Harm Reduction in Vermont’s Drug Laws

The Vermont legislature is moving toward a more humane approach to drug use and possession, centered in harm reduction and public health concerns rather than primarily the criminal justice system. This effort has included overdose prevention strategies, treatment on demand, needle exchange access, and Medication Assisted Treatment programs. But we can do more. To make progress in this area, the legislature has been guided by expert recommendations.

In July of 2019, the Governor established the Justice Reinvestment II Working Group. It gathered representatives from all aspects of the criminal justice system including legislators, members of the administration, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and representatives from law enforcement and the courts. Among other issues, the Working Group sought to understand and make recommendations regarding disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.

The Working Group examined national and Vermont data showing that prosecution of drug offenses disproportionately impacts communities of color. In Vermont, although Black defendants are no more likely than white defendants to be convicted of felony drug offenses, when convicted they are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than white defendants. They are less likely to receive a deferred sentence or probation, or be diverted to treatment or a community justice center.

To address this disproportionate impact, the Working Group recommended that lower- to mid-level felony drug possession offenses should be reclassified as misdemeanors. It also recommended a reevaluation of drug amount thresholds and associated penalties for offenses involving the sale of drugs. In short, the recommendation was to reduce penalties for drug offenses, which will, in turn, reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

As the Working Group was conducting its examination, the Vermont Sentencing Commission was undertaking its own assessment of drug offenses. In 2018, the legislature tasked the Commission with making recommendations on restructuring Vermont’s criminal code, including proposing changes to its drug offenses. The Commission endorsed Vermont State’s Attorneys’ proposal that the penalties for certain drug offenses should be reduced. They suggested reductions for consistency across all criminal offenses because equivalent degrees of harm and community impact should carry similar consequences. In addition, they sought to have potential penalties conform to actual court outcomes, reflecting the sentences that judges actually impose. The State’s Attorneys had reviewed data from the Crime Research Group on actual

sentences and looked to their own experiences as prosecutors, while balancing the interests of public safety with the policy desire to reduce punitive exposure.

This past week, the House passed H.505, which implements the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group and the Sentencing Commission. The bill changes some felony possession offenses to misdemeanors, and when drug possession offenses are misdemeanors, the cases are presumptively diverted to restorative justice or treatment. Also, individuals charged with a misdemeanor do not face the same level of collateral consequences as those charged with a felony.

The bill also moves toward a public health approach to addressing drug use by establishing a Drug Use Standards Advisory Board of experts and those with lived experiences. Those who possess drugs for personal use should not face the same consequences as those who sell or traffic drugs. The goal of the Advisory Board is to determine what constitutes a standard amount of drugs for personal use. The Board’s recommendations will inform the legislature’s understanding of appropriate possession amounts so that it can further consider which possession offenses should be classified as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

Nationally, drug possession continues to be the leading offense for which people are arrested, with over 1.1 million arrests in 2020. Currently, Black people make up 24% of drug arrests in the U.S., almost double their demographic percentage. They are also nationally three times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people, despite selling and using drugs at the same rates. In Vermont, Black people were over 14 times more likely than white people to be defendants in a felony drug case, and, as noted above, more likely to be imprisoned if convicted.

The current drug laws are concerning beyond the racial disparities we see. Between 2007 and 2019, people in Vermont were charged with drug possession over 10,000 times, and in nearly half of those cases the only charge was drug possession. Yet this approach plainly has not reduced the drug problem, as we can see from the rising rates of drug overdoses in Vermont.

By reducing the punitive nature of the State’s response, H.505 helps move Vermont towards a more effective and humane approach to addressing drug offenses. The bill now moves to the Senate

2022 Town Meeting Report

The Vermont legislature is nearly halfway through our 2022 session. Our work officially began on January 4, with legislators working remotely to protect public health as the Omicron surge peaked. On January 18, we returned to the State House in hybrid mode, a welcome shift. Below, I highlight some of the significant legislation the House has passed or considered in these first two months. Meanwhile, work on our key priorities will continue up to our anticipated mid-May adjournment. It’s an honor to serve as your State Representative. Please reach out anytime with ideas, questions, and concerns.

2022 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES

The legislature is tackling a wide range of issues in 2022. While none of these challenges can be solved in a single session, our priorities include:

  • Investing Vermont’s federal stimulus funds to boost recovery and set the stage for a strong future, while building a balanced budget that reflects our values
  • Managing the complex and interconnected challenges of housing, workforce, and childcare
  • Enacting forward-looking, inclusive strategies to combat climate change and transition to a sustainable way of life as we prepare for shifting and severe weather patterns
  • Addressing our unfunded pension liability in a way that’s fair to teachers, state employees, and taxpayers

This is far from a comprehensive list. With 150 members and 14 standing committees, the House can get a lot done during our five months in Montpelier. The following explains some of what we have accomplished so far.

JUDICIARY

In the Judiciary Committee, on which I serve, we have worked on the following matters:

Updating Our Adoption Laws

While public perception of adoption has changed, our laws have not kept up. Many adopted individuals are unable to access their birth records, which prevents them from discovering important health information. Many also testified it prevents them from finding closure as they work to build adult lives. That’s why the Judiciary Committee is working on H.629, which would open all adoption records in the state unless a birth parent has specifically requested that they be closed. This will allow adoptees access to information about themselves that they have been denied far too long.

Advancing Racial Equity in the Criminal Justice System
In order to understand the realities of life in Vermont and craft good laws, we need good data. We are working to make strides in racial equity in our state with H.546. This bill creates a Division of Racial Justice Statistics, which will collect and analyze data relating to racial bias and disparities in Vermont’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. This work continues and builds upon previous efforts to address systemic racism and make our State a more welcoming home for people of color. Like the rest of our country, Vermont still has much work to do regarding systemic racism in our criminal justice system, but H.546 is a substantial step towards better addressing it.

Ensuring Uniformity in Vermont’s Criminal Code

Unlike most states, Vermont does not have uniform criminal penalties. Unfortunately, this creates inconsistency in sentencing, with penalties for some crimes being more severe than those for comparable crimes. H.475 and H.505 continue the work of the legislature to create a uniform and fair classification system in our state. These bills address sex crimes, crimes against persons, and drug crimes, placing each offense into a classification system established in a bill (H.87) enacted last year. This work is slow and detailed, but when the process is complete, Vermont will have a more uniform and fair criminal justice system.

PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT AND ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE

Conserving Our Land: 30 by 2030

Land conservation of intact, connected ecosystems protects our communities from the worst effects of climate change and helps mitigate biodiversity loss. Vermont’s diverse geography places us at an important crossroads for species conservation as the climate changes. Additionally, old forests play a critical role in both climate mitigation and habitat protection, but they currently occupy less than one percent of Vermont’s forestland.

In H.606, the legislature is establishing significant goals: conserving 30 percent of the land of the state by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050. The Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources would be required to develop a plan to meet these goals using Vermont Conservation Design (VCD) as a guide. VCD identifies the highest priority areas of the state for maintaining ecological integrity. Conservation goals would be met through a combination of private, state and federal land.

To help further these biodiversity and conservation goals, we are doing additional work on Vermont’s Current Use tax incentive program. H.697 would extend the Use Value (Current Use) program to include reserve forestland under certain conditions. This bill encourages the management of land for old forests. Reserve forestland is land that is managed for the purpose of attaining old forest values and functions.

Tackling Toxins

Plastics in compost create an increasing problem as communities contend with packaged food waste. Vermont faces the challenge of how to safely divert food waste out of landfills and create usable, safe compost. “Depackaging” is an automated process to remove food waste, but it is not perfect and can result in an unknown amount of plastic entering our compost. To address this issue, H.501 would place a moratorium on the construction of new depackaging facilities in Vermont and requires that rules be enacted before a new facility could be permitted.

