Legislative Session Report and Wrap Up
Thank you for your interest and engagement on issues throughout my first term as your State Representative. It’s an honor to serve our community in Montpelier. With the uncertainty and gridlock in Washington DC, I’ve tried to focus on building consensus in our community and at the State House.
A number of big issues moved through the legislative process during the 2017-2018 biennium. You probably heard about front page issues that grab headlines like regulating toxic chemicals, the legalization of marijuana, and gun violence prevention bills. You may have also heard about economic development initiatives like increasing the minimum wage and creating paid family leave programs. Intertwined with these prominent bills are hundreds of other initiatives that passed into law. New laws enacted this year impact consumer protection, health care, education, and retirement security. Taken in whole, the work of the General Assembly spans many areas.
To help you keep up to date with what lawmakers and the Governor passed this session, I will be outlining some key issues. To make things more digestible, initiatives are broken out to correspond to the topical areas overseen by the standing committees that review policy in the House. Scroll down to click on a topical area that interests you.
I’ll be making updates, so please check back often. And, of course, you are welcome to contact me if you have any questions about my positions. I’m available at (802) 734-8841 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Agriculture remains a strong sector in Vermont’s economy. This year, the House advanced legislation to give farmers and value-added producers tools to grow their business. In recent years, Vermont farmers have worked to diversify their services and product offerings. Farms are no longer just sites of production. Many provide storage, preparation, processing and/or sales of the products made by others. Some engage in “agri-tourism.” The law hasn’t kept up with these changes.
The House passed legislation to address some of the challenges farms have encountered since they began adapting to 21st century needs. A new law (H.663) will ease zoning and permitting issues that occur at the municipal and state level. The law will make it easier for farmers and municipalities to work together as farms diversify and grow their businesses.
It’s important that we help farmers, and folks who make a living working the land, as they adapt to new sectors and new consumer demand. I’m pleased the House took action to advance these initiatives.
This year’s budget continued Vermont’s commitment to sustainable, responsible budgeting. Contrary to the popularized notion, Vermont is known on the financial and bond markets as a state that has a sound, well-structured budgeting process. We pass balance budgets and always pay our bills. This discipline is key to maintaining our bond rating and access to credit.
This year, the House funded a number of important initiatives that will support a healthy economy as we move toward the second decade of the 21st century. The budget is structured so incoming revenue is used to pay ongoing expenses. Waterfalls (unanticipated revenue beyond projections), is proactively obligated to pay down state debt and build stabilization reserves. By putting aside money for future needs, we have better positioned ourselves to weather national and international financial uncertainty. With the instability in Washington DC, this type of planning has never been more important.
Included in the budget are protections for vulnerable Vermonters. We acted to restore proposed cuts to individuals who experience a disability that receive developmental services. We budgeted for a 2% increase to community service providers, and increased funding for meals on wheels. Critically important, the budget directed federal dollars to reimbursement for infant and toddler care — a growing need for young families who want to settle in Vermont.
The budget moves us away from costly mass incarceration to more affordable preventative treatment. We acted to invest in our communities and in our state justice system, enabling families impacted by the opioid crisis to move forward with their lives. We put dollars into providing housing options for people with mental illness and created more hospital beds for those suffering through mental health crises.
The law took steps to strengthen Vermont’s financial health by holding budget growth to half of one percent. Significant dollars were applied to pay for long-term obligations, like historically underfunded pension funds, that will save future generations millions in interest payments. State reserves were filled, providing a cushion in the event of hard financial times. This type of proactive financial management supports the state’s triple A bond rating, which in turn promotes many economic functions, like student lending, affordable housing, municipal infrastructure, and lending for economic development.
The General Assembly and Governor must annually enact state property tax rates, which funds school budgets approved by local voters. Because the governor chose to veto the state budget, the education tax rates were set in the budget bill that became law. This is described under “Education.” Likewise, the final budget bill incorporated state changes to income tax law that were necessitated by the tax bill signed by President Trump. Tax changes are explained under “Ways and Means.”
