Thank you for your trust in us. It’s an honor to serve as your State Representatives as, together, we work to advocate for constituent priorities as well as fulfilling the aspirations of our recent election campaigns. We accomplished much in the first session of this biennium, and this report outlines many of them.
While the end of this year’s session did not yield bicameral agreements on a paid family leave bill or a minimum wage bill, there were a number of other important initiatives that became law this year. The Vermont House spent the 2019 session prioritizing bills that will help our families and communities thrive. We’ve focused our work on building a Vermont that works for all of us.
In this report, we hope to provide updates about what did or didn’t pass and to provide some general information on each topic. Both of us are already at work on key issues to move next session. Please be in touch about any issue you’d like to discuss in greater depth, or if you’d like to discuss your priorities for the legislature when it reconvenes in January 2020.
We look forward to connecting with you!
Statistics and Facts
Our Strong Vermont Economy
- The January 2019 National Movers Study found that Vermont is the state with the highest percentage of inbound migration (72.6 percent).
- Vermont’s unemployment rate is 2.3%, tied for the 5th lowest unemployment rate in the country. 345 new businesses opened up in Vermont last year.
- The Kaufman Foundation ranks Vermont 2nd in the nation for small businesses.
Strong Schools Future
- On average, Vermont students are consistently among the highest performing in the nation, including on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
- A January 2019 EdWeek survey found Vermont has an 87.7% High School graduation rate, one of the best in the country.
- High levels of student achievement have remained as the state education system transitions to personalization of learning, including flexible pathways, creativity, health and wellness, technology education, and applied learning.
- Vermonters support a well-resourced, accountable education system.
Healthy Families, Healthy Communities
- Vermont’s uninsured rate has steadily declined over time, regardless of sex.
- In 2005, Vermont’s uninsured rate for males was 12% -- today it is 4%.
- In 2005, Vermont’s uninsured rate for females was 8% -- today it is 2%.
- Vermont’s uninsured rate has reduced to 3.2% in 2018.
- Vermont has the 2nd lowest uninsured rate in the country.
Healthy Environment and our Bottom Line
- Tourism spending in Vermont is close to $3 Billion annually.
- Statewide, Vermont’s outdoor recreation economy generates $5.5 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 51,000 jobs.
- Vermont Craft Beer totals $378.2 million in overall economic impact, of that $126.7 million is direct to tourism.
- Dairy contributes $2.2 billion in economic activity to Vermont every year, the equivalent of $3 Million in circulating cash every day.
- Vermont is the leading producer of maple syrup in the U.S., producing 1.94 million gallons of syrup in 2018.
Yearly Budget Overview
It bears mentioning that this year’s budget passed with overwhelming support in the House and that, for the first time under Governor Scott, was not threatened with a veto. The tone throughout the entire session between House and Senate leadership and the Governor felt more constructive and less combative in general. Though ultimately consensus between the House and Senate on paid family leave and minimum wage bills was elusive, there is much to be proud of in the year’s budget. A budget is a blueprint representing our priorities and shared Vermont values. The budget includes significant investments in the health of our natural environment; the development of our workforce and growing our economy; and the needs of vulnerable Vermonters, including shoring up critical provider systems. It also pays for long-term liabilities, and makes the State’s full annual contributions for the State pensions and retiree health care and medical benefits funds. Finally, it includes reserves of over $200 million which puts us at between 13 and 14% of the General Fund, within the range recommended by rating agencies who assess our state’s financial health.
FY2020 Budget goes into effect on July 1, 2019.
Some Top Level Budget Highlights:
- $50M in new clean water funding, including new and permanent revenue streams.
- Critical investments in childcare assistance rate as well as children’s integrated services.
- A major workforce development bill.
- A broadband expansion bill.
Climate and Environment
The FY2020 budget makes a number of investments to address environmental challenges, like climate change. We will continue to invest to improve our environment and create strong, healthy communities. This year’s budget includes investments in:
- $2.8 million for electric vehicles and charging stations;
- $38 million for public transit subsidies and park & ride facilities;
- $35 million for rail subsidies and upgrades;
- $16 million for home weatherization assistance for Vermonters of low and moderate income;
- $500 thousand for conservation of significant lands for forest integrity and watershed protection;
- $50 million for “clean water” efforts;
- Plus authorization, including compensation for expenses, for working groups on Forest Carbon Sequestration; Carbon Emissions Reduction; Public Transit Ridership; a Transportation & Climate Initiative; the creation of an All Fuels Energy Efficiency Program; Building Energy Labeling; and Ecosystems Services…
- With the total budgetary investment in our environment, including existing and new funding, tallying $167 million.
Additional policies affecting the environment: S.30 speaks to the regulation and elimination of hydrofluorocarbons. S.49 regulates polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking and surface waters. And S.113 bans single-use carryout plastic bags at retail and grocery store checkout stations, single-use plastic straws (although establishments may provide plastic straws upon request), single-use plastic stirrers, and expanded polystyrene food service products.
- $1.6 million for small business support in agriculture, forestry, and other working lands enterprises;
- $2.8 million in tax credits for redevelopment of Designated Downtowns and Village Centers;
- $1.3 million for regional development corporation block grants;
- $1.2 million in matching funds to businesses for training incumbent workers to gain skills resulting in higher salaries at those same businesses.
