June 2021 Legislative Update
from Rep. Mike Mrowicki
In January, uncertainty was still widespread, as we headed to a year under Covid’s limitations. Five months later, stable governments in Washington DC and Vermont have brought more certainty, less of a sense of helplessness from Covid and ,hope heading into summer that we can start creating the new normal.
Family outings, friendly gatherings, being with strangers all sound easier and much more possible.
Vermonters have worked hard to stop the spread of Covid, until vaccinations have made it safer to come out and try and resume the new normal of life in Vermont. We are especially grateful to our medical providers, food workers, teachers and child care providers and all those front line workers who kept things going. Your Legislature has been working to support those efforts by investing in Vermonters. Legislating can be humbling at it’s best, and even more so, as so many Vermonters have turned to government for help. Thanks for the chance to work for you and report some highlights of the 2021 session.
It has been a challenge, but also a pleasure to serve as one of your representatives during the Covid pandemic. I’ve enjoyed hearing from community members about what is working, what is helpful, as well as what is not working. Federal funds for rebuilding after COVID include medical needs, mental health supports, funding for infrastructure, housing, broadband expansion, water clean up projects, support for workers, small businesses and farms .All ways to help our state build back strong. I am looking forward to getting to know more community members in the months ahead as Mike and Istart in-person community meetings sometime this summer.
Our equitable recovery plan invests in people and leaves no Vermonter behind with a focus on rebuilding the economy in all 14 counties. Our goal is build back better and create a strong, vibrant Vermont where we all thrive. Our priorities in the FY22 budget include:
Vermont Legislative Report 2021:
Investing in Vermonters
Summer is coming fast, and slowly we are coming out of our Covid caves, with lots of reasons for optimism, and renewed commitment to the work ahead.
Covid may be slowly receding, and the economy is moving forward, albeit still a bit wobbly. As State Representatives for your Windham 4 District, we’re glad to report that the Legislative ground as been tilled, seeds planted and we’re hopeful the investments we’ve made in Vermonters will bring ina good crop that benefits all Vermonters.
Our equitable recovery plan invests in people and leaves no Vermonter behind with a focus on rebuilding the economy in all 14 counties. Our goal is build back better and create a strong, vibrant Vermont where we all thrive. Our priorities in the FY22 budget include:
We would be remiss not to thank our strong partners in Congress and Pres. Biden for providing much needed feral stimulus funding to supplement the state budget
END-OF-SESSION REPORT 2021
by House Committees
AGRICULTURE & FORESTRY
Big Book of Ag Launches
Eighteen months in the making ,with input from more than 1,500 Vermonters, the “Vermont Agriculture and Food System Strategic Plan 2021-2030” debuted this session. A collaboration between the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, the “Big Book,” all 200 pages of it, is made up of 54 product, market and issue briefs. For the next decade, this go-to resource will be the dog-eared agriculture bible for policymakers and stakeholders, not to mention a good read for select boards and planning commissions, and a must-have for town libraries.
Let’s just say you want to know what the bottlenecks in hop production are. It’s there. Or you want to dig into Vermont food opportunities in metropolitan markets. It’s there. Or you want to find out more about the challenges facing the BIPOC community in agriculture. There’s a brief on “Racial Equity in the Vermont Food System” and another on “Food Access and Farm Viability.” It’s all there: strategic goals, priority strategies, and credits for the 52 lead authors and 111 expert contributors. Available online: vtfarmtoplate.com/plan/ or in hard copy.
Food Scraps as Chicken Feed - or Not?
For almost two decades, Vermont has been trying to solve this riddle: why can’t food scraps be used as chicken feed? If rancid bacon and slimy bok choy, along with the bugs and bacteria that accompany food scraps, are given to chickens who peck and poop through them…and those chickens lay eggs…and the resulting poultry-foraged-mash-up is turned into compost…isn’t that farming? The Agency of Natural Resources said, “no, food scraps are solid waste.” The problem was that if food residuals are considered food for animals, that triggers all sorts of requirements under the USDA, the FDA, and the Food Safety Modernization Act for “commercial feed” to limit pathogens. After much healthy back-and-forth between the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture, here’s the elegant solution they landed on, in S.102: don’t call food scraps chicken feed, call it an “agricultural input”—like, say, horse manure—that our poultry friends merrily sift through on its journey to becoming a soil amendment called compost. Rules and regulations will add guardrails to these compost-making, chicken-farming operations that will exempt them from Act 250 solid waste permitting, but subject them to Ag’s Required Agricultural Practices (known as RAPs). Now that food scraps aren’t supposed to go in our trash (per Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling law), it makes good sense that they are redirected to Rhode Island Red hens!
