State representatives spend roughly 80% of their time at the State House working on policy issues related to their committee’s jurisdiction (health care issues for me, tax issues for Jim). It’s helpful to develop good relationships with other legislators to keep up with various committees’ policy work. With appreciation for the various representatives who helped me put this post together, here is a check-in on some non-health care/non-tax legislation working its way through the House:
The House Agriculture Committee has been looking for a means to deal with the alarming decline in bee populations in Vermont in the last decade. Viruses, parasites, loss of forage space, and the increased use of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, in particular, have combined to put pollinators under stress. Pollinators, which we predominately think of as honeybees, also include birds, bats, butterflies and other insects. A substantial portion of our food system is reliant on pollinators, and the threat to pollinator populations has had an economic impact on beekeepers and growers of fruits and vegetables. H.539 would establish a state Pollinator Protection Committee to respond to these mounting threats to pollinator health. The Pollinator Protection Committee would include ten non-compensated members representing a variety of stakeholders, including beekeepers, farmers, and pesticide applicators. The Agriculture Committee has also considered banning the use of neonicotinoids per H.236. A challenge with an immediate outright ban of neonicotinoids is that they replaced a type of pesticide, organophosphates, that is much more harmful. Working through a collaborative stakeholder committee, the Agriculture Committee is seeking a path that will reduce and phase-out neonicotinoid use, while allowing for responsible pesticide application. H.539 passed the House on a voice vote.
H.297 is a bill restricting the sale of ivory in the State of Vermont. At their current rate of slaughter, elephants will be extinct in the wild in the next decade as they are killed for their ivory tusks to feed global demand for ivory products. The Federal Endangered Species Act regulates the interstate and foreign sale of ivory, but does not regulate intrastate ivory sales. H.297 prohibits the sale of ivory items weighing more than 200 grams (about 0.5 pounds), though it provides exceptions for some musical instruments and qualifying antiques. As an example, the bill would still allow for the sale of a grand piano with ivory keys. The bill would align Vermont’s intrastate restrictions on ivory sales with the federal interstate restrictions as of January 1, 2018. Under federal law, “qualifying antiques” exempt from the law are not less than 100 years old. Other ivory items exempted from federal law are those imported prior to 1990 and whose value is not primarily derived from ivory content. H.297 passed the House on February 19th by a 135-4 vote.
The House Commerce Committee is doing extensive work through H.867 on issues related to independent contractor classification. Worker misclassification (an “employee” vs. an “independent contractor”) is a highly challenging issue for the Vermont business community. In 2008, the Vermont Supreme Court in the Chatham Woods decision adopted a “nature of business” test in defining an independent contractor. The confusion resulting from this ruling has hampered employers’ hiring decisions. An example of the challenge would be of a homebuilder constructing several houses. The homebuilder hires an independent contractor to tile the bathrooms. Prior to Chatham Woods, the contractor tile mason would waive workers compensation insurance coverage and be ineligible for unemployment insurance. Post Chatham Woods, that independent contractor could be viewed as an employee if the homebuilder has other employees that install tile. The “nature of business” test would say that contractor was not independent but an employee since the “nature of the business” was the same for the contractor and homebuilder. As a result, the homebuilder would need to pay worker’s comp insurance, unemployment insurance, state/federal taxes, and other costs, even if the contractor is already covering some of these costs as an independent entity. Most importantly, H.867 strives to bring clarity to this issue by defining an independent contractor as an entity meeting all of the following criteria: (i) free from the direction and control of the employing unit; (ii) controlling the means and manner of the work performed; (iii) operating a separate and distinct business from that of the person with whom it contracts; (iv) holding itself out as in business for itself; (v) offering services to the general public; and (vi) not being treated as an employee for purposes of income or employment taxation with regard to the work performed.
The VT House last week passed H.112, a bill to aid law enforcement and adult protective services in investigating and prosecuting instances of financial abuse of a vulnerable adult by a guardian. In recent years, Vermont has seen increasing instances whereby elderly citizens have been the victims of theft or fraud by guardians charged with their care. H.112 provides law enforcement officers and adult protective services investigators improved access to the financial records of alleged victims of abuse. Tori Lloyd, a resident of South Strafford, played a big role in helping the House Human Services Committee and various state agencies come together to craft this bill. Congratulations on your great work, Tori!