- $7.4 million, added to a $5.8 million base, plus $1.6 million in one-time funds for child care, supporting families and providers, as well as workforce incentive pilots and system investments;
- $1.3 million added to master grant funding for Parent Child Centers in support of services to young families;
- $1.5 million for appropriate community placements for persons with complex mental health challenges;
- $2.5 million added to provide a benefit increase in the Reach-Up Program.
- An additional $5.2 million to designated agencies across the entire system of mental health and developmental services;
- An additional $2.1 million for a 2% increase for home and community service providers in Choices for Care;
- An additional $445,000 for court diversion; and $243,000 for a rate increase to local EMS service providers; and $375,000 for emergency room security in small hospitals; plus a 5% increase for court security services.
New Bills, by Committee
Key points: food system strategies, ecosystem services and payment frameworks, carbon sequestration and payment frameworks, healthy soils, pollinators
Agriculture and forestry are integral parts of the “Vermont brand.” Our natural beauty and working landscapes rely on the success of these sectors. The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee asked two key questions as it reviewed policies and programs during the 2019 legislative session: 1) What is the importance of agriculture and forestry in Vermont? and, 2) What is the future of agriculture and forestry in Vermont? These questions have guided the work of the Committee as it works to strengthen and grow our agriculture and forest products industries as we near a new start of a new decade.
Whether it be the cleanup of Lake Champlain, Required Agricultural Practices (known as RAPs), or the carbon sequestration capacity of forests and fields, soil health and fertility is a top priority of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee.
Data shows that Vermont is getting wetter. When we do get precipitation, it’s coming in heavier doses than we’ve ever seen. The run-off from these extreme precipitation events directly contributes to the high phosphorus levels in Lake Champlain and the high nitrogen levels in the Connecticut River. Too much water at once erodes precious topsoil, carrying away in minutes what took centuries to build. Some of Vermont’s best dirt is now residing at the bottom of Long Island Sound.
One thing we can all agree on is that we want to clean up the waters of the State. It has been estimated that, within the Lake Champlain Watershed, agriculture is responsible for 41% of the problem but farmers have agreed to shoulder 67% of the cleanup. Why is that? It costs much less to remediate farmland than it does developed land -- we get more bang for our buck.
Data demonstrate that climate change is very real. There’s too much CO2 being produced and the kind of landscape that sucks it up is being destroyed by development (not only in urban and suburban growth, but the clearing of forests for commercial agriculture too). The farmland and forests of Vermont are, potentially, models of ideal carbon sequestration. Think about it: What grows a better tomato -- your hardpack driveway or 12 inches of loam full of microbial merrymaking?
The House has advanced bills to target the building of healthy soils. This is not rocket science -- it’s just good science. When soil is full of biomatter, it acts like a sponge. Water does not “run off,” it sticks around and generates growth. This describes a phrase we’ll be hearing a lot of in the next decade, “regenerative farming.” Furthermore, healthy soils and what they support (crops and pasture, forests and wetlands) suck up far more CO2 than sickly soil or parking lots.
To this end, one bill (S.160) will jumpstart, through legislation, the pioneering work being done on food system strategies, ecosystem services and payment frameworks, and carbon sequestration and payment frameworks. Another (H.525) codifies three healthy soil initiatives: the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP); the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP); and the Agriculture Environmental Management Program (AEMP).
The ongoing challenge and focus of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee will be to answer the question of “how will we monetize exceptional stewardship of the land?” This topic will be explored when the House returns in January for the 2020 session.
In recent years, concern has been raised regarding the health of our pollinators, which include domesticated honeybees, as well as our native pollinators like bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, and a host of other species including birds and bats. To some, getting rid of bugs might seem like a good thing but our pollinators serve a very important function. They help produce the food we eat and without them our diets would look very different. We have heard in testimony that one out of every three bites of food is the result of pollination. It is estimated that we have lost 40% of the insect population in recent years, and one theory is that it is due to more prolific use of chemical pesticides.
The House and Senate passed H. 205, an act that would require regulation of the sale and application of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect pollinator populations. The bill also requires the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets to register, as a restricted-use pesticide, any neonicotinoid pesticide labeled as approved for outdoor use that is distributed, sold, or offered for sale in the State. Certain products, including treated article seed and pet products, will be exempt from the requirement to register as a restricted-use pesticide. The increased registration fee for a neonicotinoid pesticide will be used to provide educational services, technical assistance, and increased inspection services related to neonicotinoid pesticides and pollinator health.
One of the very important goals of H.205 is to educate beekeepers about the negative effects that Varroa mites are having on, not only our domestic honeybees, but native pollinators as well, in terms of the viruses that they spread. Beekeepers will be asked when they register their hives, to report a current Varroa mite and pest mitigation plan for each registered hive.
The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets is asked to establish a training program that will address the areas of bee health, varroa mite identification and control, identification of common diseases or pests, proper maintenance of hives, State laws regarding beekeeping and pesticide application, and continued educational opportunities. A person who completes the course will be awarded a Vermont Beekeeper Educational Program Certificate.