We’re also addressing the collection and proper disposal of household hazardous waste. Currently taxpayers bear the costs for managing this waste, but H.115 would require the manufacturers of household products that contain hazardous substances to belong to a program that would pay for collection and disposal. Similar programs already exist for paint, mercury-containing batteries, and compact fluorescent lights.

Banning Neonics, Protecting Pollinators

Due to exposure from pesticides, climate change, habitat loss, and increased vulnerability to pests and pathogens, our honeybee population is in jeopardy. Vermont’s beekeepers currently lose 30 to 50 percent of their colonies on average every winter.

The legislature is taking steps to address the pollinator crisis with H.626. This bill proposes to ban seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides until the Agency of Agriculture develops comprehensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) rules. Neonics are a family of neurotoxic insecticides that attack the nervous system of insects, both “bad bugs” and beneficial species like pollinators. A few years ago, the legislature banned the household use of neonics, but treated seeds—for corn and soybeans—were exempt.

It’s not easy to switch back to non-treated seeds because they require a much longer lead time to order. The way forward on this issue is to fast-track IPM, which uses tools and cropping techniques to make pesticides a last resort.

Addressing Climate Change in Our Transportation Sector

As residents of a rural state, Vermonters drive a lot, resulting in 40 percent of Vermont’s carbon emissions. Fortunately, we have unprecedented federal funds to help address this problem, though the State must match the invested funds. Millions are going toward paving, rail, aviation, and aid for town highways and bridges. The State also plans to invest millions in electric vehicles (EV), electric vehicle charging equipment (EVSE), and public transit.

The House Transportation Committee is reviewing the Governor’s recommended Transportation Bill,” which suggests approximately $40 million in investments to support a state highway EVSE network, grants to install EVSE at multiple locations, and incentives for EVs as well as electric bicycles, ATVs, and snowmobiles.

Meanwhile, this year’s Transportation Innovation Act, H.552, proposes millions in investments for EVSE grants; incentives for electric vehicles, buses, and e-bikes; support for municipal grant programs and innovative mobility programs; and funding for transportation programs for lower income Vermonters and to continue zero-fare public transit.

Creating Energy Resilience for Our Municipalities
Vermont’s municipalities own and maintain approximately 2,000 old buildings that are expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. In order to meet our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals — and reduce the cost of fossil fuel heating on municipal budgets and taxpayers — H.518 supports communities with technical assistance, design support, and funding to make municipal building more energy efficient and to decarbonize the fuels they employ.

Helping Vermonters Switch to Clean Heat

More than one-third of Vermont’s climate pollution comes from fossil fuels used to heat our buildings and water. Dependence on fossil fuels — especially propane and fuel oil — is expensive, with unpredictable price swings for Vermont consumers.

The Clean Heat Standard (CHS) is a performance standard that obligates companies selling heating fuel in Vermont to lower greenhouse gas emissions over time. It’s similar to our Renewable Energy Standard, which directs Vermont’s electric utilities to annually increase the amount of renewable energy in their electricity mix.

The CHS requirements could be met either by delivering a range of clean heat alternatives — heat pumps, weatherization, advanced wood heating — that reduce fossil fuel consumption or by replacing some fossil fuel delivery with biofuels. The CHS prioritizes the lowest-cost, highest emissions-reducing options. Consumers would continue to have a choice on their heating options, with more incentives to choose cleaner options.

Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act requires a 40 percent reduction in emissions by the end of the decade. The Clean Heat Standard puts Vermont on a predictable, sustainable pathway to achieve those reduction goals. It’s the most significant emissions reduction policy recommended by Vermont’s Climate Council in the Climate Action Plan.

WORKFORCE

Developing a Vibrant Workforce
Workforce development is one of our legislative priorities this year. With 25,000 job openings in Vermont and an unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent, we’re trying to identify and remove the barriers preventing people from working or returning to work. We’re also listening to education and training providers to see if we can provide better opportunities for Vermonters to gain postsecondary credentials and degrees to increase earning potential in rewarding careers.

Equally important, the legislature continues to support scholarships and grants that make these opportunities affordable for all Vermonters. We’re also working with employers and business associations to identify their long-term workforce needs.

Building a Better Nursing Pipeline
Before the pandemic, Vermont already had a shortage of registered nurses (RNs) and an aging population in need of more healthcare services. Our nursing shortage has become critical following the so-called “Great Resignation” and the unique pressures placed on the healthcare system by COVID-19.

To meet this need, Vermont must find ways for more students to gain access to nursing education and careers. The legislature is looking for ways to support Vermont’s colleges in expanding their nursing programs. Due to a shortage of nursing professors, we want to ensure resources are available to attract nursing professors and help current RNs who wish to become professors. Scholarships and grants, some of which the legislature created in 2021, can continue to make a college program in nursing affordable to Vermonters. And by investing in nurse education, Vermont can build a better pipeline for the workforce needed now and in the future.

Promoting Career and Technical Education

Workforce development is a priority for the legislature this year. Vermont’s 17 regional career and Technical Education (CTE) centers provide critical pathways to improve career readiness for students and adult learners. Stakeholders across Vermont in the business, nonprofit, education, and government sectors have committed to a common goal:  By 2025, 70 percent of Vermonters will possess a postsecondary degree or credential of value, such as an apprenticeship, certificate, or license. Currently, only 51 percent of Vermonters possess these degrees or credentials. Our CTE centers play a significant role in helping our State meet this goal and in the development of a thriving workforce across all 14 counties.

Since 2015, we’ve been working to identify and resolve concerns relating to Vermont’s CTE system. The way we fund our CTE centers, for example, is widely seen as a barrier to enrollment. The legislature is considering several proposals to revamp and support CTE, with bills under consideration in several committees.

HOUSING

Making Progress on Vermont’s Housing Shortage

Vermont is facing a statewide housing crisis. Part of the problem lies in a significant drop in the rate at which housing has been built over the past four decades. Between 1980 and 2019, the rate at which housing stock was growing had dropped by 87 percent to an annual rate of 0.2 percent per year. This translates into a reduction in housing units from 3,200 additional units per year to about 400.

The pandemic exacerbated the shortage. With federal relief funding, the legislature has responded with initiatives to address the needs of renters, landlords, and houseless Vermonters, and to speed the production of new or rehabilitated housing. A few statistics:

  • Federal relief funds totaling more than $57 million have helped Vermont renters stay in their homes and helped make landlords whole. For information on your county, go to this link.
  • Federal relief and General Fund dollars have enabled the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to develop 475 new units of rental housing and to bring a number of projects online that will result in over 1,100 new rental units by 2023.  
  • Federal dollars allowed 1,300 households to exit homelessness in 2021, with continued work to be appropriated in the months ahead.

This year in its annual budget adjustment, the House included $50 million to support more mixed-income units and multi-family rentals and to increase shelter capacity, with priority given to populations who may be displaced from the hotel/motel voucher program or are currently without housing.

Between now and the end of the session, we expect to allocate up to $25 million to rehabilitate 400 existing units that are uninhabitable because of code violations, as well as a pilot for middle-income buyers.

HEALTHCARE

Creating Potential Health Insurance Savings for Vermonters

Vermonters have an opportunity to see significant savings on their health insurance costs because of extended subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Those directly enrolled in the individual market can roll over to Vermont Health Connect with no change in benefits and gain the advantage of federal subsidies. Between $58 to $76 million is available to Vermonters in subsidies for plan year 2023. Check out the Vermont Health Connect page to learn more about potential savings.

Furthering the Federal No Surprises Act

The House passed a bill ensuring state compliance and enforcement of the federal No Surprises Act. That law addresses situations in which patients receive an unexpected medical bill, also known as a “balance bill,” when they unknowingly receive care from providers that do not participate in their health plan and therefore are out-of-network. The insurance provider denies the claim for payment to that provider and the patient becomes responsible for the entire bill. For example, the patient may go to an in-network hospital for knee replacement surgery with an in-network orthopedist, but receive a bill from an out-of-network anesthesiologist. If you have concerns about a “surprise“ bill, you should contact the Office of the Health Care Advocate at this link or DFR at this link, or call DFR consumer service representatives at (802) 828-3301.

