Much of the media’s attention during Vermont’s legislative session focuses on a small handful of bills. In the last couple of years, you’ve probably read a good deal about the state budget, marijuana legalization, background checks for gun purchases, and school district consolidation legislation. Perhaps you’ve followed debates on legislation related to renewable energy project siting, paid sick leave, or cleaning up Vermont’s rivers and lakes.
Beyond these high profile and sometimes controversial pieces of legislation, the legislature considers hundreds of bills over a two-year biennium. In the Vermont legislature’s 2017 session, 542 bills were introduced for consideration in the House and 148 bills were introduced in the Senate. Many of these bills deal with granular public policy issues. Of these 690 bills introduced through May, 99 were passed by both the House and Senate and landed on the governor’s desk for his signature. Governor Scott signed 96 bills into law and vetoed three – the state budget, a bill setting statewide education tax rates, and a bill legalizing possession of marijuana. The 100th bill passed by the legislature included the state budget and a compromise proposal on education funding. It was signed by the governor on June 28th.
To take you one level deeper than the newspaper headlines, I thought I’d share with you an overview of some of the various pieces of legislation passed this year:
Work Place Mental Health Injury (H.197/S.56): Since the late-1990s, Vermont has required insurance policies to cover mental illness on par with physical illness. However, the test for mental injury in Vermont's workers compensation system has made it next to impossible for a firefighter, police officer, or EMT to get coverage for a mental injury. This bill corrects an unfairness that kept many injured first-responders from being able to access treatment for post-traumatic stress they sustained in the course of responding to emergencies.
Rural Economic Development (S.34): This bill creates a dedicated resource within the VT Housing & Conservation Board to help regional development corporations, businesses, and industrial parks in municipalities of less than 5,000 residents identify and pursue grants and economic development assistance. Priority will be given to projects that have municipal backing and are in industries related to dairy, outdoor recreation, forestry, food, composting, and phosphorus removal.
General Economic Development (S.135): This massive bill supports economic growth in a variety of ways, including:
Rural Economic Development Infrastructure Districts (REDIs): A REDI is a new financing vehicle for municipalities to finance infrastructure improvements. The repayment of this financing is tied to the revenue generated from the infrastructure improvements, not the taxing authority of the district. Similar to an industrial revenue bond, it is an unsecured loan that is not a liability of the district's taxpayers. REDI loans could be used to finance things such as extending fiber to every home with repayment tied to the revenues generated from internet subscriber payments.
Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan: About 45% of working Vermonters have no employer-provided pension plan. Nearly half do not have an IRA or other private plan. S.135 proposes a portable, voluntary, simple, and affordable way to supplement Social Security income in the retirement years. The plan will be funded by employees, but employers may offer to contribute as a benefit. All employees will be auto-enrolled in the program, with the option of withdrawing their enrollment. The details of the plan will be worked out by a special committee and reviewed by the legislature in January.
Workforce Readiness: S.135 makes the painful recognition that VT’s workforce needs to improve its employability. Lack of workforce readiness, ranging from showing up on-time to developing a marketable skill, is at a crisis level in Vermont. In 2016, the Workforce Development workgroup reported that “…having now conducted over 40 workforce needs assessment visits with employers representing more than 20,000 Vermont employees, it has become clear that the state has neither the breadth nor depth of talent in place to meet its business demands. The critical implications of this issue should prompt stakeholders—including government agencies, economic development practitioners, employers, and educators—to rethink the alignment of its talent and workforce development strategies.” S.135 creates a Career Pathways Coordinator position within the Agency of Education. This position will work across agencies to develop a Career Pathways System to link students to careers and workplaces for which they are best suited. The bill also directs the Agency of Education to work closely with state colleges and the University of Vermont to strengthen partnerships with Career and Technical Education Centers (CTE) and increase recognition of the academic and technical course work completed by CTE students.
Housing: The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment found building 5,000 new housing units per year would reduce housing as a constraint to economic success, as well as produce the homes and communities Vermont needs to attract talent. S.135 streamlines permitting and establishes priorities to encourage both affordable and workforce housing. The legislature also established $35 million of bonded funding for workforce housing construction. A quarter of the new housing will be targeted to Vermonters of very low income, with another quarter targeted at those with moderate incomes, and the remaining housing targeted at Vermonters with income that is less than or equal to 120% of area medium income.
Support for Entrepreneurs and Start-Ups: The Micro Business Development Program of the Vermont Community Action Agencies has launched or expanded more than 2,000 Vermont businesses by low and moderate income Vermonters. S.135 added funding to this highly successful program, and also authorized the creation of the Climate Economy Business Accelerator Program to foster climate economy startups.
Clean Water Capital Projects (H.519): The state will need to spend approximately $1.5 billion, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency, to clean up our lakes and streams in the coming decades. While the sources for a portion of that funding have been identified, much of the revenue sources remain to be established. Following the governor’s recommendation, H.519 allocates $45 million dollars of bonded financing over the next two years to clean water projects throughout the state, the bulk of which will be implemented by municipalities receiving grants from state agencies.