Now that the federal government has given the green light to the commercial and recreational growing of hemp, all that remains is for the FDA to define and regulate the consumable products of this wonder plant. In Vermont, most of the interest in hemp is focused on CBD (cannabidiol), an oil with celebrated healing abilities and many devotees. While CBD can have small amounts of THC in it, it’s non-psychoactive and is not to be confused with marijuana. The stakeholders in the hemp industry—farmers, chemists, processors, retailers, investors—all want it to be taxed and regulated. Currently, it’s the wild west. The success of Vermont hemp, potentially our next artisan beer or cheese, lies in branding a high-quality product with production accountability. Responding to this need, the House and Senate passed S. 58, a bill to create a tiered fee scale for the industry which will pay for the oversight (in the form of three new hemp experts at the Agency of Ag) in the field, in the lab, and in the marketplace.
Key points: small business, weatherization, adult education, employment barriers Workforce Development
To keep up with expected retirements and job growth in our economy, Vermont will need 10,000 new workers each year. This employment gap creates opportunities for Vermonters, as well as those who are considering a move to Vermont. This year’s economic development bill (S.162) supports a range of programming. It will promote training opportunities for small companies, create weatherization training programs, create a Career Technical Education Program for robotics arm training, decrease barriers for new Americans to enter the workforce, and provide advancement grants for additional adult training and workforce education. The bill will also provide assistance for employers to hire workers with barriers to employment, fund social media marketing campaigns, and provide relocation support.
In Vermont, there are workforce needs across every industry, especially in health care, construction, hospitality, transportation, and advanced manufacturing. We want to see more Vermonters employed in meaningful skilled jobs through completing apprenticeships, certificates and associate degrees. Our hope is that our work will help employers hire more employees, and employees to get hired in good paying jobs that meet their skills.
Corrections and Institutions
Key points: opioid crisis, restorative practices, diversion, housing
Making Investments in Corrections to Improve Outcomes and Strengthen Communities Despite an opioid epidemic and an increase in opioid-related crime, our incarceration rates are decreasing, which is a testament to the positive impact of a series of criminal justice reforms that Vermont initiated in 2007. These justice reinvestment initiatives led to the creation of community justice centers designed to use community-based restorative practices to divert people from prison and to provide supports that enable people to successfully leave prison. The increased use of diversion; expanded transitional housing; more access to behavioral health treatment; and, access to substance use treatment programs has reduced our incarcerated population by 33% which leads the country. The Vermont House will continue to look at ways to position Vermont as a leader in community justice reform when we return for the 2020 session in January.
Key points: racial justice, lead abatement, aging school buildings
Creating an Education System for All of Us
The House is committed to breaking down structural racism to build a truly just and equitable society. People of all races and genders who live in, work in, and visit Vermont should feel welcome and safe. With that goal in mind, one of the first proposals the House Education Committee took up this year was the ethnic studies bill (H.3). The bill passed both the House and Senate by unanimous roll-call votes in February and was signed into law as Act 1 on March 29th. The law aims to identify structural racism, reduce bias, and build a culture of equity in Vermont schools by teaching students the history of all of us, including ethnic and social groups that historically have been marginalized, harassed, discriminated against, or persecuted.
Act 1 establishes a working group that will review Vermont’s education standards. By June 2021, the task force will recommend to the State Board of Education any updated or new standards. Each school will then be guided by these standards in reviewing—and, if necessary, revamping—its classroom practices, curriculum and extracurricular programs.
Act 1 will help Vermont students better understand the history, contributions and perspectives of people whose stories are not always told in textbooks. It will promote cultural competency and critical thinking. It will allow students to safely explore questions of racial, social, and gender identity. It will reduce hatred and bias, making our schools safer. And it will prepare our young people to work, live and thrive in a world that is increasingly diverse.
S.40: Getting the Lead Out
The House Education Committee worked hard this session to pass a program that directs that State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation to test for lead in water systems used by Vermont’s students and youngest learners. The bill requires all schools and child care facilities in Vermont to test their drinking water for lead contamination, and then replace the taps if the water tests at or above a defined action level.
The House took action after a 2017 pilot study conducted by the Vermont Department of Health, Agency of Natural Resources, and Agency of Education identified the presence of lead in some school faucets. Lead is a toxic metal that's particularly harmful to children; it can impact their growth, brain development, and behavior. Sixteen schools participated in the pilot by testing water from nearly 900 taps. Some lead was detected in the water at every school, and elevated levels were found in five schools. In almost every case, the plumbing fixture—such as taps or drinking fountains—was determined to be the source, and the problem was resolved by replacing or disconnecting those fixtures.
With training from the state, every school and child care facility will collect and submit water samples to the Department of Health for testing, and then work with DOH experts to develop a remediation plan. The bill provides funding to cover testing, re-testing and a portion of fixture replacement costs. While no level of lead is safe, the action level required by this new legislation is far below the EPA-mandated threshold of 15 parts per billion for municipal water supplies. Also, according to the Centers for Disease Control, lead-based paint — banned in 1978, but still present in some older homes — is the most common source of lead exposure. Through S.40, Vermont is leading the nation by setting one of the strictest standards for getting the lead out of our kids’ drinking water.