Enacting a Regulatory System for Out-of-State Providers to Provide Care Via Telehealth

H.655 creates a regulatory system that would allow out-of-state healthcare professionals to become licensed or registered to deliver services to Vermont residents using telehealth. The Office of Professional Regulation is tasked with adopting rules to implement the initiative in a manner that ensures Vermonters receive safe care. This change will alleviate some of the pressure on already-stretched providers in areas such as mental health and child psychology by expanding the availability of practitioners. It also addresses equity issues in the ability of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Vermonters to be able to find therapists suited to their specific needs.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS TO GO TO THE VOTERS

Ensuring Racial Justice in Vermont’s Constitution

The Vermont legislature has passed Proposal 2, which clarifies language in the anti-slavery clause of the Vermont Constitution. Although Vermont was the first state to ban slavery and indentured servitude, it did not prohibit those practices for individuals under 21 years old. Proposal 2 would amend Article 1 of the Constitution to provide that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” The proposal recognizes and respects the reality of descendants of enslaved Africans brought to this country, and this State, against their will. Amendments to the Vermont Constitution require voter approval, and Proposal 2 will go to the voters in November.

Protecting Reproductive Liberty in Vermont’s Constitution

The decision of whether or when to become a parent is deeply personal and central to our lives. For many decades, Vermont has recognized these reproductive choices as a fundamental right that should be free from government restrictions. Proposal 5 would enshrine reproductive autonomy and liberty into our State’s Constitution, ensuring that this right is preserved for future generations.

The passage of Proposal 5 has been deliberate and inclusive, including a four-year legislative process, and two public hearings in which we received testimony from groups both supporting and opposing the amendment. After hearing from these diverse voices, the House has passed Prop 5 with an overwhelming majority, sending the constitutional amendment to the voters during the 2022 November election.

MISCELLANEOUS

Providing ongoing pandemic relief through the mid-year budget adjustment

H.679, the 2022 mid-year Budget Adjustment Act, represents responsible budgeting. With this important bill, the legislature keeps a careful eye on what is happening with allocations and “trues up” any area out of sync. It’s also responsible budgeting in terms of tending to the urgent needs of Vermonters and their communities, needs exacerbated by the continued COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are some key provisions in the final bill:

  • $6.1 million for emergency housing initiatives, including rental risk mitigation, transportation for Vermonters needing shelter in hotels, and rapid resolution housing.
  • $25 million to address emergent and exigent circumstances related to COVID, providing support to healthcare providers to prevent disruptions or business closures.
  • $55 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for affordable housing and increased shelter capacity.
  • $373,680 to the Vermont Veterans Home for staff retention and PPE supplies.
  • $60 million for workforce retention payments, with initial focus on essential community health care and social service providers.
  • $6 million for retention payments for childcare staff.
  • $6 million to the Vermont Foodbank for food insecurity.
  • $9.7 million to the Vermont State Colleges for critical occupations scholarships, and $1 million to UVM for workforce training.
  • $1 million for Adult Day providers.
  • $2 million for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.
  • $400,000 to maintain the 988 Suicide Prevention Line.
  • $250,000 for municipal planning grants, and $300,000 to support public, educational, governmental PEG TV services.

A provision in the bill requires that Vermont prevailing wage and fringe benefits be paid on contracts for maintenance, construction, improvement projects receiving $200,000 or more in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The bottom line is a recalibrated and balanced state budget totaling $7.9 billion, a 5% increase over the FY2022 budget passed in May 2021.  It is a budget designed to continue and to strengthen our collective recovery across all 14 counties.

Building the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget

The House Appropriations Committee is working on the FY23 budget, which covers the programs of State government and its community partner organizations from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023. The committee is on target to present its proposed budget to the full House in mid-March. As is our Vermont tradition, it will be a balanced budget.

In 2021, Vermont was allocated $1.049 billion through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Of that amount, over $600 million was allocated for FY22 investments, leaving more than $400 million available. These funds must be obligated by December 31, 2024 and spent by December 31, 2026.

This infusion of federal dollars will not be sustained over time. Nor will State revenue levels that, for now, continue to increase. In developing the FY23 budget, our challenge is to make strategic use of this one-time money to address extraordinary ongoing needs. In two virtual public hearings held in February, more than 80 Vermonters gave eloquent testimony highlighting, among other struggles, issues relating to childcare, housing, recruiting and retaining employees, and food insecurity.

Our goal is to craft a fiscally responsible budget that supports and strengthens Vermont communities and families now and into the future. We seek to protect and lift up vulnerable Vermonters and to move beyond surviving COVID to transformational recovery across all 14 counties.

Setting Strategic Goals for the Vermont State College System

In recent years, the legislature has made historic investments in the Vermont State College system (VSC). As we reimagine postsecondary education in Vermont in partnership with VSC, the system has embarked on a comprehensive transformation plan to achieve financial stability and launch the new Vermont State University — comprised of Castleton, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Tech — in Fall 2023. In 2020, a statewide select committee published a report that charts a course to a sustainable higher-ed future. One recommendation is that the legislature set down in statute the State’s high-level strategic goals for VSC. H.456 accomplishes this, requiring VSC to provide an educational environment that is affordable, accessible, equitable, and relevant to Vermont’s needs.

Redrawing Vermont’s Legislative Districts

Every ten years, after the U.S. Census is taken, Vermont must adjust legislative districts to accurately reflect any changes in population. Our State Constitution spells out the criteria for reapportionment:  Districts must maintain equality of representation, have either one or two Representatives, and make sense geographically.

This year, the complex and lengthy process was delayed by months because the Census was unable to deliver population numbers on time. This put our work behind schedule. The Census reported that Vermont’s population grew a little, with population declining in some areas (especially in Southern and Northeast Vermont) and increasing in others (primarily in Northwest Vermont).

The Census information guided the independent Legislative Apportionment Board’s work in providing recommendations for redistricting. Based on these recommendations and those of Boards of Civil Authority, the House Government Operations Committee has been preparing a final redistricting plan to present to the full House. District boundaries should be finalized sometime in April. South Burlington will be gaining one additional Representative, who will be shared with Williston. Here are the maps of the five South Burlington Districts that are currently under consideration:  Chittenden 7-1, 7-2, 7-3, 7-4, 7-5.

Ensuring the Stability of State Employee Pensions

In the past year, the legislature has focused on putting Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Over the summer and fall, a group that included legislators, government officials, and union representatives worked together to address the issue. They reached compromises that balance our commitments to state employees and teachers with the interests of Vermont taxpayers. The Senate is taking the first pass at turning those compromises into legislation, which the House will take up after Town Meeting week.

Creating a Vermont Child Tax Credit

The federal child tax credit puts money directly into the wallets and checkbooks of families with children. It has helped people pay rent and buy food, reducing food insecurity by 25 percent. For parents with more income, the credit has helped with mortgage payments and credit card, student loan, and car debt.

H.510, which passed the House in February, would create a Vermont version of the child tax credit. This payment — $100 a month for every child age six and under — will lift families with young children out of poverty. It will also encourage young families to move to Vermont, or to stay in Vermont and thrive. Our focus on young families addresses two important goals: reducing poverty for young children and meeting our demographic challenges. 

Respecting the Abenaki People

Vermont lands are the historic and current territories of the Western Abenaki people. The General Assembly acknowledges the Abenaki people as the traditional land caretakers of Ndakinna (En-DAH-kee-nah), which includes parts of Vermont, the rest of New England, and Quebec. 

H.556 recognizes the historic wrong committed when the land was taken. It provides a statewide and municipal property tax exemption for property that is owned and controlled by Vermont-recognized Native American tribes or by a nonprofit organized for a tribe’s benefit and controlled by the tribe.

