The following is the Town Meeting report Jim and I brought to each of the annual gatherings in Thetford (March 2nd), Norwich (March 4th), and Sharon and Strafford (both on March 5th):
It’s an honor to serve as your State Representatives. We are grateful for your trust and are committed to earning it daily. Of the 148 other members in the VT House, nearly half have served less than two terms. We are literally two of the gray beards in the VT House. It is encouraging that the legislature and the Scott administration are working more collaboratively than at any time in the last two years. VT faces the perennial challenge again this year: balancing the state budget while keeping critical service programs solvent. Governor Scott has outlined several spending programs we support, though his budget lacks a coherent plan to pay for them leaving the legislature the task of balancing the books.
Our work in Montpelier unfolds at a time when chaos in Washington directly impacts Vermonters, as evidenced by the government shutdown earlier this year. While the shock of actions taken by the current President can be numbing, we are working to protect our state from the effects of things like the erosion in the Affordable Care Act and women’s reproductive health choices, withdrawal from global climate action and from the protections of net neutrality, and the federal tax “cuts” which will imperil VT’s financial health in the coming years. Below we’ve included brief summaries on a variety of issues that may be of interest. Thanks for your participation in Town Meeting.
The good news is that VT’s unemployment rate (2.7%) is the 5th lowest in the nation. The bad news is that we are an aging state that needs more workers to grow our economy. The legislature is developing strategies to better equip the 3,000 VT high school seniors who graduate annually without solid job skills or career plans. With a focus on apprenticeships, professional certification, and associate degrees, we are looking to fortify established programs at our Career and Technical Centers, the Community College of VT, and VT Tech. We are looking to expand programs for adult students with more offerings in the evenings and on weekends. By expanding training in all sectors of our population, we can solve our staffing crisis and support good paying, quality jobs for VTers.
Mental Health Care
While acknowledging how far we’ve come with mental health care in VT, we also recognize how far we still have to go. VT’s commitment to “mental health parity” means that patients with mental health needs receive the same standard of care as those with physical health needs. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Reaching parity requires recognition that mental illness is a commonly occurring health need. Mental illness does not happen to “them”; it happens to “us,” and it could become a part of any one of our lives at any time. One of the most pressing needs in mental health care is the severe shortage of beds for those requiring hospitalization due to severe mental illness. There are many instances of patients waiting for days in emergency rooms, without treatment, due to this lack of capacity. The legislature is working with VT hospitals to build more inpatient psychiatric beds, though with the state’s budget constraints, this could take years to accomplish.
With Roe v. Wade’s future in doubt, and the President actively restricting access to birth control and abortion, jurisdiction over reproductive choices may soon be entirely up to individual states. On February 21st, the VT House overwhelmingly passed H.57 to preserve and protect in statute a woman’s right to abortion. For 46 years, abortion rights in VT have primarily rested on legal precedent. H.57 does not change current medical practice. Abortions are declining in VT due to improved education and increased access to family planning and birth control. 92% of abortions occur in the first trimester, while 1.3 percent happen after 21 weeks. In VT, there are no elective abortions performed in the 3rd trimester when they are only considered for fetal abnormalities inconsistent with life or a threat to the life of the mother, and must receive an extensive review by an ethics panel. H.57 does not allow for partial or full birth abortions which are specifically prohibited by federal law.
Towns that have access to ECFiber are the envy of the state! Our last three governors have promised statewide broadband internet access. Yet today, 25% of Vermont households still have slower than adequate internet connections, and 5% lack even basic service. It is estimated to cost well in excess of $500 million to reach this last third of VT homes with broadband. Of course, high speed internet access is a critical element supporting economic growth, real estate values, remote work opportunities, health care connectivity, youth migration to VT, and access to cat videos. This week, the House Energy & Technology Committee passed a broadband connectivity bill (H.513) increasing funding to support broadband service to the most rural parts of VT and empowering communities intent on building their own “ECFiber solution.” H.513 funds planning grants for startups and municipalities looking to replicate ECFiber’s success and establishes a new lending program at the VT Economic Development Authority to support burgeoning internet service providers.