Vermont’s Aging School Buildings: Starting the Conversation
Vermont’s public school buildings are aging. Many are more than 40 years old, and in serious need of renovation and repair. They also need upgrades, so we can offer all of our students the technology, tools, and innovative spaces that define a 21st century education.
It’s been more than 10 years since the state suspended financial aid for school-construction projects. Since then, districts have managed their aging facilities in a variety of ways — approving bonds for construction and renovation, covering costs through the annual budget, or deferring maintenance out of fiscal necessity. Meanwhile, Act 46 has encouraged communities to take a harder look at their buildings, with an eye toward the most strategic use of facilities district-wide.
This year, the House Education Committee considered several bills that addressed, in various ways, the physical condition and environmental health of Vermont’s education infrastructure. Next year, we hope to design and begin a multi-year process that will look at (1) the current and future capital needs of our public schools, (2) our vision for a modern learning environment and (3) options for funding these projects. Advancing a process to evaluate the condition of school facilities will be a priority of the Committee when lawmakers return to the State House in January 2020.
Energy & Technology
Key points: broadband, renewable energy capacity
Access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet service is essential for participating in modern society. Yet roughly 17,000 Vermont households lack access to even the most basic internet service. Another 50,000 homes and businesses struggle with connection speeds that do not support 21st century tasks. These underserved and unserved households are typically in the most rural parts of the state, where the costs of connecting to broadband internet are the highest.
Vermont cannot attract and retain the next generation workforce and families without broadband. Landlords and real estate agents can’t fill properties. Remote workers can’t work. Students can’t complete their studies. Emerging technologies like telemedicine, a more responsive and resilient electric grid, and new transportation alternatives are off the table. Without high-speed internet, rural economies wither, young people stampede for the exits, and older Vermonters are more isolated and left behind.
This year the Vermont House passed the boldest, most innovative policy yet to get high-speed internet service to the farthest corners of our state. The bill (H.513) empowers local municipalities to determine the connectivity solutions most appropriate for their communities, and provides financing programs to get local initiatives off the ground. It funds a technical specialist to support local groups. It explores alternatives such as allowing electric utilities to provide internet service using existing infrastructure. It streamlines procedures so providers can build broadband access more quickly and cost-effectively to our most rural communities.
A Vermont that works for everyone, regardless of where they live, must have high-speed internet access in every corner of the state. While we won’t do it overnight, this year we are finally taking concrete steps to build on grassroots success stories, create viable business plans, facilitate start-up financing, and get real results.
Renewable Energy Future
Increasing the proportion of electricity produced by renewable generation is good for Vermont. The House passed two bills this year (H.133 and S.95) to build capacity. The bills raise the cap on net-metering projects as it applies to school districts (from 500 kW to 1 MW), which will boost renewable energy production and lower school electric bills. It sets a predictable timeline for approval of new net-metering applications. The bill also updates how small hydro projects get paid, so they receive a fair price. Finally, it adds energy storage systems to the types of electric facilities covered by grid planning and coordination.
Integrating renewable energy into our electric system insulates our economy from fossil-fuel price volatility. It provides more renewable support jobs, and keeps more of our utility expenses in our local economy. It reduces our contribution to climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions. And it enhances our ability to weather the more frequent and more intense storms caused by climate change. The House Energy and Technology Committee will continue its work to build our renewable energy future when we reconvene in January 2020.
Key points: mental health, ACA protections, rural health care taskforce
Mental Health is an Essential Part of Health Care
Vermont’s commitment to “Mental Health Parity” means that patients with mental health needs should have the same ready access and receive exactly the same standard of care as those with physical health needs. Unfortunately, though Vermont has made much progress in this regard, true mental health parity has not yet been achieved.
One of the most pressing problems surrounding mental healthcare in Vermont is the lack of crisis-level beds. There is a severe shortage of capacity for those requiring hospitalization due to mental health needs. Some patients wait for days in emergency rooms, without treatment, due to this lack of capacity. Members of the House Health Care Committee are actively working with our hospitals to build more inpatient psychiatric beds. We expect twelve new beds to open in Brattleboro during 2020, and we are actively pursuing options to replace the sub-standard Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence. The House is also working to ensure that hospital-level beds are geographically accessible all throughout the state.
The process of building new beds takes years to accomplish, and alone will not address the pressing mental health needs of Vermonters. In addition, the Legislature continues to advocate for increased investment in community resources to address the mental health issues that do not require hospitalization. This type of investment can prevent the need for hospital-level care.
Another key to progressing towards mental health parity is recognizing that mental illness is a commonly occurring health need. Mental illness could become a part of any one of our lives at any time. Through recognizing how common mental illness is and reducing the stigma of such healthcare needs, we can move towards a more complete mental health parity.
Protecting Vermonters’ Access to Health Insurance
The House is committed to ensuring that as many Vermonters as possible can access quality health care through having health insurance that is both available and affordable. The good news is that Vermont has now achieved one of the lowest “uninsured” rates in the country – about 3%. This compares favorably to many other states, which range to as high as 7 – 10% uninsured.