Addressing Firearms Violence

Earlier this month, the legislature passed S.30, a bill that would enact a number of provisions that address firearm violence. By the time this column is published, we should know if the Governor has signed or vetoed it. I believe it implements wise policies and should become law.

First, the bill prohibits possession of firearms in hospitals. It would be illegal to bring any type of firearm into a hospital building. Such location restrictions already exist in Vermont for our schools and court buildings.

Several hospital administrators testified before the House Judiciary Committee, all of whom were strongly in favor of this bill. The moment someone receives terrible news in the form of a medical diagnosis for themselves or a family member can be very emotional. Often, the first reaction is anger directed at the doctor and other medical staff. Our witnesses repeatedly stressed that guns should not be part of this equation.

While most hospitals already ban guns from their premises, hospital administrators testified that changing this restriction from a hospital mandate to a state law would result in more awareness and compliance. While many hospitals employ security, those personnel are not armed. With individual hospital bans as opposed to a state law, the police can only be called when someone has been asked to remove their firearm from a hospital building and refused.

Second, the bill would close what has come to be known as the Charleston Loophole. The name comes from a terrible incident in Charleston, South Carolina where the shooter had been able to purchase a gun without a completed background check. In Vermont, anyone purchasing a firearm needs to undergo a background check. However, gun purchases can legally go forward after three days if the background check has not been completed within that period. The Charleston gunman would have been prohibited from having a firearm, but he was allowed to make the purchase because his background check was incomplete after three days.

Because 97% of all background checks are completed within three days, only a small number of Vermonters will be inconvenienced by closing this loophole. In Vermont, over the past two years, 28 firearms were sold to individuals who should have been prohibited from owning a firearm, but they were able to make the purchase because three days had passed without a completed background check. As of the end of November of last year, only 19 of those firearms had been retrieved.


The bill also clarifies that licensed medical care providers can, without violating their professional and legal codes of conduct, share concerns with law enforcement about patients who may use a firearm to harm themselves or others. This change will alleviate medical professionals’ concerns over personal repercussions for alerting law enforcement to situations where an individual or the public is at risk. It will help make our State safer.

Finally, the bill codifies a court’s ability to order relinquishment of firearms in emergency relief from abuse orders (RFA). Currently, judges have the inherent authority to order relinquishment of firearms as a part of an RFA, and S.30 aims to bring statutory language in line with legal practice. It clearly states that the relinquishment of firearms is an option available to judges when assessing how to best protect the safety of those seeking relief from abuse.

This legal pathway to safety is essential. Victims of domestic violence are at highest risk of being killed during the time that they are leaving an abusive relationship. It is critical to remove firearms from these volatile and dangerous situations.

Tackling Climate Change

It has been an interesting start to the 2022 session. During the first two weeks, the House and Senate did their work remotely by Zoom. The House has moved to a hybrid system with members working in their committees either in person or remotely if they have a COVID-related reason for staying out of the State House. Under these unique circumstances, the House is already tackling complicated issues, including responding to the climate crisis with a broad package of policy initiatives and investments.

The legislature is considering bills that will help the State meet the targets it established in 2019 in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), including cutting Vermont’s climate pollution in half by 2030. The bills will build on the proposals in the Vermont Climate Action Plan, which was prepared pursuant to the GWSA. 

Working across Committees and in partnership with the Senate, we will be focusing on these priorities:

Weatherization at Scale. Our goal is to weatherize 90,000 homes by 2030. Right now, 70% of Vermont homes are heated with fossil fuels at a total cost of $2 billion per year, three-quarters of which leave the State. This initiative will not only reduce carbon emissions, but will also reduce the cost of heating Vermonters’ homes.

Transportation Innovation Act. Already introduced, House Bill 552 builds on the work of the Climate Council and includes policies that will reduce emissions and move us toward the availability of electrified transportation for all Vermonters. It expands incentives to help Vermonters purchase or lease EVs or more fuel-efficient vehicles — including e-bikes. It expands charging infrastructure, improves our streets for pedestrians and bicycles, and continues zero-fare public transit for Fiscal Year 2023.

Clean Heat Standard. As recommended in the Climate Action Plan, this standard would require wholesale suppliers of heating fuels to deliver clean-heating solutions to Vermonters. It would promote the delivery of advanced wood heat, biofuels, biogas, solar thermal and heat pumps for our buildings.

Municipal Fuel Switching Program. House Bill 518 would offer grants for renewable and efficient heating systems in buildings owned by cities, towns, fire districts, incorporated villages, and all other governmental incorporated units. The objective is to take concrete steps to switch fuel sources for municipal buildings to reduce greenhouse gases, stabilize costs in the face of volatile fossil fuel prices, and increase resilience at the municipal level. Many of Vermont’s municipal buildings are older and less efficient, and would greatly benefit from weatherization improvements and renewable fuel sources. Because the cost to make such improvements is prohibitive for many municipalities, local officials would welcome the assistance to make those shifts.

Other bills will address the use of agriculture and forest lands. Protecting and restoring natural lands is the best insurance for our communities to mitigate the effects of climate change. Functional natural lands store and sequester carbon and provide flood storage and drought resistance. We are taking up recommendations in the Climate Action Plan to protect functioning river corridors, allow old forests in the current use program, and adopt the goal of permanently protecting 30% of our lands and waters from development by 2030.

In addition, we are fortunate that significant resources from COVID-relief funds are available to support climate action in the next few years. We have committed $250 of these funds to climate policies, and more is coming from the federal infrastructure bill to support greening our state’s energy grid.

In addition to addressing climate change, these initiatives will create high-paying, skilled jobs as we weatherize homes and buildings in every corner of the state, reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels, help Vermonters to save money on heating and transportation, protect our natural and working lands, and guide development in a way that promotes vibrant town centers.. In all of this work we will prioritize those who are on the front lines of climate change – those most impacted by climate change or least able to adapt.

Upcoming Session Priorities

The Vermont legislature had significant successes in the 2021 Session, investing in our childcare system, affordable housing, higher education, broadband expansion, and workforce development. In the 2022 Session, we need to build on these accomplishments. Next Session we will continue to address COVID recovery as we also find ways to make housing, mental and physical healthcare, childcare, and other essential social services more equitable and affordable. The following highlights a few of the demanding issues that the legislature will face.    

Climate change:  The Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), passed in 2020, created legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It requires the State to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The law created a Vermont Climate Council, which released a Climate Action Plan on December 1 of this year. The Plan lays out 64 strategies and over 230 specific steps to transform how we use and source energy, adapt Vermont communities to the warming planet, and protect natural and working lands from the harm created by climate change. Legislative action will be required to implement many of the Climate Council’s recommendations.

Redistricting:  As required by the Vermont Constitution, the legislature will be reviewing the 2020 census data and re-drawing legislative districts to ensure that Vermont’s citizens have equal representation in the General Assembly. The legislature is assisted by the Legislative Apportionment Board, a tri-partisan advisory group that submits a reapportionment proposal. The legislature considers the proposal, along with input from boards of civil authority and community members, as it draws the boundaries for legislative districts that will be in place for the November 2022 elections.  Since the last census in 2010, parts of the State have lost population while others, including South Burlington, have gained. Indeed, South Burlington will gain one representative for a total of five, but whether the representative will be shared with a neighboring community remains to be seen.

Pensions:  Earlier this year, the Vermont House sought to put the State’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and all State employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Legislators are balancing commitments – one to State employees and teachers and another to Vermont taxpayers – in the face of a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will continue to grow without action. Over the past few months, a task force with legislators and union representatives has been meeting to find agreement on a way forward. The legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars that can be applied to reduce the unfunded liability so long as the unions agree to changes in the structure of the pension plans that put them on a more sustainable path. The legislature will consider the results of the task force’s work in the upcoming Session.