Act 46 School District Consolidation Implementation (H.513): This bill altered Act 46 to increase flexibility for school district mergers. School districts that have not yet merged can access several new governance structures. For communities that have struggled to reach consensus, they will have more time and flexibility as local study committees develop alternative governance structures.
Appliance Energy Efficiency Standards (H. 411): The new administration in Washington is unfriendly to environmental regulation and the concept of climate change. The Trump budget contains drastic cuts to the EPA and would severely limit enforcement of existing regulations. There is concern that many of the regulations promoting efficiency standards for consumer products could be rolled back or eliminated. H.411 adopts into Vermont law the current federal energy efficiency standards for consumer appliances in the event that the federal standards are eliminated.
VT Liquor Statute Revisions and the Liquor Control and Lottery Task Force (H.238): H.238 revises and updates VT’s statutes related to liquor production and sale. The bill simplifies licensing provisions and makes the nature of our liquor control process easier to understand. The bill also includes several provisions that will allow for manufacturers to more easily get their product to market. H.238 addresses the merger of the Department of Liquor Control and the Vermont Lottery. Neither the House and Senate, nor the legislature and governor, were able to agree upon a plan to merge these two entities. A compromise Task Force of House, Senate, and executive branch members will be put forward legislation proposing the unification of Liquor Control and Lottery in 2018.
Pregnancy Protections in the Workplace (H.136): Pregnant employees can face specific challenges that require certain protections. They might not be able to wear the clothing specified at the workplace; they may be required to drink more water and have access to it at their workstation; and they may need more frequent bathroom breaks. These are all examples of actual cases in which an employee had requested accommodation and was refused, and in more than one case, fired. H.136 addresses that issue by placing employees with a pregnant or childbirth-related condition that impacts their ability to perform a job in the same category as a disabled employee. Any accommodation that is reasonable and which does not cause the employer undue harm must be granted. A simple example is to allow a pregnant cashier to use a stool. The underlying intent is that the employee and employer will engage in a conversation to work out accommodations that serve both parties.
Ethics Bill (S.8): Vermont is one of only a handful of states without an ethics commission and has consistently received a very low grades when it comes to government accountability. The passage of Vermont’s first ethics law is an important step in improving accountability. S.8 establishes an independent State Ethics Commission. It prohibits legislators, statewide office holders, and executive officers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office. It imposes restrictions on no-bid contracting and related campaign contributions involving statewide candidates/office holders. It requires financial disclosure of all income sources greater than $5,000 for all legislative and statewide candidates, executive officers, and their respective spouses. It requires the creation of a state code of ethics. S.8 also requires each municipality to adopt a conflict of interest policy for all its elected officials, appointees, and employees.
Mental Health System Reform (S.133): VT’s mental health care system has been struggling due to a lack of resources, inadequate staffing in community programs, insufficient community programs, and inadequate supply of treatment facilities since Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Vermont State Hospital in 2011. The most obvious symptom of this problem is that people in mental health crisis linger for days in hospital emergency rooms because of limited resources for crisis support, hospital diversion, and inpatient care for children and adolescents. Among other initiatives, S.133 provides for an analysis of the present crisis by the Commissioner of Mental Health, the Green Mountain Care Board, and mental health clinicians and directs that group to present an action plan to the legislature by September 1st. This plan will provide a roadmap for future legislation and system reform.
Medical Marijuana (S.16): For the first time, the legislature updated VT’s laws regulating medical marijuana. Three new medical conditions were added to the list of allowable uses: Parkinson’s, Crohn’s, and PTSD. S.16 allows patients who are referred to a specialist to forgo the mandatory waiting period, removes the requirement that patients have made prior efforts to relieve symptoms by other means, and increases the possession limit from 2oz to 3oz. The bill also increases the number of state-licensed dispensaries from 4 to 5 and allows dispensaries to become for-profit companies.
Elder Ombudsman (H.265): This bill brings VT’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program into compliance with Federal requirements. This program serves older Vermonters and their families if they suffer abuse from service providers. The bill allows vulnerable Vermonters a “private right to action” in court if they have been financially exploited. Previously, while the Attorney General could bring a criminal charge against someone who exploited a vulnerable person, there was no direct path for a victim to receive compensation. If the courts found a person guilty of financially exploiting a vulnerable individual, the State received the money instead of the victim. This bill enables a vulnerable Vermonter, or their designee, to bring a civil suit against someone who has exploited them and, if the person is found guilty of exploitation, the vulnerable adult receives the restitution instead of the State.
Expungement (H.171): Individuals who are convicted of an offense often suffer consequences beyond jail or prison, home confinement, probation, and fines. The collateral consequences of having a criminal record may include being unable to get some licenses, permits, or jobs; being unable to get benefits such as public housing or education; or being unable to serve in the military or on a jury. To reduce these collateral consequences, individuals who have fulfilled the terms of their sentence and have met other requirements may, after a waiting period, seek to have their criminal records erased (“expunged”). H.171 expands the availability of expungement by reducing waiting periods and modifying the requirements that must be met before an individual petitions the court to have their record expunged.