In addition to minimizing the number of uninsured Vermonters, however, we also need to serve Vermonters who are “under-insured.” Under-insured Vermonters are those who have health insurance coverage, but cannot afford to use it due to the high cost of copays and deductibles. Vermont is one of only two states that offers additional financial support for health insurance, in addition to the federal support through the Affordable Care Act. The House Health Care Committee has advocated for this financial support.
These health insurance issues have been compounded by the Trump Administration’s efforts to pull apart elements of the Affordable Care Act, after having failed to have Congress repeal the ACA. In Vermont, we have put protections in statute to maintain important aspects of the ACA in the case of federal attempts at invalidation. These protections in state statute include affirming that pre-existing conditions will be covered under the ACA, excluding lifetime caps on insurance payments, continuing to allow children to stay on parents’ plans until they are 26, eliminating cost-sharing for preventative services, and maintaining annual limitations on allowable cost-sharing. The House will continue to work to ensure a consistent, stable health insurance marketplace for Vermonters.
Rural Health Services Research
The House Health Care Committee acted to pass a bill (H.528) to create a Rural Health Services Task Force that will consider the sustainability of Vermont’s rural health care system. This group will be composed of rural health workers and organizations from across the spectrum of health care services, as well as members of the Administration. The intent is to think creatively about access to health care in rural places and ensure that all Vermonters, regardless of geographic location, receive the full spectrum of health services and a high quality of care.
Budget supports accomplished this year for mental health care, a House Health Care Committee priority:
- $1.5 million for appropriate community placements for persons with complex mental health challenges;
- $2.5 million added to provide a benefit increase in the Reach-Up Program.
- An additional $5.2 million to designated agencies across the entire system of mental health and developmental services;
- COLA for designated agency mental health and developmental services workforce to aid with recruitment and retention
- Tuition assistance and loan repayment for mental health and substance use disorder services workforce
- Unanticipated revenue applied to one time investment in electronic health record system for mental health service designated agencies.
Key points: tobacco, reproductive rights, child care
Multi-Bill Effort to Reduce Vaping and Tobacco Use Among Youth
The House Human Services Committee spent many hours this year developing strategies to reduce the number of young Vermonters who use vaping and tobacco products. One bill (S.86) raises the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age. Thirteen states and 400 locales have already enacted Tobacco-21 legislation (or are in the process of doing so), including Maine, Massachusetts and New York. S.86 is part of a three-pronged strategy this legislative session to make it more difficult for youth with sensitive, still-developing brains to obtain and afford tobacco products. Earlier in the session, legislators overwhelmingly approved another bill (H.26), ending Internet sales of e-cigarettes, and a third (H.47), placing a 92 percent excise tax on them.
We know that 95 percent of cigarette smokers begin smoking before the age of 21; and it’s well-established that nicotine is a highly addictive substance. The U.S. Surgeon General predicts that in Vermont alone, 10,000 youth alive today will die prematurely of tobacco-related illnesses if we fail to change course.
Despite trendlines of decreasing tobacco use in recent decades, the presence of vaping and e-cigarettes has created a new crisis point. From 2017– 2018, e-cigarette use among high school and middle school students rose 78% and 48%, respectively. That amounted to the biggest one-year spike of any substance in nearly 50 years and prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to declare a public health crisis.
The House Human Services Committee has received hours of testimony from school administrators and educators across the state about students in nicotine withdrawal, parents unaware of their child’s dependency, violence related to vaping sales gone awry, disruptions to the learning environment, and endless hours spent dealing with the disciplinary implications.
A nurse at Essex High School recently confirmed how widespread vaping is writing, “these products are being used by athletes, high-flyers, and generally across all demographic and achievement lines. Students as young as 14 in my school admit to using JUUL (a specific brand) and continue to believe it is not harmful.”
Likewise, the Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard supports an increase to age 21 for tobacco use and purchase, saying: “Being a member of the National Guard requires a level of health and fitness that is potentially impacted by smoking.” If signed into law by the Governor, Tobacco-21 would become effective Sept. 1, 2019.
The Vermont House approved Proposition 5, a Vermont constitutional amendment that protects personal reproductive autonomy, by a vote of 106-38. The lack of a definitive enumeration of reproductive liberty in Vermont’s Constitution, the threats to Roe v. Wade being weakened or overturned by a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court, and the cloud of multi-state efforts to erode reproductive autonomy (with more than 400 restrictions in play across the country) all build a strong case for Proposition 5.
For more than 40 years, Vermonters have relied on protections offered by Supreme Court case law to support the value of personal autonomy in reproductive health decisions, and citizens of the Green Mountain State have not chosen to limit or restrict them. Vermonters have long recognized that decisions related to reproductive health care and abortion are deeply personal and private, and are best left to a woman and her doctor.
Earlier this year, the House passed a bill (H.57) to ensure that women’s access to abortion continues to remain unconstrained by law with a strong vote of 106-37; the Senate approved H.57 by a vote of 24-6. The bill and the constitutional amendment go hand-in-hand to guarantee Vermonters’ access to reproductive liberty both in statute and in the constitution. The proposed constitutional amendment now awaits consideration by the 2021-2022 legislature. If it passes both chambers again during the next biennium, this question about reproductive liberty (outlined in Proposition 5) will appear on the ballot in 2022 for decision by Vermont voters.