New Agricultural Innovation Board Created
On its way to the Governor, H.434 is a bill that creates the Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB). It will take on the tasks of the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council and the Vermont Seed Review Committee, as well as tackle areas of concern such as pesticide use and how to reduce it, and the use of agriculture plastic and how to transition to more biodegradable materials. Vermont is the only state that has a Seed Review Committee that allows for the review of the seed traits of a new genetically engineered seed proposed for sale, distribution, or use in the state. The legislature created this committee last biennium in response to the use of Dicamba (pest-controlling herbicide) in other parts of the country. The AIB’s approach will be a more holistic approach to soil health and pesticide use.
Deep Investments to Ensure COVID Recovery
In the Spring of 2020, Vermont received $1.25 billion in federal CARES relief. These dollars provided relief for Vermonters in desperate need, their families, their communities, and their local businesses in all 14 counties. These dollars were also key to stabilizing critical systems in the areas of health care, human services and child care.
Spring 2021 has brought Vermont $1.052 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and once again the legislature is focused on leaving no one behind. To the extent allowed by federal regulation, Vermont’s use of ARPA dollars is defined by a laser focus on the well-being, present and future, of Vermont’s human infrastructure.
This investment is apparent in the amounts of ARPA funding allocated in the FY22 state budget, a total of $599.2 million. Included, for instance, are $109.2 million targeted to Economy, Workforce and Communities. $99 million is targeted to Housing and $51 million to Rental Assistance. There is also $150 million for Broadband Investments and $52 million for Technology Modernization, as well as $50 million for Climate Action and $115 million for Clean Water Investments. ARPA dollars not “spoken for” are available for use as we have a better sense of ongoing or unanticipated needs. This flexibility is permitted by ARPA, as we have through FY2025 to use these funds.
See How Federal Relief Dollars Are Being Spent in VT
Two interactive dashboards show how the $1.25 billion has been allocated and spent so far. Both have interactive graphics to allow the user to display different views or to filter data to display specific elements.Please take a look at this link provided by the Vermont Department of Finance and Management. It is a remarkable source of information about a remarkable amount of money.
VT’ers to Weigh in on $600 Million ARPA Funds
Prior to adjournment, the Legislature approved the State Budget for FY2022, totaling $7.35 billion. It focuses on the COVID recovery of Vermonters, their communities and local economies. It addresses head-on the costs of state government systems necessary to provide needed services and benefits to Vermonters - to all Vermonters - but particularly to the most vulnerable. With the help of substantial federal ARPA dollars, this budget positions the state and our community partners to effect transformational change moving forward.
Recognizing the unprecedented opportunity beyond FY2022 provided by these federal dollars, the state budget includes language describing a statewide, community-based engagement process to solicit from Vermonters their thoughts for investing in the future of our state. Outreach this summer and fall will include non-traditional public-input events which do not rely on public hearings or online options. As much as is humanly possible, participation will be facilitated and traditional barriers removed. Vermonters’ recommendations will then be reported to the requisite legislative committees for budget and policy development beginning in January 2022. The Speaker of the House and the President Pro-Tem of the Senate will lead this process. Please look forward to this opportunity to help invent our future together! The general areas will include the following: Health and Well-being, Workforce Development, Business Supports, Housing Initiatives, Broadband Development, Climate Change Mitigation, and Clean Water Initiatives.
COMMERCE & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Stabilizing Workers & Employers Impacted by COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the most significant job-loss event ever experienced by Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. Thousands of workers, including a higher-than-average percentage of women, lost jobs or were forced to stay home and care for loved ones or children learning remotely. Many businesses struggled as they were forced to close or scale-back operations due to necessary, state-imposed restrictions.