Education funding:  In 2019, a team of UVM-led researchers delivered an extensive report on Vermont’s pupil “weights” — the numeric factors used to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students.  For example, additional resources are required to achieve acceptable outcomes for English language learners or children in poverty.  Based on the report, a legislative task force has been developing recommendations on how best to address the equity issues in education funding, including whether and how to modify the weighting of different student categories and other manners to get resources to school districts to account for the varying costs of those categories.

Workforce, housing, and childcare: In the upcoming Session, the legislature will also continue to grapple with three interrelated issues critical for Vermont’s economy. The COVID pandemic exacerbated an already bleak outlook for workforce availability and affordable housing.  Employers are struggling to fill jobs due to numerous factors, including the State’s aging population. To attract and retain workers, the legislature will continue its efforts this coming Session to address the State’s shortage of affordable housing and childcare. It will also consider other proposals to develop the State’s workforce, potentially including ways to use our State Colleges for workforce training.             These are only a few of the critical and complicated issues that the legislature will work on in the Session starting in January. Among other tasks, the legislature will determine where to invest remaining federal pandemic-relief funds and will continue to address issues such as firearms safety, criminal justice reform, environmental protection, social and racial equity, and infrastructure improvement. It promises to be a busy Session.

Law Enforcement Use of Force

Last year, the legislature passed bills to transform law enforcement in Vermont.  During the current off-session, I have been working with other legislators to understand the status of these police-reform initiatives and identify potential legislative action for the upcoming session that starts in January. The Vermont law enforcement community has made significant progress in implementing the reforms that the legislature required in Act 165 of 2020 and Act 166 of 2020.

In August of this year, after extensive opportunity for public comment, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) issued a final policy to implement the use-of-force standards the legislature had mandated in Act 166. Those standards clarified when different levels of force, including lethal force, may be used by law enforcement and emphasized de-escalation to avoid the need to use force. By the end of September, DPS, along with the Vermont State Police, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Vermont Police Association (VPA), trained over 1000 officers on the new use-of-force law and policy, representing 78% of officers statewide. Additionally, the VPA confirmed that all Vermont law enforcement agencies had adopted the use-of-force policy.

The legislature has delegated to the Criminal Justice Council the task of establishing rules, policies, regulations, and standards for certification and training of Vermont’s law enforcement personnel. The Council is continuing its review of necessary changes to training. Although initial use-of-force training was successfully implemented, a full assessment is still forthcoming of whether the Council is able to provide appropriate training for fair and impartial policing, including in the areas of cultural awareness and implicit bias. To ensure that the Council can effectively train officers in the manner that the legislature and communities expect, additional resources for the Council and the Police Academy may be required. They may need additional staff to fully assess training needs, change training policies and models, and ensure accreditation and accountability of agencies. In addition, funding for equipment and software for virtual training through a simulator would help address ongoing training needs in small rural agencies or those facing staffing shortages.

How well the use-of-force and fair and impartial policing policies improve law enforcement practices depends not only on training, but also on the ability and character of the officers. To that end, earlier this year and in compliance with the requirements of Act 165, the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee of the DPS provided recommendations on the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of officers. These recommendations emphasize the values of fair and impartial policing, treatment of all persons with dignity and respect, and the sanctity of life. They provide guidance on recruitment and selection of officers, including a list of suggested reasons for disqualifying a candidate from the hiring process.  They also address background checks, noting that hiring agencies must contact prior or current law enforcement employers regarding the performance of applicants, a statutory requirement put in place in Vermont in 2017 and expanded last year.

Ensuring that law enforcement agencies are following use-of-force and fair and impartial policing policies also requires improved transparency, including through broader use of body-worn cameras.  Earlier this year, the Law Enforcement Advisory Board, as required by Act 165, provided an updated state-wide policy for the use of body-worn cameras. In addition, the legislature funded the purchase of these devices for all Vermont State Police officers. Some local police agencies are also starting to use the devices, but cost may be a prohibitive factor for smaller agencies, an issue that should receive legislative attention.

Act 165 recognized that transparency may be improved in other manners.  The Act tasked the Attorney General’s office with recommending models of civilian oversight of law enforcement, identifying a central point for reporting allegations of officer misconduct, and determining how those allegations should be handled. The recommendations, which are not expected until late 2021 or early 2022, may or may not require legislative action.

Still more law enforcement-related issues need attention. For example, the use-of-force policy includes guidelines for officers confronted with individuals who are suffering a mental health crisis. Among other actions, it states that “officers should consider whether summoning a trained crisis negotiator or mental health clinician would be appropriate.” To be able to exercise this option, such negotiators or clinicians need to be available, which is not the case in all parts of the State or at all times of day. Additionally, law enforcement is approaching a staffing crisis. The number of officers leaving Vermont police departments is outpacing the number being hired or certified. At this time, I believe the main role for the legislature is to provide the necessary resources so progress continues on the ongoing reform initiatives. Those initiatives will help inspire confidence from the community as law enforcement fulfills its responsibilities to ensure public safety.

Pending Changes to School Funding

Changes are on the horizon for how we fund Vermont schools, changes that may result in a higher homestead tax rate in South Burlington. A task force is currently at work developing a plan to implement funding changes recommended in a 2019 report to the legislature. The legislature will consider the task force’s plan next year.

To begin with a brief overview of State education funding, Vermonters decide in local votes how much their schools will spend by approving or rejecting budgets proposed by their school boards. Most of the money for the approved local budgets comes from the State’s education fund, which consists of revenue from the sales and use tax, vehicle purchase and use tax, meals and rooms tax, lottery revenue, non-homestead property taxes, and homestead property taxes. To ensure that voters have a stake in how much a district is spending, the local homestead property tax rate is based on how much the district spends per pupil. The more a district spends per pupil, the higher its local homestead tax rate.

But not all pupils are counted equally in this calculation. The education funding system looks instead at weighted or equalized pupils. Weighting or equalizing pupils accounts for the fact that certain categories of students cost more to teach. Students with different learning needs and socioeconomic backgrounds require different types and levels of educational support to achieve equitable educational outcomes. Different educational supports, in turn, lead to different costs for different categories of students. For instance, it costs more, on average, to ensure that economically disadvantaged students or English language learners (ELL) meet education standards. Under the current system, these students are weighted as 1.25 pupils, which means that these students presumably cost 25% more to teach.

The 2019 study considered whether the current weighting factors, which were put in place over 20 years ago, accurately reflect the cost to educate certain categories of students. It found that there was scant empirical evidence to support the weights. Through a complex statistical analysis, it concluded that it is far more costly to achieve equivalent educational outcomes for students in poverty and ELL students than the system had assumed. The study therefore recommended that these students be given substantially higher weights than under current law. It also recommended adding population density (rurality) as a new weighting factor because it found that rural districts pay more to educate students.

By changing the weighting factors, districts with more impoverished or ELL students and districts with more rural schools would be able to spend more to achieve appropriate educational outcomes without significant changes in their homestead tax rates. Statewide, this would be a positive outcome, providing equitable education opportunities at an equivalent cost across all schools.

But there may be a downside. Due to the way the State’s school funding formula works, non-rural districts such as South Burlington with fewer students in poverty and fewer ELL students could find that their local homestead tax rates will need to be higher to maintain their current spending levels.

The task force will recommend how to transition to the new weights in a manner that eases the financial impact on school districts during the transition. It will also recommend ways to mitigate the impacts on residential property tax rates and to consider tax equity between districts. And the legislature could then amend the task force’s plan. So it is not yet clear what the impact will be on districts such as South Burlington.

I will be following the efforts of the task force to see how it addresses these and other concerns that I have regarding a transition to a new pupil-weighting system for our public education. My main concern is that our efforts to update the equalized pupil calculation may not translate to increased levels of spending in districts with higher needs, as intended, but will instead be used to reduce taxes. The changes must focus on ensuring that students in poverty and ELL students receive equitable educational opportunities so they can achieve appropriate educational outcomes.