Efficiency and Electrification
Approximately three-quarters of VT’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to how we warm our buildings and fuel our cars and trucks. We have significantly reduced emissions from electric power generation in the last two decades thanks to VT’s commitment to renewable energy. The governor’s Climate Action Commission has placed a high priority on investment in weatherization of homes and supporting the increased adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). We support a 2-cent increase VT’s heating fuel tax to double the number of low- and moderate-income homes weatherized each year. Weatherization is an excellent investment for significantly lowering heating bills and greenhouse gas emission while increasing home comfort and occupant health. VT’s Energy Plan targets 50,000 EVs in the state by 2025. Today, we have 3,000. Replacing VT’s current vehicle fleet with all EVs would save drivers $500 million. Every year. The state budget we are supporting establishes a $2,500 incentive targeted at low and moderate income VTers exploring an EV purchase. It also invests in EV charging infrastructure with the goal of putting a Level 3 charger within 30 miles of every VTer.
Our pollinator population – honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, birds, bats – is in tough shape. It helps produce much of the food we eat – one out of every three bites of food resulted from pollination. With the loss of 40% of the insect population in recent years, one theory is that it is due to more prolific use of chemical pesticides. H.205 is a bill that would impose restrictions on the application and sale of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect our pollinator population.
E-cigarettes & Vaping
In December, the U.S. Surgeon General declared an epidemic regarding e-cigarette use among teens. This action was prompted by new data showing a 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students in just one year’s time (2017-2018). In that same timeframe, middle school use increased by 48%. According to the VT Commissioner of Health, e-cigarettes get youth addicted to nicotine while their brains are still forming. Teens who use e-cigs are four times more likely to become regular tobacco users. The VT House passed a bill (H.47) which places an excise tax on the liquids and delivery devices of e-cigarettes to discourage use among youth who are the most price-sensitive consumers. Just as we tax other tobacco products, 92 percent of the wholesale value of e-cigs will be collected at the licensed distributor level and used for prevention purposes.
Family & Medical Leave Insurance
Too many VTers face the choice of taking care of a family member or keeping their paycheck. Making family & medical leave a part of every job allows employees to take the time they need to keep their family healthy and thriving. H.107 creates a family & medical leave insurance program for VTers. Testimony from employers revealed how these kinds of programs help attract and retain talent, improve employee morale, and save employers money. H.107 would offer up to 12 weeks of paid family & medical leave financed through an insurance premium, shared equally by employers and employees. Statewide participation in the insurance pool will keep costs low and benefits high. We originally supported a family & medical leave insurance plan in 2017 and will support this proposal when we vote on it later in March.
The Vermont State House has a new look this year thanks to an eight-month project that culminated with the raising of a new statue to crown the dome on November 30th. With the removal of Ceres from the top of the dome last April, the external surface of the dome was cleaned down to its base copper sheathing while various leaks were repaired in the roof. After years of the gold gilding slowly flaking away, the entire dome was re-gilded for the first time since 1976 using less than a pound of 23.75 carat gold.
The history of the statue atop the dome goes back to 1858 when Larkin Mead carved the first version referred to as "Agriculture." That pine wood statue lasted until 1938 when rot forced its removal. Dwight Dwinnell, the State House's sergeant-at-arms, took it upon himself to
carve a replacement, nicknamed "Ceres" for the Roman goddess of agriculture. Over the last two decades, work has been done to re-enforce Dwinnell's Ceres, but upon her removal this past April she was waterlogged and suffered from significant rot. (See the picture of the back of her head.)
Our latest version of Ceres was designed by Jerry Williams and carved this past summer and fall by Calais artist Chris Williams. This Ceres was carved out of mahogany, a material which should outlive the 80-year lifespan of her two pine predecessors.
As I watched Ceres' removal back in April and reinstatement on November 30th, I couldn't help but draw the parallel to our landmark closer to home - the Strafford Town House - and the work done on the steeple this fall. Inspiring work.