Child Care Assistance for Vermont Families
The Child Care and Early Learning Bill (formerly H.531) is a $7.5 million state investment that aims to make child care more accessible and affordable for Vermont families, as well as to open up new capacity in terms of child care spaces statewide. The legislation also seeks to support the retention and professional development of child care workers.
Specifically, the bill adjusts the market rates and benefit levels for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP) according to a revised sliding scale to ensure that families whose gross income is up to 100 percent of current federal poverty guidelines receive 100 percent assistance. The new eligibility guidelines expand financial subsidy to a wider swath of middle-income families too.
In addition, the bill seeks to retain child care providers working in the field, many of whom struggle to earn livable wages while paying off sizable college loans. It also provides internship compensation and scholarship assistance to support current child care workers (in both center- and home-based care), as well as to attract new workers to the early learning field.
If you’re not aware of the current child care crisis the Green Mountain State, here are several data points that magnify the extent of the problem:
- More than 50 percent of infants and toddlers requiring child care don’t have access to any regulated programs; and nearly 80 percent don’t have access to high-quality programs.
- Middle-class families are spending up to 40 percent of their household income on child care ($10-$15,000 per child per year for full-time care).
One owner of a South Burlington child care business serving 700 children over 25 years confirmed the dire situation, saying that her current waiting list has expanded to 250 requests.
After receiving weeks of testimony from parents, child care providers and business owners, advocates, and the state’s own Child Development Division, it’s clear that accessible, high-quality child care and early learning are critical investments in the healthy brain development of children ages 0-5, as well as a long-term strategy for putting Vermont parents to work and growing the state’s economy.
Key points: domestic violence protections, first responders, public defender reform, statute of limitation reform
Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence
Public Safety is one of the chief responsibilities of government. For this reason the House Judiciary Committee took up and passed a bill, (H.7) to reduce domestic violence. Under current state law, any previous convictions in Vermont for domestic assault are factored in when determining charges for a new assault. Similar convictions in other states, however, are not allowed to be considered. This has created situations where someone who committed domestic assault in New Hampshire and then commits assault again (often against the same victim) will not face as severe a penalty as someone who committed the first assault just a few miles south over state lines. The bill allows for convictions in other states to be factored in when determining domestic assault charges, the result being more protection for victims and additional rehabilitation options for offenders to get at the root of the problem.
Extending the Penalty of Aggravated Murder to Protect First Responders
Our first responders are universally recognized as heroes. However in our uncertain times the danger of being met by an armed gunman who has set a fire or caused an accident as a trap must always be on the minds of our first responders, as this scenario has played out in other states with tragic results. The killing of a police office under such circumstances draws the heavier penalty of aggravated murder, but the same is not true for firefighters or EMTs even though they often arrive on scene before law enforcement. This is why the House Judiciary Committee took up and passed H.321. This bill makes killing a firefighter or EMT an aggravated murder as well, placing the seriousness and penalty for this horrible crime on the same level as the killing of a police office under the same circumstances.
Reforming our Justice System for Vulnerable
The House Judiciary Committee believes that our justice to be fair for all Vermonters regardless of their income status. Under current law a public defender is only assigned to defendants for certain charges, leaving others who cannot afford a lawyer to fend for themselves. This not only puts these defendants at a distinct disadvantage, but results in slower court proceedings and backlogs increasing. This is why the Judiciary Committee and House passed H342. This bill allows for all defendants in Vermont courts in financial need to receive a public defender, thus assuring fairness and more prompt and directed court proceedings.
Everyone deserves the opportunity for a second chance, to move on from a past mistake, but many Vermonters with a criminal conviction face difficulties bettering their lives (including housing and employment) with this strike on their records. This is why the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill (H.460) that allows for individual convictions to be sealed or expunged from an individual’s record if several years have passed with no additional criminal charges. This is an important piece of criminal justice reform that will allow Vermonters striving to improve themselves and lead productive lives the opportunity to truly do so.
Statute of Limitation Reform
In the case of many of our most horrendous crimes it can take years until the victim is ready to come forward or new scientific techniques can give law enforcement the information they need to bring charges. But many crimes, even serious ones such as manslaughter or sexual abuse of a child, currently have statutes of limitation, allowing offenders to avoid punishment by “beating the clock.” In the interest of justice and fairness the House Judiciary Committee took up H511. This bill extends or eliminates altogether the statute of limitations on several crimes, in an effort to ensure that even if decades are required justice stands.
Key points: plastics, toxic substances, clean water/resiliency
Banning Single Use Disposable Products
The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee voted to advance a bill (S.113) to ban some single-use disposable products, including single-use carryout plastic bags at point of sale (the plastic bags at retail and grocery stores’ checkout stations), single-use plastic straws (although establishments may offer plastic straws upon request), single-use plastic stirrers, and expanded polystyrene food service products.
The bill aims to help businesses by creating one consistent statewide program, rather than having numerous, municipal-based initiatives across the state, each with a different set of requirements. It will mitigate the harmful effects of these single-use products on the environment and recycling facilities, while relieving pressure on Vermont’s sole landfill to manage the disposition of single-use products. Overtime, this will save all Vermonters money by deferring the need to build additional landfill capacity in the future.