A Step Forward on School Buildings

Students’ success depends on a variety of factors:  their aptitude, motivation, and morale as well as their attendance and alertness; supportive parents and community; quality teachers and administrators; and facilities that are safe, healthy, and designed for effective learning. Studies have shown that facilities in disrepair undermine students’ ability to retain and recall information. Inadequate heating, cooling, and ventilation adversely affect student performance, health, and attendance. Poor acoustics challenge students’ short-term memory and speech perception, as well as their relationships with their peers and teachers. Classrooms with limited natural light degrade student performance on standardized tests. And a poor learning environment does not just hurt students. Education facilities in disrepair with substandard air quality, inadequate lighting and acoustics, and spaces designed for outmoded instructional practices may cause low teacher morale and make it difficult to retain high quality, motivated instructors.

Investment in school infrastructure, in short, is an investment in improved educational outcomes. School districts throughout Vermont are, indeed, making those investments. Between 2008 and 2019, they issued approximately $211 million in bonds for school construction projects. In 2020, they planned and proposed an estimated $445 million in bonding for future school construction projects statewide. Over the past decade, the South Burlington district has spent approximately $750,000 annually for facility maintenance and improvement and also issued a $6 million bond for improvement projects. In 2020, after several years of evaluating its infrastructure, the district proposed a $209 million bond to build a new combined middle and high school. Voters rejected this proposal and the district continues to evaluate continuing facility needs.

The State used to provide financial assistance for school construction. But this aid, provided through the State’s bonding authority, has been suspended since 2007. In past Bienniums, I have sponsored bills to lift the moratorium on State school construction aid so that Vermont would no longer be the only state in the Northeast without a school construction program. Though these bills did not pass, they helped push the conversation to the forefront. Sometimes tackling significant problems takes more than one Biennium. And this year, the legislature took an important step to address the State’s school infrastructure needs.

After days of testimony, the House Education Committee passed H.446, which would eventually be signed into law as Act 72. The legislature found that “the backlog in the State’s school construction projects has resulted in unsafe and unhealthy learning environments and disparities in the quality of education, including between wealthier communities and communities in need across the State.” It is not surprising that many of Vermont’s school buildings, which were built decades ago, are aging and in urgent need of repair.

The bill’s stated goal is “to address the needs and conditions of the State’s school buildings in order to create better learning environments for Vermont’s students and increase the equity in the quality of education around the State.” The work begins with an update of the State’s school facility standards and a statewide assessment and inventory of all school buildings to inform the Agency of Education and legislature on facilities’ needs and the costs to meet those needs. From this inventory, the legislature will be able to prioritize schools with the highest needs for future school construction funding. By January of 2023, the Secretary of Education will provide to the legislature an analysis of the challenges and opportunities of State funding for public school construction projects and recommendations for a funding source for such projects.

Not all aid for infrastructure improvements will need to wait for this planning process to conclude and a funding source to be identified. For the short term, the bill establishes a grant program for renewable and efficient heating systems administered by Efficiency Vermont for the improvement or repair of existing systems. Also, to help ensure that the school buildings do not harm the health of their occupants, the bill requires each public and independent school in the State to perform radon measurements by June 2023. Additional time for this testing is granted to schools that are in the process of implementing indoor air quality improvement projects. Act 72 takes the first step towards meeting the goal of ensuring that our school buildings are well-maintained, energy-efficient, safe, and healthy places that meet the needs of 21st century education and technology.

End of Session Report

I am honored to represent District 7-1 in the important work that has been accomplished in the virtual State House. The following addresses some of the legislature’s accomplishments this session, including those of the Judiciary Committee, on which I sit.

I. COVID RECOVERY

The legislature is creating an equitable recovery plan to rebuild the economy in all 14 counties. Federal funding over the past year gives Vermont a unique opportunity to make thoughtful investments over several years that advance our priorities and accelerate recovery in every corner of the State. Our current FY2022 budget and American Rescue Plan Act investments prioritize:

● Strengthening systems and services that increase mental and physical health and social well-being.

● Expanding broadband and connectivity to facilitate remote work, telehealth, online learning, and small business creation.

● Investing in childcare to increase access, affordability, and quality for working families and raise wages for early learning professionals.

● Increasing affordable housing stock for low- and middle-income Vermonters; transitioning homeless Vermonters to permanent housing with services.

● Addressing climate change by curbing emissions, electrifying transportation, and  weatherizing more homes.

● Investing in higher education and workforce development to prepare Vermonters for 21st century jobs within the State.

● Advancing clean water and the health of our lakes, rivers, wetlands, groundwater, and drinking water systems; ensuring a toxics-free environment that protects our natural resources.

● Fostering racial and social equity in our investments; dismantling structural inequities that limit the economic opportunity and mobility of Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, New Americans, and vulnerable Vermonters.

Investments to Ensure COVID Recovery

In the Spring of 2020, Vermont received $1.25 billion in federal CARES funding. These

dollars provided relief for Vermonters in desperate need, including individuals, families, communities, and local businesses in all 14 counties. These dollars were also key to stabilizing critical systems in healthcare, human services, and childcare.

Spring 2021 has brought Vermont $1.052 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and once again the legislature is focused on leaving no one behind. To the extent allowed by federal regulation, Vermont’s use of ARPA dollars is focused on the well-being, present and future, of the State’s human infrastructure.

This investment is apparent in the allocations of ARPA funding in the FY2022 State budget, a total of $599.2 million. Included, for instance, is $109.2 million targeted to economy, workforce, and communities; $99 million to housing; and $51 million to rental assistance. The State has also allotted $150 million for broadband investments and $52 million for technology modernization, as well as $50 million for climate action and $115 million for clean water investments. ARPA dollars not “spoken for” are still available for use when we have a better sense of ongoing or unanticipated needs. This flexibility is permitted by ARPA, as we have through FY2025 to use these funds.

Business & Workforce Grant Programs Launched

To get relief to Vermonters quickly, the legislature passed Act 9 in early April, a $97.5 million pandemic relief bill that invested federal funds before the end of the session to jumpstart the State’s recovery. This bill created $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, targeting new and small businesses not initially eligible for assistance. Act 9 also allocated $500,000 to the EMBRACE Grants for Micro Business program, providing up to $5,000 to low- and moderate-income Vermonters with businesses under five employees and less than $25,000 in annual revenue. Finally, $8.2 million was approved for the Vermont State Colleges, UVM, and VSAC to provide up to two free classes to adult Vermonters looking to boost job skills or change careers, and to all 2020 and 2021 high-school grads, as well as to train more licensed nurses (LPNs).

Building Back Better: Statewide Infrastructure

The legislature passes a Capital Bill in the first year of each biennium. This is where we make long-term investments in buildings and infrastructure using money from state-issued bonds. This year’s Capital Bill, Act 50, invests $123 million in a range of projects critical both to pandemic recovery and to the future of Vermont, including courthouse renovations and HVAC, clean water, State park upgrades, State office building maintenance, mental health facilities, and affordable housing.

The legislation also expands the Building Communities Grant Program, which invests in local economies and helps communities preserve historic buildings, improve ADA accessibility, and address fire safety in recreational, educational, cultural, and human service facilities. Municipalities, schools, libraries, and nonprofits are encouraged to apply.

Universal Access to Broadband

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how essential high-speed internet is to daily life. We use the internet to go to work, attend school, see a doctor, interact with the government, and connect with our communities and the world at large. Unfortunately, the promise of modern communications has bypassed too many rural communities in the State with twenty-five percent of Vermonters still lacking access to broadband.

Act 71 dedicates $150 million of the federal stimulus funds to the construction of broadband infrastructure in the most underserved parts of the State. (The legislature anticipates spending a total of $250 million for broadband deployment over the next three years.) The bill includes funding for pre-construction planning and design costs, grants for building broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and a new broadband workforce development program.