The Legislature designed S.62 in response to this economic crisis. It is a package of programs and benefits that will both support workers post-pandemic and shore up the UI system for the future. S.62:
Biz & Workforce Grant Programs Launched
To get relief to Vermonters quickly, the legislature passed H.315 in early April, a $97.5 million pandemic-relief bill that invested federal funds before the end of session to jumpstart the state’s recovery. This bill created $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, targeting new and small businesses not eligible for assistance initially. H.315 also allocated $500,000 to the EMBRACE Grants for Micro Business program, providing up to $5,000 to low and moderate-income Vermonters with businesses under five employees and less than $25,000 in annual revenue. Finally, $8.2 million was approved for the Vermont State Colleges, UVM and VSAC to provide up to two free classes to adult Vermonters looking to boost job skills or change careers, to all 2020 and 2021 high-school grads, and to train more LPNs.
Promoting Economic Opportunity for BIPOC Biz
This session, legislators embraced their responsibility to address racial wealth disparities and begin course-correcting the historical impacts of economic exploitation and exclusion from economic opportunity. The House Commerce Committee engaged Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) business and community leaders across the state to inform and develop legislation to create the BIPOC business development project detailed in H.159. It invests $150,000 in a process to be driven by BIPOC and may include the creation of a minority business development center or authority. This legislation will also provide technical support for BIPOC businesses in procurement of state contracts, improve language access and cultural competency practices within state economic development programs, and strengthen state data collection to better serve the variety of identities represented within the BIPOC community.
CORRECTIONS & INSTITUTIONS
Building Back Better: Statewide Infrastructure
House Corrections & Institutions crafts a two-year Capital Bill in the first year of each biennium. This is where long-term investments are made in buildings and infrastructure using money from state-issued bonds. This year's Capital Bill, H.438, invests $123 million in a range of projects critical both to pandemic recovery and to the future of Vermont, including courthouse renovations and HVAC, clean water, state park upgrades, state office building maintenance, mental health facilities, and affordable housing.
The legislation also expands the Building Communities Grant Program, which invests in local economies and helps communities preserve historic buildings, improve ADA accessibility, and address fire safety in recreational, educational, cultural and human service facilities. Municipalities, schools, libraries and nonprofits are encouraged to apply.
Reforming VT’s Correctional System
Recognition of the need for reform and culture-level change in the criminal justice and corrections systems has been growing for years. "Warehousing" offenders does not help them prepare to reenter society successfully, as most of them will. Vermont is committed to building a criminal justice system that is equitable and rehabilitative, where state employees and the incarcerated Vermonters in their care are safe and treated with dignity and respect.
This year, House Corrections & Institutions developed H.435 to address sexual misconduct and systemic issues within the Department of Corrections (DOC) that came to light at the women's facility in South Burlington. The bill drew heavily from recommendations in the independent report by Downs Rachlin Martin.
H.435 establishes an independent Corrections Monitoring Commission and a Corrections Investigative Unit; expands state law to criminalize sexual contact between DOC employees and anyone under the department’s supervision; and requires that DOC work with the Criminal Justice Council to develop a proposal for training standards, and a process for certification and decertification of correctional officers.
New Women’s Correctional & Reentry Facility in Planning Stages (152 words)
Changing the culture of Corrections is not only a matter of programming, it is also a matter of facilities. Most of Vermont's six regional correctional facilities were designed with an outdated mindset and built decades ago. Most are in need of significant repair and maintenance. In particular, the women's Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility is in dire need of replacement to better serve women and their unique reentry needs.
The Capital Bill includes an initial $1.5 million investment in planning and program design for a new women's correctional and reentry facility or facilities. In summer and fall 2021, the Department of Corrections (DOC) will hold focus groups with key stakeholders, including correctional officers and other staff, inmates, and outside service providers. DOC will work with Buildings and General Services, which handles construction and maintenance of most state facilities, to develop a proposal for size, location, and preliminary design that the legislature will review during the 2022 session.
As we seek to move all Vermont students forward into pandemic recovery and learning re-engagement, to better serve economically disadvantaged students, increase equity for historically marginalized students, address our school infrastructure needs, and direct our resources in a targeted way to help struggling students, the House Education Committee worked on several key bills this session:
A Step Forward on School Buildings
Built decades ago, it’s no surprise that many of Vermont’s school buildings are aging and in urgent need of repair. H.426 uses federal relief money to update school facilities and improve health and safety conditions for students and staff. The work begins with an update of the school facility standards and a statewide conditions inventory and assessment for all school buildings. The bill also establishes a renewable and efficiency heating systems grant program administered by Efficiency Vermont and implements a requirement that each public and independent school in the state perform radon measurements by June 2023. Additional time for testing is granted to schools in the process of implementing indoor air quality improvement projects. The long-term goal is to make sure that our school buildings are well-maintained, energy-efficient, safe, and healthy places that meet the needs of 21st century education and technology.