Regulating Toxic Substances in Drinking and Surface Waters
The House passed a bill (S.49) to regulate polyflouroalkyl substances in drinking and surface waters. Perflouroalkyl and ployflouralkyl substances (PFAS) are used in a wide variety of industrial and commercial processes and are found in everyday products such as non-stick cookware, water and stain repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics, carpets, cosmetics, firefighting foams, and other products that resist grease, water, and oil. These products are bio-accumulative, highly mobile in water, highly resistant to degradation, and toxic to humans in very small concentrations. Manufacturers continue to produce these chemicals and to produce thousands of alternative PFAS that are likely to continue to pose significant health risks.
PFAS have been found in more than 400 drinking water wells in Bennington County and in private and public water supplies near the Southern Vermont Airport in Clarendon and in a drinking water supply near Shaftsbury Landfill. The bill would establish an interim Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for five PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFNA, and PFHpA); set deadlines for the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to finalize MCL and surface water standards for these PFAS; and require PFAS testing of public water systems. The bill also establishes a public process for ANR to evaluate regulation of PFAS compounds in drinking water; complete a statewide evaluation of sources of PFAS contamination; and evaluate treatment options for PFAS in landfill leachate.
Provision of Water Quality Services
The House passed a bill (S.96) that would create a new way for clean water funding to be allocated. Prioritizing investment in clean water infrastructure incorporates climate change resilience in bridges, roads, and riparian barriers along the banks of our rivers and streams.
Increasingly severe storms resulting from climate change harm homes, farms, businesses, and buildings. Storm waters scour unprotected topsoils, sending sediment down rivers and streams and into our lakes, which feed algae blooms, lower water quality, threaten the survival of the fish and wildlife that depend on clean water, impact access to clean water and recreation on and in water for Vermonters, and lower not only the fair market value of properties bordering water, but the value of grand lists for the towns in which those properties are located.
Clean water building projects mean economic growth measured in jobs and in the positive ripple effects on the economy that those jobs create. Clean water building projects mean farmers can prevent phosphorus and nutrient run-off into streams, rivers and lakes. The projects mean Vermonters with camps on waters can continue to enjoy the places that have been special to their families for years or generations.
Clean water building projects mean Vermont can make progress on its path to meet its agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to meet the Lake Champlain Watershed's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to reduce phosphorus runoff into all of the basin’s waters.
Building clean water infrastructure means Vermont's Watershed Groups and Conservation Districts can continue not only to prevent phosphorous from further denigrating our lakes, but also prevent nitrogen from continuing to harm the Connecticut River and its tributaries.
Key points: road/highway/bridge investments, public transit, rail, airport, clean water, opioid treatment, emissions
Key Transportation Investments
This year’s Transportation bill (H.529) contained the FY2020 Transportation program and policy language that impacts everything from pavement to public transit. The bill that passed the House represents a $595 million investment in paving, road maintenance, rail work, bridge construction, aviation and public transit. The main sources of revenue are $258 million in State Transportation funds (state fuel tax and fees) and $320 million in Federal transportation funds. Highlights include:
- $67M in support for Town highway aid, structures and municipal road programs
- $100M in State Paving programs
- $34M in Public Transit funding
- $9.4M investment in western corridor Rail programs
- $17.2M for Airport improvements
- $8M investment in protecting Lake Champlain and other waterways
- $1.4M salt cost increase – based on 3-year average usage and 15% cost increase
- $200K for opioid treatment transportation
Vehicle Inspections and Emissions
The annual Automated Vehicle Inspection Program has two parts -- safety and emissions. As we have moved from paper to the digital system, some Vermonters and their inspection stations have had growing pains coming into compliance with long-standing emissions rules. Some stations used to pass cars on paper, even if they failed their diagnostics and some drivers would clear codes with a commercially available “scan tool” to get their check engine lights to go off. Even now, there is a waiver available for 1 year for vehicles that need an emissions repair valued at $200 or more.
The Senate attempted to help Vermonters avoid expensive repairs, or continue to drive cars with emissions issues, by exempting vehicles over 10 years old from the emissions portion of the inspection altogether in S.84. The House Transportation committee learned that this would exempt over 120,000 vehicles each year and reduce the emissions benefit of our current program by 70%. The exemption of vehicles older than 10 years is also likely put our State Implementation Plan out of compliance with federal regulations under the Clean Air Act, putting millions of dollars of federal funds and future emissions settlement awards at risk.
Data on failures from the last few months suggests those who fail may not be taking advantage of 15 year emissions warranties, and that education for Vermont drivers and inspection technicians is needed to smooth out some of the issues and frustrations without sacrificing air quality.
Electric Vehicles and Automated Vehicle
The Transportation bill (H.529) includes a pilot program to help us take a small step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping more of the $800 million dollars Vermonters export to purchase fossil fuels for transportation each year in our state. Only about 3,000 plug-in Electric Vehicles are registered in Vermont today. This coming year, the Agency of Transportation has the goal to make sure that there is a Level 3 “fast-charge” station within 30 miles of every Vermonter. Knowing that our Comprehensive Energy Plan looks to have 45,000 EV’s registered by 2025, this program would offer low to moderate income households a $2,500 incentive (or more for lower income households) toward the purchase or lease of a new or used plug-in EV. The bill also looks into the future with a request for reports on replacing lost gas tax revenue with equivalent EV charging fees and other policies to promote the transition to EVs.