In order to grow our state economy into the 21st century, we need to put the ingenuity of Vermonters to work. A number of economic development bills moved through the House Commerce Committee this session. This Committee deals with policy areas spanning consumer protection, business regulation, and providing incentive structures for economic development. The House’s major piece of workforce development legislation was the miscellaneous economic development bill (H.919).
The House acted to incorporate the recommendations of a 2017 summer working group to meet the current and anticipated needs of employers and employees. Provisions were passed to strengthen the role of the State Workforce Development Board. The use of Career Pathways in workforce development was advanced with the goal of helping younger students access career training starting in grade 7 — an important effort as we work to connect students with high skill, high wage careers.
I am very pleased that the House acted to develop four Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding projects to model a unified funding and governance structure to streamline and improve delivery of services. The House Education Committee acted to expand CTE last year, but was unable to secure the required funding on the budget. Addressing the underlying funding and governance issues could lead to exciting results for our learners and educators. I am excited to see how this section of law will be implemented in coming years.
The House acted to strengthen apprenticeship programs in the state, including the establishment of “returnships” to reengage workers who have left the workforce. To augment this, we created a system to review and elevate the rigor of industry recognized credentials and certificates to create better value and relevance for both employers and employees. Funds were authorized to assist small businesses recruit, relocate and retain workers.
Long-term investment of capital dollars are authorized by the capital budgeting process undertaken by the House Corrections and Institutions Committee. Projects are planned and reviewed to ensure they are an appropriate use of bonded dollars.
The House took action this year to clean up the state’s waterways. $1.4 million was targeted for the Lake Carmi area, which was a major concern flagged for me by residents of Essex Junction. Additionally, the purchase of technology to extract phosphorus from dairy manure was authorized, providing an opportunity to remediate our impaired waterways with ingenuity and creativity. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund was amended to better align natural resources projects with municipal clean water projects. This change was paired with new language to enable certain federal funds to make private loans for clean water projects through the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA).
Money was authorized to address the backlog of individuals in emergency rooms awaiting psychiatric evaluation or care. The capital bill will fund the renovation and repurposing of three beds in the Chittenden Corrections Facility for women and at least ten beds at the Northwest Corrections Facility. These beds will be used by offenders in a mental health crisis that does not require a hospital level of care.
The House further acted on the administration’s plan to improve the flow of patients through the state’s mental health facilities by making funds available to the Brattleboro Retreat for possible renovation and repurposing of units. Corrections and Institutions also began the process of developing a long-term plan for the states human services facilities in response to the loss of Medicaid waivers and the needs of aging facilities.
The state’s capital budget was built to include $4 million for school safety grants, which is expected to leverage $1 million of federal homeland security dollars. The grants are for up to $25,000 (with a 25% local match) and can used for the planning, delivery and upgrades to school security equipment. You can find out more about this under “Education.”
One addition to the House this legislation session was the creation of an Energy and Technology Committee to focus on policies that impact energy generation and regulation, as well as communications technologies. This focus is well placed and important as Vermont, like other states, grapples with the build out of new technologies and how they impact our citizens.
The House took action on a number of bills to address emerging needs for renewable energy generation and efficiency. Laws ranged from expanding appliance energy efficiency standards (H.410) to adjustments to solar siting requirements (H.676) to incentivize smart development of renewable energy generation. An item of local significance that I worked on this session was the passage of a new law to allow certain Vermont businesses, such as Global Foundries, to make investments in efficient tools to reduce their energy consumption and reduce emissions.
The House acted to modify the Connectivity Fund supported by the charges assessed on our phone bills. Under the new arrangement, grants will be restricted to broadband installation (as opposed to maintenance) and increasing the USF charge to assist with the build out of broadband to under serviced areas in Vermont — a critical investment as we work to provide this essential service, which is no longer a “want” but a “need” if we are to retain Working Vermonters
The General Committee oversees a number of areas that make it one of the most expansive and consequential committees in the House. This year, the House took action to advance a number of policies designed to increase wages and support wage parity between Vermonters. Some succeeded through the process and became law. Others did not.