Improving Literacy; Addressing Learning Loss Post-Pandemic
Learning to read is critical to success in school and beyond. The widespread consensus around the need to improve literacy test scores for Vermont students guided the legislature’s efforts to provide additional resources for literacy instruction across the state. S.114 harnesses $3 million in federal stimulus funds to improve reading proficiency among all Vermont students, and especially those in grades preK through 3. To achieve this important goal, the Agency of Education will provide professional development learning modules for teachers in key areas of literacy instruction, and help supervisory unions to implement evidence-based literacy strategies that address learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also creates an Advisory Council on Literacy to engage in innovative thinking around sustainable improvement in literacy outcomes on a statewide level.
Community Schools Pilot Program
As schools across Vermont focus on pandemic recovery and re-engagement, H.106 invests $3.3 million in a demonstration grant program that will allow eligible districts to explore the innovative “community schools” model. Sometimes known as full-service schools, community schools help kids and families access vital services such as health care, mental health counseling, or help with food or housing, often right in the building. They serve as resource hubs that provide a range of accessible, well-coordinated, and culturally inclusive supports and services.
Now gaining traction across the country, community schools tackle head-on the challenging and complex out-of-school barriers, like poverty and hunger, that hold so many of our students back. They help close the achievement gap for low-income students, special education students, BIPOC students and English language learners, and improve student outcomes ranging from attendance and academic performance to graduation rates. The bill also kick-starts a grant program to help schools buy more food that’s grown or produced in Vermont, and creates a task force with the goal of achieving universal school lunches by the 2026-2027 school year.
Task Force to Implement Pupil Weighting Factors
In 2019, a team of UVM-led researchers delivered an extensive report on Vermont’s “weights,” the numeric factors used to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students—for example, English language learners or children from economically deprived backgrounds. S.13 establishes a task force that will work over the summer to develop an implementation plan, a specific roadmap the legislature will use next session in considering how to integrate the new recommended weights into our complex education funding formula. It’s an important job, as the weights have a profound impact on how we calculate equalized pupils, which in turn impacts taxing capacity from district to district. The report, due in December 2021, will also consider the excess spending threshold, how we calculate poverty for the purposes of school finance, and other factors intertwined with our unique school funding system.
ENERGY & TECHNOLOGY
Universal Access to Broadband
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how high-speed internet is essential to daily life. With 25 percent of Vermonters still lacking access to broadband, H.360 dedicates $150 million of federal stimulus funds to construction of broadband infrastructure in the most underserved parts of the state. (The legislature anticipates spending a total of $250 million for broadband deployment over the next three years.) The bill includes funding for pre-construction planning and design costs, grants for building broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and a new broadband workforce development program. H.360 prioritizes the deployment of fiber (“future proof”) infrastructure, giving Vermonters access to at least 100mbps download/100mbps upload service.
Modernizing State IT Systems
This year’s budget includes $66 million of investments for a dozen systems upgrades, including replacing the four-decades-old mainframe at the Department of Motor Vehicles, modernizing the Bright Futures Information System to serve childcare programs, addressing severe technology constraints at the Department of Labor’s Unemployment Insurance program, and making critical cybersecurity upgrades. By dedicating a significant down-payment to long-deferred IT projects this year, we can address an issue that affects all aspects of state government and serves Vermonters.
These actions address how for decades, Vermont has under-invested in the state government’s information technology infrastructure. The pace required to keep up with the necessary technology replacements and maintain more than 1,200 software applications requires a systemic approach and consistent funding. In particular, the fast-evolving cyber-security landscape brings new threats to the functionality of government systems and the security of private information.
GENERAL, HOUSING & MILITARY AFFAIRS
Legislature Apologizes for Eugenics (176 words)
In J.R.H.2, the Vermont Legislature acknowledges and apologizes for sanctioning and supporting eugenics policies and practices through legislation that led to forced family separation, sterilization, incarceration, and institutionalization for hundreds of Vermonters. These policies targeted the poor and persons with mental and physical disabilities, as well as individuals, families, and communities whose heritage was documented as French Canadian, French-Indian, or of other mixed ethnic or racial composition, and persons whose extended families’ successor generations now identify as Abenaki or as members of other indigenous bands or tribes.