Another step toward a transportation future with a lower carbon footprint is in the Miscellaneous DMV bill (S.149). This will allow the Traffic Committee -- which is chaired by the Secretary of Transportation -- to issue permits to companies to test cars with a high degree of automation. During this initial testing, testers are still required to have an operator in the test car. It also creates a mechanism for municipalities to opt-out of testing on their Class 2,3, & 4 roads. Any permit will require a public hearing and towns will get 60 days notice before the application is considered. It’s exciting to prepare for this emerging technology and we hope it will provide more transportation options for last mile public transit and vehicle sharing, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Ways and Means
Key points: tax code, remote facilitators, clean water funding
The House Ways and Means had a very busy year. All told, the committee voted out 26 bills House and Senate bills referred in. By adjournment the committee passed a Fee Bill, Misc Tax Bill, Revenue Bill and a property tax Yield Bill. The final bills fund weatherization (from a variety of sources instead of the fuel tax) and approved on going revenue for clean water. During the final days of the session parts of many of these bills were mixed and matched and appeared in other bills upon passage.
The world economy is changing and Vermont’s economy along with it. By necessity, our tax code is changing to keep pace. Our obligation is to raise sufficient revenue to meet the spending reflected in the state budget and to do so in a manner that keeps pace with our economy, one that is less and less tangible/bricks and mortar based and increasingly digital. Our policy has been to broaden the tax base were practicable, while keeping impacts moderate. When new or increased taxes are necessary, Ways and Means endeavor to target them appropriately.
Examples of these changes are reflected 1) in the way corporate income taxes are imposed, 2) applying the sales tax to remote facilitators, 3) our effort to impose the sales tax on prewritten software no matter how it’s accessed. Every state in our region uses market based sourcing in its corporate apportionment formula except for Vermont and New Hampshire. Market based sourcing will allow us to capture revenue from national and multinational corporations that sell into Vermont but are based elsewhere. We will continue study moving to a single sales factor and other efforts to modernize our corporate tax code.
Remote facilitators are entities that market others’ products on an online platform such as Etsy and EBay. (see notes on each of these below) During the second year of our biennium, Ways and Means will continue to seek and balance revenue in ways that reflect today’s economy.
Among the individual income tax adjustments this session, we partially restored the deduction for medical expenses and capped the capital gains exclusion. We also increased the exclusion for the estate tax, a change we undertook to bring Vermont more in line with other states.
After many years of work and smaller incremental successes, we have finally established a dedicated long-term funding source for the Clean Water Fund. We allocated 6% of the existing rooms and meals tax to the Clean Water Fund, resulting in $7.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year and almost $12 million thereafter.
The rooms and meals tax, the property tax surcharge and the escheats (unclaimed deposits), will all go into the Clean Water Fund and will be distributed through a watershed based structure intended to identify projects that reduce the most pollution for our investment. Along with the appropriations through the Capital Bill, the Transportation Bill and money in the General Fund budget, the total available for Clean Water will be $50 million for fiscal 20 and $55 million a year thereafter.
Vermont collected sales tax on prewritten software accessed remotely several years ago but eventually suspended collecting the tax because of concerns about compliance and possible impacts on the growing technology sector. In the interim, 17 states have moved to tax these sales, often through administrative action rather than legislation. Although we didn’t repeal the exemption this year, we have asked the Tax Department to implement a program of outreach and education to work with businesses affected by imposition of this tax in other states and to clarify the impact of such a tax if it’s adopted in Vermont.
Regarding increased funds for weatherization, money will come from the following sources: a) Increased Fuel Tax revenue because we removed the exemption for non-profits and municipalities – that money goes to low income assistance administered through the CAP agencies. The tax rate remains at 2% and the sunset on this tax is extended for 5 years, b) Unspent reserves from Efficiency Vermont (VEIC) that will be used for moderate income Vermonters (between 80 and 150% of average county poverty level), and another small pot of VELCO money expected over the next 18 months that will be added to low income weatherization. All told the total will raise a little less than what the fuel tax would have raised on an ongoing basis, but at $2m+ over the next 18 months is still real money.
Changing from performance based to market based corporate income taxation will help Vermont corporations be more competitive in the world economy and should enable us to collect more tax revenue from out of state corporations; however, the benefits won’t occur right away. JFO and Tax will be keeping a close eye on how things progress and will keep us apprised of revenue trends and any other development.
There are two types of remote facilitators upon which Vermont will be collecting the sales tax. This taxation flows from the US Supreme Court Mayfair decision that allows states to impose the sales tax on online purchases. When you buy online from Amazon or a similar platform, you may actually be purchasing from another company that uses Amazon as a marketing platform even if the products are not offered for sale by Amazon itself. These remote sales had escaped the sales tax but will no longer. The second example has to do with how online travel agents apply the sales tax to room and hotel reservations/rentals. Prior to this session's action, some online travel agents (Expedia for example) were taking their commission out of the full price and only collecting the tax on the remainder. Now the tax will be collected on the entirety.