Amending the constitution: Vermont senators consider Green Amendment

By KAITLYN GIROUARD

COURTESY PHOTO
Christopher Bray (D-Addison) is the lead sponsor of Proposal 9, a proposed amendment to add language concerning a clean environment to the Vermont Constitution. In Vermont, 28 amendments have been ratified since 1870.

The Vermont Senate read a proposal to add the right to a clean environment to the state constitution this month. This “Green Amendment,” sponsored by Senator Christopher Bray (D-Addison), would give Vermonters the “right to clean air and water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, and cultural values of the environment.” The proposal was read for the first time in the Senate on Feb. 14 and referred to the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, which Bray chairs. 

The proposal as introduced states that “the State of Vermont’s natural resources are the common property of all the people. The State shall conserve and maintain the natural resources of Vermont for the benefit of all people.’”

Senator Cheryl Hooker (D/P-Rutland), a co-sponsor of PR.9, said in an email to The Campus that she believes “the bill sends us in the right direction.”

The process of amending such a longstanding document as the state constitution is complex, requiring passage in the House, Senate and General Assembly, as well as in a public vote of Vermonters.

Bray hopes the amendment can be used as a firm protection against future legislative disputes over environmental policy.  “If someone challenges a rule, there will be a legal foundation to point to to say ‘Look, we have already made explicit and guaranteed to each other the right to clean air and clean water,’” he told VTDigger.   

Vermont’s environmental protection measures often receive bipartisan support, and opposition to the “Green Amendment” is more often rooted in concerns over logistics and practicality than rejection of the premise.

Senator Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told VTDigger that he is unsure about the amendment given the problems faced by states that have passed similar measures. Pennsylvania and Montana have already passed constitutional amendments to address environmental rights. However, this has not always guaranteed complete environmental protection. 

“Pennsylvania, I believe, is the state that’s often pointed to and their fracking process leaves one to wonder what the impact of that constitutional language has given, since many people there do not have clean air or clean water,” Ashe said.

Former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas ’72 is worried about the implications of this amendment. “I don’t know what this would accomplish and I fear that it would expose the taxpayers to needless litigation,” Douglas told The Campus. “Imagine if everyone who can’t use a Burlington beach due to an algae bloom could sue.”

Douglas feels that efforts can be better concentrated. “We should continue to pursue strategies to reduce vehicle emissions, which is our greatest air quality challenge, and maintain our efforts to improve our impaired waterways. That’s more important than spending time on a Constitutional amendment.” 

For up to date information on this matter and other environmental legislation, visit legislature.vermont.gov.