The traumatic ripple effect of state-led actions has been felt through the generations and has had real and tangible effects on the lives of Vermonters today. The resolution does not undo the harms of the past, but it marks an essential step towards a future of accountability and reconciliation for the generations of Vermonters who were harmed by state-sanctioned violence. The resolution recognizes further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impacts of eugenics policies and the related practices of disenfranchisement, ethnocide and genocide.
School Employee Gain Bargaining Rights
In Act 11 of 2018, the General Assembly set up a mechanism for negotiating school employees’ health care benefits on a statewide basis. The first go-round convinced both sides that Act 11 needed statutory revisions.H.81 (Act 7) allowed negotiation teams to bargain premium shares and out-of-pocket expenses that are different for support staff members, teachers and administrators. If the parties are unable to reach agreement, the current law provides a dispute resolution process.
Vermont National Guard and alcohol bills were also passed:
H.149 updates statutes to reflect the current roles and duties of the Vermont National Guard. The bill addresses outdated language dating back to the Civil War, as well as court martial protocols under the Articles of War that were replaced in 1951.
H.313 amends alcoholic beverages laws to support businesses trying to rebound from the State of Emergency. In part, the bill authorizes delivery and curbside pickup of alcoholic beverages so long as the alcoholic beverages are accompanied by a food order and the alcohol is in a container that has a tamper evident seal, is labeled as alcohol, and lists the ingredients and serving size of the beverage. This would sunset after two years. The bill also modernizes festival permits and removes cumbersome barriers to promotional product tasting for hospitality staff. As well, the Department of Liquor and Lottery is asked to report on the state of sports betting nationally so the committee can evaluate that landscape for Vermont.
Preserving Public Pensions System for State Employees & Teachers
The Legislature focused this session on putting the State of Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and all state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire.
The goal is to set a process in motion that preserves the defined benefit model, because when properly designed and managed, this is the most affordable way to provide secure income in retirement. Legislators are balancing multiple commitments - one made to state employees and teachers - and another to Vermont taxpayers - who now face a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will continue to grow exponentially without action.
H.449, developed by the House Government Operations Committee, slowed down the process to engage more stakeholder voices. The legislation focused on governance changes that will amend the Vermont Pension Investment Commission (VPIC) to include more independent, financial expertise. It also established the Pension Benefits, Design & Funding Task Force to meet this summer with a “report-back” to the legislature for putting the retirement systems on a sustainable path. Through a conference committee negotiation between the House and Senate, the task force was reconfigured to equalize the state (employer) and union (employee) representatives at the table.
The Legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars (freed up by ARPA dollars), along with the annual ADEC payment of $316 million for a total investment this year of $466 million, a massive commitment for the legislature in a single year. Resolving this pension crisis in the short-term with robust participation from all stakeholders is the fair and responsible thing to do for all concerned.
Expanding Office of Racial Equity
Before the 2021 session, legislators heard from constituents that Vermonters were not only dealing with one pandemic, but three: COVID, Climate and Systemic Racism. In addressing systemic racism, one of the glaring needs identified was bolstering personnel at the state’s Office of Racial Equity. When this office was created and Xusana Davis hired as director, the legislature didn't know the extent of how widely these services would be used and requested.
The workload has continued to grow, with the director being flooded by requests to sit on committees and boards, meet with Vermonters, review policies, and offer expertise to all three branches of state government. It became clear that the needs of the Office were far greater than one person could handle. To help, two positions were added to the Office of Racial Equity and passed in the budget, effective in the new fiscal year, July 1,2021.
Increasing Access for Voters
Universal Vote-By-Mail was a great success during the 2020 General Election, contributing to record turnout even during a pandemic - a 74 percent participation rate! It expanded voter access and encouraged increased participation in our democratic process. Vermonters asked legislators to build on that success, and we listened. S.15 continues the Vote-By-Mail program, adds in other important election measures, and counters the prevailing trend across the U.S. where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws. Effective this coming General Election in November, new features will include:
Progress on Healthcare Premiums
Vermonters buying on the individual market should now pay no more than 8.5 percent of their income on health insurance through changes in law made this year. Both small businesses with less than 100 employees, and individuals purchasing health insurance outside of their workplaces, can save substantial dollars on healthcare premiums.
