell phones while driving, Galbraith offered this take: "We should have the cell-phone coverage before we ban it."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-2542311, ext. 275.