Racial Justice Reform (H.308): The Racial Justice Reform Bill establishes a 13-member Racial Justice Panel to review, analyze, and make recommendations for reforms in the Vermont Judicial system. The Panel will be housed in the Vermont Attorney General's office. H.308 also strengthens Vermont's statewide Fair and Impartial Policing model policy, which will be implemented by all law enforcement in January of 2018. It also directs the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the Attorney General's office to create a structure to address systemic racial disparities in the areas of education, housing, employment, economic development, and health care in a comprehensive manner.
Strengthening Sexual Assault Laws (H.74): While the legislature has made significant progress in strengthening Vermont’s sexual assault laws in recent years, too many victims of sexual violence are not ensured access to effective justice, health care, and social services. H.74 establishes the right of sexual assault victims to receive a medical examination without cost, sets forth timelines for delivery of exam kits from law enforcement to the crime lab, and requires notifying victims of exam results and available services. The bill also eliminates the statute of limitations for sexual assault-related crimes. For various reasons, many victims choose not to immediately report sexual assaults to law enforcement. Because it can take years for sexual assault victims to be ready to engage with the legal system, H.74 eliminates the current six-year statute of limitations for such cases.
Firearm Removal from the Scene of Domestic Assault (H.422): The House passed H.422, a bill that would provide protection to victims of domestic assault in the most dangerous period in the cycle of domestic violence: the brief period after a law enforcement officer intervenes in the relationship. The bill, which the Senate has not yet acted upon, would allow a law enforcement officer, in certain circumstances, to remove a firearm from the scene if the removal is necessary for the protection of the officer, the victim, or another person. The temporary removal of a firearm from the scene of domestic assault would give the victim time to provide for their safety, and perhaps give the perpetrator time to cool down. If the firearm is not evidence, or if there is no following court order requiring relinquishment, the firearm would be returned to the person from whom it was removed within five days.
Forest fragmentation (H.233): Our forests provide billions of dollars in economic support to the state. As forests become more fragmented, they lose their ability to maintain water quality, provide recreational opportunities, preserve wildlife habitat, and support forests large enough to sustain our forestry industry. The existing Act 250 criteria fail to adequately protect our forests from fragmentation. H.233 adds new criteria to Act 250 to require large development projects that are already going through Act 250 to either avoid or minimize the fragmentation of the state’s highest priority contiguous forest blocks and habitat connectivity areas. H.233 has not yet been taken up by the Senate.
Act 250 Commission (H.424): This bill creates a commission of six legislators (three House members and three Senators) along with an advisory panel of citizens to review Act 250 with the objective of ensuring that over the next 50 years Act 250 continues to support all Vermont’s economic, environmental, and land use planning goals. The commission will report back to the legislature on Dec. 15, 2018 with proposed draft legislation.
Burial Depth in Cemeteries (H.3): This bill allows for burials at more shallow depths than previously allowed. Under prior law, the bodies of persons less than four years old were buried at least three and one half feet below ground and the remains of all other individuals were buried at a depth of at least five feet. Under H.3, all burials, regardless of age of the individual buried, must be at least three and one half feet below the natural surface of the ground.
Before I bury you too deeply in the scores of other bills passed by the legislature and signed by the governor this year, I’ll leave you with some summer photos from around our towns. Enjoy the remainder of your summer!
On June 23rd, Nicole Antal of Sharon became a U.S. citizen at the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington. Senator Leahy was a surprise presenter at the day's ceremony in which 21 people from 13 different countries became naturalized citizens. Nicole was accompanied by her husband Ben and their son. It was a very moving event, particularly in light of the current politics surrounding immigration.
On July 29th, in an event sponsored by the Norwich Public Library, a group of 25+ citizens gathered in the Norwich Congregational Church to read Frederick Douglass' 1852 speech "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." Audience participants took turns delivering parts of this still highly relevant speech.
(Sharon Racusin pictured here)
At the end of the school year at a Thetford Academy assembly, Jim read House Concurrent Resolution 6 honoring Dan and Dana Grossman for all their wonderful volunteer work for TA.
I love parades!!
To the left, Jeff Goodrich leads the Norwich Legion in the Memorial Day parade.
Below, on July 22nd, Jim and I tossed candy from the tractor to parade watchers as we tried to stay ahead of the Norwich Energy Committee and keep up with selectboard member John Langhus' one-wheeled skateboard (to my left). It was a great reinstatement of the Norwich summer parade tradition.
If you're an elected official, Warren Thayer has you on the list for the dunk tank at the Lion's Club Norwich Fair. Warren put a couple of bags of ice in the water prior to my July 20th turn on the platform. In 30 minutes, I got dunked 27 times!