It’s important that Vermonters who buy health insurance on the individual market review their options. Here’s a link to Vermont Health Connect, which offers an active assistance program, a plan comparison tool, and a customer support center. In addition, the Office of the Health Care Advocate is a valuable and free resource.
Promoting Healthcare Equity
The Department of Health’s 2018 State Health Assessment reveals that not all Vermonters have a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. From access to health care, mental health and morbidity, statistics show significant disparities across the Green Mountain State based on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status. H.210 begins the long-term process of breaking down these barriers. The bill creates a “Health Equity Advisory Commission,” made up primarily of Vermonters whose lives have been impacted by historic inequitable treatment in accessing health care, while empowering their voices to develop an Office of Health Equity by no later than January 1, 2023.
Healthcare for Undocumented Women & Children
H.430 provides immediate increased access to health care for income-eligible pregnant women and children, regardless of their immigration status, by establishing a Dr. Dynasaur-like healthcare program. This coverage begins on July 1, 2021. These undocumented women and children often work or live with their families on the farms and dairies that are essential to our Vermont economy. Because of fear regarding immigration status being revealed, confidentiality is critical. We know that prenatal care and medical care in childhood can improve health outcomes over a lifetime, as well as reduce costs for both education and health care systems.
Strengthening Mental Health Care
Mental health, an essential part of health care, needs strengthening. Too many of our friends and neighbors have been struggling with increased stress, anxiety and isolation – plus increased serious mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. Vermont’s mental health system, critical to the support of children and families, has also been struggling. Adults and children have been on waiting lists throughout the state, and even children are waiting in hospital emergency departments for essential, inpatient mental health care. Important, concrete steps are being taken to address this demand and strengthen our community-based mental health system. Reducing and ultimately eliminating wait times in emergency departments has been the focus of actions with the legislature, the Department of Mental Health and Vermont’s hospital system. Increased federal funding for community residences, mobile emergency response teams, and support for mental health and substance use disorder workforce will also strengthen this vital community system.
Prohibiting “Forever Chemicals” from Consumer Products
Many Vermonters know that PFAS chemicals were found to contaminate drinking water in Bennington and North Bennington in 2016. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade in the environment and accumulate within our bodies over time. This exposure leads to a number of adverse health effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Research is showing that you don’t need to live in a contaminated area to be exposed to PFAS, because these chemicals are used in many consumer products.
Rather than limiting our solutions to downstream clean-up, S.20 addresses this issue upstream by preventing these toxic substances from entering our state. S.20 prohibits manufacture and sale of PFAS from four products that pose the highest risks to Vermonters’ well-being, including food packaging, fire extinguisher foam and firefighting PPE, rugs and carpets, and ski wax. S.20 takes comprehensive steps to protect Vermonters from toxic chemicals and prevent future harm to the environment and public health.
Childcare: Essential to Economic Recovery
We know that child care is essential to supporting Vermont’s children, families, communities, and economy.H.171 takes monumental steps towards reforming our childcare system, investing in our future, and supporting the next generation of Vermont’s citizens. Not only does H.171 make childcare more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a study to identify future revenue sources for a more deeply subsidized universal childcare system.
By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare worker wages, we can support and grow our workforce of early care and learning professionals. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving our youngest Vermonters a head start to success. There is a widespread recognition that Vermont’s childcare system holds immense opportunities. H.171 delivers both the resources and commitments necessary to realize that great potential.
Harm Reduction Through Buprenorphine
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont has been suffering from an epidemic of fatal drug overdoses. With 157 opioid-related deaths, 2020 was one of Vermont’s deadliest years for overdose on record. Almost all of these deaths were accidental, and the vast majority (88%) involved fentanyl, an extremely potent opiate that is unknowingly mixed with heroin. Buprenorphine offers a safer alternative for people living with opioid use disorder. Buprenorphine reduces the risk of relapse for people in recovery by blocking opioid cravings and reducing the likelihood of fatal overdose from fentanyl.