One initiative we took on seeks to address the wage gap Vermont women experience. Research shows that when most women are asked to reveal their salary during a job interview, they inadvertently exacerbate a disparity in pay from their male counterparts, because the salary may be based on lower pay. The House acted to address this discriminatory practice by advancing legislation to prohibit the practice of allowing an employer to ask for a person’s salary history prior to offering them a job. Employers may still post a salary range, and an applicant may still post salary requirements, but asking for a salary history is no longer allowed in Vermont under the new law.
Many studies show that higher salaries, better health care, less stress, and quality child care and education improve life for low- and middle-income Vermonters. To this end, the House acted to advanced a proposal to increase minimum wage (S.40) and create a modest paid family leave program for Vermont workers. The minimum wage bill proposed to increase the lowest wage paid to Vermont workers to $15/hour over six years. The bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor. The same fate met the Paid Family Leave insurance program, which would have provided Vermont families with infants up to 12 weeks of bonding leave, and Vermonters taking care of their families with up to six weeks of leave for care. This benefit would have been funded by employees at a rate of less than two cents an hour for every $10 an hour they make.
Most neighbors I talk with State their belief that growing our economy should be our top priority. As a young Vermonter with many peers who are paying off student debt, starting families, and purchasing their first homes, I couldn’t agree more. I feel strongly that we ought to look at the needs of working Vermonters as we craft policy to boost the economy. Many younger families need more money in their paychecks and flexibility to have kids without fear of not being able to afford time away from work. We can’t expect to attract and retain younger families if we don’t meet them half way so they can grow their business, wise their family, and contribute to our economy through a stable life.
The Government Operations Committee is the House Committee that handles matters of state and local government. I worked closely with this committee on two areas of policy, securing Vermonters’ personal information contained on our statewide voter checklist, and on public records reform.
The House acted to pass my bill, H.624, which increased protection for Vermonters’ personal data contained on the statewide voter checklist. When the President Advisory Commission on Election Integrity asked for voters’ personal information, the outpouring from Vermonters contacting the Secretary of State’s Office was by far the greatest for any issue seen since Secretary Condos took office. I, too, received overwhelming community support to enact a law to deny the request on the grounds that it could jeopardize personal privacy, or worse yet, an individual’s ability to vote. Some Vermonters went as far as to ask that they be removed from the voter checklist to avoid federal data collection.
While our Secretary of State chose not to turn over voter checklist data to the commission, H.624 now expressly prohibits public agencies from knowingly disclosing the statewide voter checklist to any foreign government or federal agency or commission. I am grateful for the support of the Governor, who signed the bill into law, and our Secretary of State and Attorney General, who were early advocates for this reform. I believe we have taken an important step to securing the personal, and potentially sensitive, private information of Vermonters. The right no vote is embedded in our constitution and has been upheld by decades of jurisprudence. I’m glad we could forge consensus to move this bill into law.
The House Health Care Committee this year advanced a number of bills to address the fundamental challenges that have plagued our health care system. Bills to lower the cost of prescription drugs, increase transparency, improve access to therapeutic treatments, and expand primary care became law.
The soaring costs of prescription medication continues to squeeze Vermonters’ pocketbooks. One of the major health care proposals that advanced this year directs the Administration to develop a plan to permit the wholesale importation of prescription drugs into Vermont. The Agency of Human Services is tasked with developing safety and cost requirements to scope out how the program would work. To advance the conversation, the law directs the State to seek federal waivers, while the Attorney General is tasked with identifying potential anticompetitive behavior in industries that would be affected by a wholesale drug importation program.
The House took action to begin the process of assessing the viability of creating easy to access, affordable primary care for all Vermonters. Preventative medicine saves lives and could shave millions of dollars of costs from Vermonters’ health care bills. The new law will study and potentially work towards creating and implementing a program of universal, publicly financed primary care for all Vermont residents without cost-sharing. The Universal Primary Care Bill would be used as a platform for a tiered approach to achieving universal health care coverage.
Another health care related bill that generated a lot of community feedback was S.1, to reduce copayments for chiropractic services to treat chronic pain. The new law will reduce co-payments for chiropractic and physical therapy in 2019. The bill provides greater access to both kinds of care at reasonable costs for Vermonters with Qualified Health Plans through the Vermont Insurance Exchange. I remain hopeful that opening these types of treatment options for Vermonters will result in cost savings and reduce the flow of addictive pain killers that have flooded the marketplace.