Childcare: Essential to Economic Recovery

The pandemic highlighted the importance of available and affordable childcare to support Vermont’s children, families, communities, and economy. Act 45 takes significant steps towards reforming our childcare system. Not only does Act 45 make childcare more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a study to identify future revenue sources for a more securely-subsidized universal childcare system.

By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare workers’ wages, we can support and grow our workforce of early care and learning professionals. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving our youngest Vermonters a head start to success.

II. PROMOTING EQUITY

Expanding Office of Racial Equity

Before the 2021 session, legislators heard from constituents that Vermonters were not dealing with one pandemic, but three: COVID-19, climate, and systemic racism. In addressing systemic racism, one of the glaring needs identified was bolstering personnel at the State’s Office of Racial Equity. When this office was created and Xusana Davis hired as Director, the legislature did not know the extent of how widely its services would be used and requested.

The workload has continued to grow, with the Director being flooded by requests to sit on committees and boards, meet with Vermonters, review policies, and offer expertise to all three branches of State government. It became clear that the needs of the Office were far greater than one person could handle. To help, two positions were added to the Office of Racial Equity and passed in the budget, effective July 1, 2021.

Promoting Healthcare Equity

The Department of Health’s 2018 State Health Assessment reveals that not all Vermonters have an equal opportunity to be healthy. From higher morbidity to access to health care, statistics show significant disparities across the Green Mountain State based on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status. Act 33 begins the long-term process of breaking down these barriers. The bill creates a Health Equity Advisory Commission made up primarily of Vermonters whose lives have been impacted by historic inequitable treatment in accessing health care, while empowering them to develop an Office of Health Equity by no later than January 1, 2023.

Healthcare for Undocumented Children and Pregnant Women

Act 48 provides immediate increased access to healthcare for income-eligible children and pregnant women, regardless of their immigration status, by establishing a Dr. Dynasaur-like healthcare program. This coverage begins on July 1, 2021. These undocumented women and children often work or live with their families on the farms and dairies that are essential to our Vermont economy. Because of fear that their immigration status will be revealed, confidentiality is critical. We know that prenatal care and medical care in childhood can improve health outcomes over a lifetime, as well as reduce costs for both education and healthcare systems.

Promoting Economic Opportunity for BIPOC Businesses

This session, legislators embraced their responsibility to address racial wealth disparities and begin addressing the historical impacts of economic exploitation and exclusion from economic opportunity. The legislature engaged BIPOC business and community leaders across the State to inform and develop legislation to create the BIPOC business development project detailed in H.159. It invests $150,000 in a process to be driven by the BIPOC community and may include the creation of a minority business development center or authority. This legislation will also provide technical support for BIPOC businesses in procurement of State contracts, improve language access and cultural competency practices within State economic development programs, and strengthen State data collection to better serve the variety of identities represented within the BIPOC community. H.159 did not itself pass, but these provisions were incorporated into the budget bill.

Equitable Access to Transportation

In the transportation sector, inequity takes any forms, from not having “a seat at the table” when large transportation projects are planned to not being able to access or afford private or public transportation. This year’s Transportation Bill addresses inequity by requiring a comprehensive analysis of Vermont’s transportation programs. The resulting report will create an equity framework that will be used to increase mobility options, reduce air pollution, and enhance economic opportunity for Vermonters in communities that have been historically underserved by the State’s transportation programs. In addition, millions of dollars in incentives have been appropriated to help Vermonters who may have to choose between filling up the flivver or filling up the fridge. These income-qualifying programs include “Emissions Repair” (to help pay for repairs needed to pass vehicle inspection), “Replace Your Ride” (an incentive to turn in an inefficient vehicle), and “Mileage Smart” (to help purchase a used vehicle). And for those using public transit, Zero Fare bus transportation continues through June 2022.

Racism as a Public Health Emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the severe inequities in our public health systems. For example, while Black residents comprise only 1 percent of Vermont’s population, they accounted for almost 5 percent of the State’s COVID-19 cases in 2020.

Highlighting a strong body of evidence, J.R.H.6 acknowledges systemic racism as a direct cause of the adverse health outcomes experienced by BIPOC communities in Vermont. It also commits our State to the “sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems.”

J.R.H.6 was drafted through the collaboration of impacted communities, and gained the broad support of the legislature and the Vermont Department of Health. J.R.H.6 is just one important step in an ongoing effort to create equitable systems that promote justice, dignity, and health for all Vermonters.

Legislature Apologizes for Eugenics

In J.R.H.2, the Vermont legislature acknowledges and apologizes for sanctioning

and supporting eugenics policies and practices through legislation that led to forced family separation, sterilization, incarceration, and institutionalization for hundreds of Vermonters in the early 20th century. These policies targeted the poor and persons with mental and physical disabilities, as well as individuals, families, and communities whose heritage was documented as French-Canadian, French-Indian, or of other mixed ethnic or racial composition, and persons whose extended families’ successor generations now identify as Abenaki or as members of ther indigenous bands or tribes.

The traumatic ripple effect of these State led actions has been felt through generations and has had real and tangible effects on the lives of Vermonters today. The resolution does not undo the harms of the past, but it marks an essential step towards a future of accountability and reconciliation for the generations of Vermonters who were harmed by State-sanctioned violence. The resolution recognizes that further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impacts of eugenics policies.

III. CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Addressing Sexual Assault in Vermont

The legislature passed Act 68, which revises and clarifies our laws addressing consent to sexual activity, including the impact of alcohol consumption. The law will clarify when consent to sexual activity has not or cannot be given. The bill also creates a Campus Sexual Harm Task Force to confront the high number of sexual assaults that take place on our college campuses.

Eliminating the “Trans Panic” Defense

In some states, courts have allowed defendants to rely on a “trans panic” defense to have assault charges against them reduced or dismissed altogether. The defense is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent action against the victim. Act 18 prohibits the use of such a defense in Vermont.

Penalties for Hate-Motivated Crimes

Act 34 updates Vermont’s response to crimes motivated by hate, providing an enhanced penalty that a prosecutor can charge in addition to the underlying crime. To apply the enhancement, the law had provided that a prosecutor must prove that a crime was maliciously motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, service in the U.S. Armed Forces or the National Guard, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived membership in any such group. Act 34 eases the burden for prosecutors by providing that the person need not be maliciously motivated; rather the person need be simply motivated in whole or in part by the victim’s inclusion in one of the protected categories.

Clarifying Police Use of Force

Last year, the legislature enacted Acts 147 and 165 that together provided statutory standards for police use of force, including lethal force. This year, the legislature passed Act 27, which clarified that law enforcement may use chokeholds only when lethal force is justified. Under the law, before use of a chokehold or other deadly force can be justified, its use must be objectively reasonable and necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury and there must be no reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force to prevent death or serious bodily injury. The use of a chokehold must cease as soon as the subject no longer poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.

Mental Health and Criminal Justice

The legislature passed Act 57, which clarifies provisions related to court proceedings in criminal cases that address either the defendant’s sanity at the time the offense was committed or the defendant’s competency to stand trial for the offense. Under current law, if an individual is found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial and is also a danger to self or others, the person is committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health for treatment. That law provides no way for the crime victim to be made aware when the person returns to the community. Act 57 closes that gap by creating a system of victim notification in such cases. In addition, the bill creates a forensic working group to identify gaps in mental health coverage and procedures in Vermont’s criminal justice system and to make recommendations as to whether a new forensic treatment facility is necessary to house individuals who have been committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health.

Reforming Vermont’s Correctional System

Recognition of the need for reform and culture-level change in the criminal justice and corrections systems has been growing for years. “Warehousing” offenders does not help them prepare to reenter society successfully. Vermont is committed to building a criminal justice system that is equitable and rehabilitative, where State employees and the incarcerated Vermonters in their care are safe and treated with dignity and respect.