However, there are a number of barriers to Vermonters receiving prescribed buprenorphine, including geographic distance from a clinic, lack of transportation or insurance coverage, inconvenient clinic hours, and other cumbersome requirements to maintain a prescription. In response to the urgent need to reduce harm from opioid use, H.225 removes criminal penalties for possession of less than a two-week supply of non-prescribed buprenorphine. This legislation will save lives by supporting Vermonters in the management of their substance use disorders, encourage them to seek safer alternatives, and get into formal treatment.
Racism as a Public Health Emergency
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the severe inequities in our public health systems. For example, while black residents comprise only 1 percent of Vermont’s population, they accounted for almost 5 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases in 2020.
Highlighting a strong body of evidence, J.R.H.6 acknowledges systemic racism as a direct cause of the adverse health outcomes experienced by BIPOC communities in Vermont. It also commits our state to the “sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems.”
J.R.H.6 was drafted through the collaboration of impacted communities, and gained the broad support of the legislature and the Vermont Department of Health. As with so much of our work, J.R.H.6 is just one important step in an ongoing effort to create equitable systems that promote justice, dignity and health for all Vermonters.
Addressing the Prevalence of Sexual Assault in Vermont
One in five women have experienced sexual assault; one in three women have experienced sexual coercion; nine percent of high school girls in Vermont report having unwanted sex; students of color and LGBTQ students are statically more likely to be coerced to have sex. To make a terrible situation even more horrific, only 230 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are ever reported and only five result in convictions. To address this crisis, the legislature passed H.183. This bill revises and clarifies our laws addressing consent to sexual activity, including the impact of alcohol consumption, to eliminate any confusion as to when consent to sexual activity has not and cannot be given. The bill also creates a Campus Sexual Harm Task Force to tackle the high number of sexual assaults that take place on our college campuses. While there is still much work to be done, this bill will help address the prevalence of sexual assault and coercion in our state and help bring about justice when it does occur.
Eliminating “Trans Panic Defense”
While we like to envision our society as evolving and moving forward, the unfortunate truth is that 2020 was the deadliest year yet for transgender and gender non-conforming Americans. This violence is so prevalent that BIPOC trans women currently have a life expectancy of just 38 years. In response to this devastating information, the legislature passed H.128. This bill prevents minimizing a crime in our court system because the victim is transgender. Throughout the country, there have been court cases where defendants were able to use a “trans panic defense” to have assault charges against them lessened or dismissed altogether. By passing H.128, the legislature sends a strong message that in Vermont every single one of us deserves equal protection under the law.
NATURAL RESOURCES, FISH & WILDLIFE
Updating Vermont’s Bottle Bill
An update to Vermont’s 50-year-old bottle bill passed the House this session. H.175 will expand the types of containers subject to deposits and will now include water bottles, wine bottles, hard cider and tea containers, and others. This bill will also increase the handling fees paid to vendors, which will encourage the opening of more redemption centers. Our hope is that it will help reduce roadside litter, and expand participation in recycling.
Containers recycled via the deposit system are cleaner and more valuable than if they go through the general recycling stream, and a greater percentage of them will be made into new containers. Glass, in particular, is much easier to manage as a recycled material if it goes through redemption centers versus a curbside bin.
Old Growth Forests
The Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Committee heard a great deal of testimony about the value of wildlands and intact forests. Old growth forests are particularly rich in biodiversity because they are more complex, and this complexity grows over long periods of time. They provide unique habitats during a time when habitat loss is the biggest driver of diminishing animal and plant populations. Old forests are one of the most cost-effective ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it. The related issue of forest fragmentation occurs when forests are split up by roads and developments, and animals that require large areas to roam can be severely impacted. The committee is working on a bill to encourage and protect old forests through an expansion of the Use Value program.
Vermont’s Water Quality Standards
H.108 - An act relating to Vermont standards for issuing a Clean Water Act section 401 certification, passed overwhelmingly in both bodies of the General Assembly. This bill puts in place evaluation tools that the state needs to assess large projects that require federal licensing or permits, such as proposed oil or gas pipeline projects. The bill also clarifies the long-time interpretation and practice that Vermont’s water quality standards apply to all of our surface waters: rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands.