The Human Services Committee has a sprawling jurisdiction that constitutes the largest amount of oversight of any House policy committee. This year, the House advanced a number of bills into law to protect vulnerable Vermonters and move citizens out of poverty by removing barriers and addressing systemic problems.
As part of a working group initiative authorized in 2017, the House moved legislation to reduce the occurrence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by reviewing how State agencies and departments work collaboratively to prevent and address trauma. The Education worked extensively on the ACEs policy area and supported the creation of a working group to improve delivery of state services. This is critically important work.
The House passed a long overdue bill to remove several benefit cliffs, which can disincentivize the building of assets by individuals who receive State support. This new law means that families that receive Reach Up can save for the education of their children and keep their retirement without a reduction in benefits. For older Vermonters, we enacted a working group to investigate how the State can best address the needs of aging citizens, while also making sure nursing homes and residential care facilities that provide services are stable and financially viable.
The House Judiciary Committee, which oversees many aspects of our criminal justice and public safety systems, passed many bills to reform our justice system to make it more fair. Two of the most controversial bills of the year went through Judiciary, gun violence prevention measures and a bill lifting legal penalties for the personal cultivation and private use of marijuana.
The General Assembly and Governor enacted three laws to limit the likelihood of gun violence. Act 97 (S.221) gives law enforcement tools to show a judge that an individual presents an extreme risk of harm. If approved, law enforcement can obtain an Extreme Risk Protection Order, which would require the person to relinquish dangerous weapons. Act 92 (H.422) provides law enforcement with authority to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of a domestic violence incident. Act 94 (S.55) expands the requirement for background checks to include private sales, places restrictions on the sale of firearms to those under age 21, limits the transfer and possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and bans the transfer and possession of bump-fire stocks. Together, these policies will make it more difficult for individuals who intend harm to themselves or others to obtain firearms and will reduce the lethality of firearms that may be misused.
Recent events both locally and across the nation have challenged Vermonter’s sense of security. The times we live in when students are fearful about attending school and public spaces seem less safe than in the past have called out for legislative action. In response, the Senate and House have developed additional tools for law enforcement to improve public safety. H.25 creates an additional crime of domestic terrorism. To show that a person has committed a domestic terrorism felony, the prosecution must prove that the defendant took a substantial step toward violating a criminal law of the State with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to multiple persons or the intent to threaten any civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings or kidnapping.
On any given day, Vermont’s prisons hold between 350 and 400 people awaiting trial. Some have been arrested for felonies involving violent crimes and are held without bail. Others, arrested on misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges, are held for a short period of time between arrest and their initial appearance before a judge 30 when they may be released or have bail set. Some of those individuals are held after their initial court appearance because they are unable to post bail. The system can disserve the impoverished and can be a poor use of the State’s resources. To reduce the impact of money bail on the poor, H.728 caps the allowable bail amount at $200.00 for defendants charged with expungable misdemeanors.
Vermont’s current criminal law could be defined as a hodgepodge. It is made up of common law that has been put into statute, and new offenses created by the legislature over the years. Our criminal laws have evolved in a manner that has led to inconsistency between offense levels – similar conduct leads to different punishments. H.660 charges the existing, although in recent years inactive, Sentencing Commission with a mandate to propose a rational criminal code that would provide more consistent interpretations of our criminal offenses, better notice to citizens and police as to what conduct is prohibited, and greater proportionality between offenses and punishment. The end goal is to create a more consistent and understandable code to improve our criminal justice system.
S.173 modifies the process for expunging and sealing criminal records. The bill establishes an expedited procedure for expunging a criminal history record related to a citation or arrest if the court does not find probable cause or dismisses the charge at the time of arraignment. The bill also provides for a process for expedited expungement of a criminal record for individuals who are acquitted of their charges or have their charges dismissed with prejudice before trial. Finally, the bill would require a report from the Department of State’s Attorneys as to the expansion of the list of qualifying crimes eligible for expungement.