In recent weeks, the House Judiciary Committee has focused its attention on H.571, a bill that addresses the large number of driver’s license suspensions in Vermont. The Associated Press’ Dave Gram had a story on this issue published last weekend. The Judiciary Committee has concluded that license suspension is not an effective way to get people to pay their fines. Vermont currently has 28,000 licenses suspended for failure to pay, yet many continue to drive. The Committee has also concluded that licenses should not be suspended for certain non-driving offenses, such as underage tobacco use. H.571 addresses the license suspension issue in three ways: (1) Licenses that are suspended for traffic tickets that predate 1990 will be re-instated. Many of these quarter century old tickets were issued in an era when traffic violations were considered misdemeanors (they no longer are). In an administrative mishap, the paperwork substantiating many of these traffic violations has either been destroyed or become difficult to access in the last quarter century, meaning these suspensions likely wouldn’t stand up to challenge. (2) For licenses that have been suspended since 1990 for certain non-traffic violations or failure to pay a fine, H.571 seeks a balance of re-instatement with finding a mechanism to collect some of the outstanding fines. (3) Going forward, this legislation seeks to institute a more sustainable system that encourages fine payment while narrowing the range of offenses that will result in the loss of a driver’s license. This afternoon, the House voted in favor of H.571 by a 128-15 margin.
The Judiciary Committee is also working on H.818, which would update Vermont’s stalking laws. In Vermont, 3 out of every 4 stalking civil protective order requests are denied, many due to the inflexibility of and confusion surrounding the definition of stalking. That ossified definition is from a different era. The modern stalker is usually not someone “lying in wait.” Rather, they are using different technologies to monitor, observe, and threaten victims. H.818 would modernize what it means to stalk. The bill changes other elements of the crime of stalking. It relieves prosecutors of having to prove a negative, namely that there was no legitimate purpose for the alleged stalking behavior. It prohibits conduct that causes a reasonable person to fear for the safety of another, such as a child, not just fear for his or her own safety. It does not require an offender to make an overt threat, only that they act in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened. It clarifies that the stalker need not have had the intent to cause the victim’s fear, but that a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstance would have felt that fear. The Judiciary Committee is working with representatives of the court system to iron out the functionality of the proposed changes to VT’s stalking laws.
Last Friday, the Fish, Wildlife, & Water Committee approved H.789 – the forest fragmentation bill – by a 9-0 vote. For the first time since Vermont began tracking the state’s forest cover, we are seeing a loss of forest land and the sub-division of contiguous forest land accelerating. For a deep dive on this issue, you might find this report interesting. Our state’s forests are a critical natural resource. Wood products contribute $1.4 billion annually to Vermont’s economy on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by recreation and tourism. Our forests absorb and store carbon; slow and store rain and snow melt; recharge aquifers, providing us with clean groundwater; and provide habitat for other species that live here with us. H.789 seeks to bring the conversation on forest fragmentation to the local level by adding forest resources and habitat connectivity to the list of required land use elements in regional and town plans. The idea is that communities plan at the local level in a manner that reflects individual community values. The bill also proposes to study prospective changes to Act 250 and 24 V.S.A. chapter 117 (land use regulation) necessary to protect contiguous areas of forest land and to promote habitat connectivity.
The General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee voted out H.865 on Friday. This bill is intended to enhance the ability of middle income and young Vermont families to afford a home. H.865 extends a VT Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) down payment assistance program which provides up to $5,000 in the form of a 0% interest rate loan, repaid to the VHFA when the mortgage is refinanced or the home is sold. This program helps about a dozen VT families per month purchase a home with an average value of $160,000. As funds are repaid, they are recycled into the program to help other first time homebuyers. H.865 also initiates a pilot program to develop “workforce” housing affordable for Vermonters who make between 80% and 120% of an area’s median income. While there is, appropriately, much focus in the legislature on issues surrounding affordable housing, I am hopeful we can bring more attention to our state’s shortage of “housing that’s affordable.” This pilot program embedded in H.865 was a legislative initiative (H.702) that I sponsored that will help developers and municipalities plan for smart growth infrastructure underpinning workforce housing projects. Fifty percent of the housing in a workforce housing project must be for families in the 80%-120% of median income range, twenty-five percent must be for families below 80% of median income, and twenty-five percent may be for any income level.
In bringing this tour of a handful of legislative initiatives to close, let me make a political observation on the work that is going on in the Vermont House. It makes intriguing press coverage to report about the conflict and drama that occurs in the legislature with Democrats and Republicans and Progressives and Independents fighting tooth and nail on various issues. I find just the opposite to be the case in Vermont’s House of Representatives. A vast, vast majority of the work done by legislative committees finds representatives working collaboratively. A very high percentage of bills pass out of committees with unanimous 11-0 votes. Of the 57 committee votes to occur this year, only three had more than one dissenting vote. This type of consensus building is not easy, and it comes as a tribute to the work of lawmakers from all parts of the political spectrum looking for sensible solutions.
Here's a picture from the Norwich Women's Club event last Friday. Dan Fraser went deep into the wardrobe for this blazer and, yes, everything he touches turns to gold. The event was to honor Norwich Public Library's Lucinda Walker who really does have a midas touch.