Ensuring Safe, Affordable & Accessible Transportation for All Vermonters
Transportation is something most people don't think about until it's not working, costs too much, is unsafe, or not dependable. But having safe, affordable, accessible, timely transportation and connecting infrastructure underpins nearly every aspect of daily modern life. This year's Transportation Bill (H.433) and FY22 Budget (H.439) appropriate millions of dollars to maintain safety and improve critical infrastructure like federal, state and town-owned highways, bridges and culverts. Financial support is also set aside to facilitate the forthcoming New York City-Burlington rail service, to ensure the long-term maintenance of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, and to support more than 40 bike and pedestrian projects. And for those who can’t drive, bike or walk their way from “point A to point B,” various public transit initiatives have been set in place, including making “Zero Fare” on buses continue through June 2022.
Steering Vermont Transportation Into the Future
For a century, the word "transportation" in America has been virtually synonymous with the word "car." And not just any car, but cars using an internal combustion engine (ICE). This year, the House Transportation Committee worked on several bills that recognize and embrace that change is here, driven by customer demand and environmental concerns. The T-Bill and FY22 State Budget appropriated millions of dollars for incentives to help Vermonters shift gears from ICE vehicles to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). To make sure Vermonters can “fill up” their new rides, support is also set aside for additional public charging stations. Don’t want to drive? Sign up soon for $200 off an electric bike. And while electrifying our transportation system saves Vermonters money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation transformation is best approached comprehensively. As such, funds were also directed to address stormwater and improve water quality, to construct bicycle and pedestrian facilities as well as Park and Rides, and to support the growth of carpools and vanpools. Go Vermont!
Equitable Access to Transportation
In the transportation sector, inequity takes many forms, from not having “a seat at the table” when large transportation projects are planned, to not being able to access or afford private or public transportation, to being pulled over at higher rates than others. This year’s Transportation Bill addresses inequity by requiring a comprehensive analysis of Vermont’s transportation programs. The resulting report will create an equity framework that will be used to increase mobility options, reduce air pollution, and enhance economic opportunity for Vermonters in communities that have been historically underserved by the state’s transportation programs. In addition, millions of dollars in incentives have been appropriated to help Vermonters who may have to choose between filling up the truck or filling up the fridge. These income-qualifying programs include “Emissions Repair” (to help pay for repairs needed to pass vehicle inspection), “Replace Your Ride” (an incentive to turn in an inefficient vehicle), and “Mileage Smart” (to help purchase a used vehicle). And for those using public transit, Zero Fare bus transportation continues through June 2022.
WAYS & MEANS
A Favorable State Revenue Picture
This has been an unpredictable year for the economy as many of us struggled with job loss, childcare woes, and health concerns. At the same time, unprecedented spending at the federal level, including expanded unemployment insurance and direct stimulus payments to households, has led to unprecedented levels of state revenue. We adapted to this changing landscape and worked to best meet the needs of Vermonters. From this dual place of abundance and need, the House Ways and Means Committee made several changes to Vermont’s tax code this session, so that every Vermonter can contribute their fair share to ensure a strong tax base to support needed services.
Getting $ to Working Families
The House Ways and Means Committee took full advantage of federal tax changes this year. We were able to provide tax relief to working families through an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child and Dependent Care Credit. For EITC, we expanded the age range up and down - from 25 to 19 years and removed the 65-year-old cap to qualify - and increased the credit amount for single-filers. EITC is considered one of the nation’s most successful anti-poverty programs, providing a refundable tax credit to low-income, working households. We also paired with federal changes to increase the child and dependent care benefit that helps families making up to $120,000 per year, so that parents and caregivers can stay at work. By linking to the federal changes in both the Earned Income Tax and Child and Dependent Care Credits, we’re significantly expanding a benefit that helps low-income individuals and families who are disproportionately headed by women or people of color.
Legislature Keeps Property Tax Rates Level
Vermont’s education spending is decided at the local level and then costs are equalized throughout the state via a complex formula designed to achieve equity of opportunity and taxation. Due to unprecedented federal spending, we were able to keep property tax rates level while continuing to invest in community schools throughout our state. However, Vermont’s education finance system hasn’t been significantly updated for 20 years, and many inequities have grown in that time. With S.13, the pupil weighting study, we have begun a process to shift how we measure poverty, allocate resources, and levy taxes to pay for schools. In unrelated news, we also exempted menstrual products from the sales tax and supported the free distribution of menstrual products in schools. #
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