Emotions ran high Thursday at the Vermont State House in Montpelier, when activists voiced their displeasure about what they saw as a lack of action on climate change policies this legislative session.
“We have had enough of their inaction,” Asa Skinder, a Middlebury College freshman, said of Vermont lawmakers after a demonstration in the House chamber.
Skinder was among two dozen members of a group called Extinction Rebellion Vermont, which unfurled a banner from the balcony of the House of Representatives chamber and threw index card-sized confetti onto to the House floor with slogans promoting climate justice.
The group had wanted urgent action from a supermajority of Democrats and Progressives on carbon pollution this session.
Most lawmakers left the House floor after the disruption.
One woman yelled from the House balcony, “I’m terrified for my children’s future,” warning of calamitous effects of climate change, such as severe weather events.
While most of the activists left the House chamber without a court citation, Skinder, Middlebury junior Alec Fleischer, and a high school student were taken into custody when they were asked by Capitol Police to leave, but would not.
Skinder and Fleischer were issued court citations for disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. The juvenile was released into the custody of a parent, Capitol Police said.
“We’re stepping up this activism,” Fleischer told necn, explaining his view that the urgency of the climate crisis necessitates actions that will get lawmakers’ attention.
A close ally of climate change activists in the House, Rep. Mari Cordes, D/P-Addison 4, said while she passionately supports climate justice, the wide variety of priorities among Democrats and a need to represent all Vermonters simply meant not every initiative could advance this session.
“I share their frustrations,” Cordes said.
Still, Cordes promised she and colleagues focused on climate change legislation will continue working in the Vermont Legislature’s off-season.
The environmentalists weren’t the only ones disappointed in the Vermont Legislature this session.
A system to license retailers to sell taxed and regulated cannabis also stalled, which drew complaints from Vermonters who have pushed for years for a legal framework for cannabis sales.
And advocates for working Vermonters were upset there wasn’t more energy behind a push to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.
The House did advance a minimum wage bill that would raise wages annually by 2.25 times the inflation rate, beginning in 2020.
Vermont’s minimum wage is currently $10.78 an hour, $3.53 an hour more than the federal minimum wage.
Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Rockingham, said in a statement supplied to reporters by the office of House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, “This puts more money in Vermonters’ pockets and more money back into the Vermont economy.”
Trieber’s statement continued, “The annual wage growth in this bill will occur unless there is a major economic downturn, giving Vermonters a much-needed raise, and giving Vermont businesses a backstop in times of economic uncertainty.”
However, Teddy Waszazak, a board member of the group Rights & Democracy, who has long advocated for a guaranteed $15 minimum wage by 2024, called the bill a disappointment that won’t deliver the kinds of pay raises he said Vermonters need soon.
“I feel strongly that this cop-out puts us in a very weak negotiating position with the governor,” Waszazak said.
As for Speaker Johnson, D-South Hero, she told reporters after Thursday’s disruption that she cares deeply about addressing climate change.
While Johnson said she’s aware environmental activists have pledged to dial up the pressure on her when the Vermont Legislature returns in January, she asked that future demonstrations focus on dialogue, not disruption.
“This chamber is made for listening,” Johnson said of the Vermont House.