This year, the legislature passed Act 56 to address sexual misconduct and systemic issues within the Department of Corrections (DOC) that came to light at the women’s facility in South Burlington. Act 56 establishes an independent Corrections Monitoring Commission and a Corrections Investigative Unit; expands State law to criminalize sexual contact between DOC employees and anyone under the department’s supervision; and requires that DOC work with the Criminal Justice Council to develop a proposal for training standards and a process for certification and decertification of correctional officers.

New Women’s Correctional & Reentry Facility in Planning Stages

Changing the culture of Corrections is not only a matter of programming, it is also a matter of facilities. Most of Vermont’s six regional correctional facilities were designed with a mindset that is now outdated and built decades ago. Most require significant repair and maintenance. In particular, the women’s Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility is in dire need of replacement to better serve women and their unique reentry needs.

The Capital Bill includes an initial $1.5 million investment in planning and program design for a new women’s correctional and reentry facility or facilities. In summer and fall 2021, the Department of Corrections (DOC) will hold focus groups with key stakeholders, including correctional officers and other staff, inmates, and outside service providers. DOC will work with Buildings and General Services to develop a proposal for size, location, and preliminary design that the legislature will review during the 2022 session.

IV. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

Prohibiting “Forever Chemicals” from Consumer Products

Many Vermonters know that polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals were found to contaminate drinking water in Bennington and North Bennington in 2016. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate within our bodies over time and do not biodegrade in the environment. This exposure leads to a number of adverse health effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Research is showing that even those who do not live in a contaminated area may be exposed to PFAS because these chemicals are used in many consumer products.

Rather than limiting our solutions to downstream clean-up, Act 36 addresses this issue upstream by preventing these toxic substances from entering our State. It prohibits the manufacture and sale of PFAS from four products that pose the highest risks to Vermonters’ well-being: food packaging, fire extinguisher foam and firefighting PPE, rugs and carpets, and ski wax. Act 36 takes comprehensive steps to protect Vermonters from toxic chemicals and prevent future harm to the environment and public health.

Updating Vermont’s Bottle Bill

An update to Vermont’s 50-year-old bottle bill passed the House this session. H.175 will expand the types of containers subject to deposits, which will now include water bottles, wine bottles, hard cider and tea containers, and others. This bill will also increase the handling fees paid to vendors, which will encourage the opening of more redemption centers. Containers recycled via the deposit system are cleaner and more valuable than if they go through the general recycling stream, and a greater percentage of them will be made into new containers. Glass, in particular, is much easier to manage as a recycled material if it goes through redemption centers versus a curbside bin. The bill has not yet passed the Senate.

New Agricultural Innovation Board Created

Act 49 creates the Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB). It will tackle areas of concern such as pesticide use and how to reduce it, and how to transition from agricultural use of plastics to more biodegradable materials. Vermont is the only state that has a Seed Review Committee that allows for the review of the seed traits of a new genetically engineered seed proposed for sale, distribution, or use in the State. The legislature created this committee last biennium in response to the use of Dicamba (a pest-controlling herbicide) in other parts of the country. The AIB’s approach will be a more holistic approach to soil health and pesticide use.

Steering Vermont Transportation Into the Future

For a century, the word “transportation” in America has been virtually synonymous with the word “car.” And not just any car, but cars using an internal combustion engine (ICE). This year, the legislature worked on several bills that recognize and embrace that change is here, driven by customer demand and environmental concerns. The Transportation Bill and FY2022 State Budget appropriated millions of dollars for incentives to help Vermonters shift gears from ICE vehicles to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). To make sure Vermonters can “fill up” their new rides, support is also set aside for additional public charging stations. Don’t want to drive? Sign up soon for $200 off an electric bike. And while electrifying our transportation system saves Vermonters money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation transformation is best approached comprehensively. As such, funds were also directed to address stormwater and improve water quality, to construct bicycle and pedestrian facilities as well as Park and Rides, and to support the growth of carpools and vanpools.

V. EDUCATION

A Step Forward on School Buildings

Built decades ago, it’s no surprise that many of Vermont’s school buildings, including our South Burlington schools, are aging and in urgent need of repair. Act 72 is an initial step to address the problem. The work begins with an update of the State’s school facility standards and a statewide conditions inventory and assessment for all school buildings. The bill also establishes a renewable and efficiency heating systems grant program administered by Efficiency Vermont and requires each public and independent school in the State to perform radon measurements by June 2023. Additional time for testing is granted to schools in the process of implementing indoor air quality improvement projects. The long-term goal is to make sure that our school buildings are well-maintained, energy-efficient, safe, and healthy places that meet the needs of 21st century education and technology. Unfortunately, a funding source to upgrade our school buildings has not yet been identified.

Community Schools Pilot Program

As schools across Vermont focus on pandemic recovery and re-engagement, Act 67 invests $3.3 million in a demonstration grant program that will allow eligible districts to explore the innovative “community schools” model. Sometimes known as full-service schools, community schools help kids and families access vital services such as healthcare, mental health counseling, or help with food or housing, often right in the building. They serve as resource hubs that provide a range of accessible, well-coordinated, and culturally inclusive supports and services. Now gaining traction across the country, community schools tackle head-on the challenging and complex out-of-school barriers, like poverty and hunger, that hold so many of our students back. They help close the achievement gap for low-income students, special education students, BIPOC students, and English language learners, and improve student outcomes ranging from attendance and academic performance to graduation rates. The bill also kick-starts a grant program to help schools buy more food that’s grown or produced in Vermont, and creates a task force with the goal of achieving universal school lunches by the 2026-2027 school year.

Task Force to Implement Pupil Weighting Factors

In 2019, a team of UVM-led researchers delivered an extensive report on Vermont’s “weights,” the numeric factors used to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students—for example, English language learners or children from economically deprived backgrounds. Act 59 establishes a task force that will work over the summer to develop an implementation plan, a roadmap the legislature will use next session in considering how to integrate the new recommended weights into our complex education funding formula. The weights have a profound impact on how we calculate equalized pupils, which in turn affects taxing capacity from district to district. The report, due in December 2021, will also consider the excess spending threshold, how we calculate poverty for the purposes of school finance, and other factors intertwined with our unique school funding system.

IV. OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Preserving Public Pensions System for State Employees & Teachers

The Legislature focused this session on putting Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and all State employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Legislators are balancing commitments – one to State employees and teachers and another to Vermont taxpayers – in the face of a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will continue to grow exponentially without action.

Act 75 engages more stakeholder voices in the process. The legislation focuses on governance changes that will amend the Vermont Pension Investment Commission to include more independent, financial expertise. It also established the Pension Benefits, Design & Funding Task Force to meet this summer with a “report-back” to the legislature with recommendations for putting the retirement systems on a sustainable path.

The legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars (freed up by ARPA dollars), along with a separate annual payment of $316 million, for a total investment this year of $466 million. This amount is a massive commitment from the legislature in a single year. Resolving this pension crisis in the short term with robust participation from all stakeholders is the fair and responsible thing to do for all concerned.

Increasing Access for Voters

Universal Vote-By-Mail was a great success during the 2020 General Election, contributing to record turnout even during a pandemic of a 74 percent participation rate. It expanded voter access and encouraged increased participation in our democratic process. Act 60 continues the Vote- By-Mail program, adds other important election measures, and counters the prevailing trend across the U.S. where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws.

Harm Reduction Through Buprenorphine

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont has been suffering from an epidemic of fatal drug overdoses. With 157 opioid-related deaths, 2020 was one of Vermont’s deadliest years for overdose on record. Almost all of these deaths were accidental, and the vast majority (88%) involved fentanyl, an extremely potent opiate that, unbeknownst to the user, is mixed with heroin. Use of buprenorphine offers a safer alternative for people living with opioid use disorder. Buprenorphine reduces the risk of relapse for people in recovery by blocking opioid cravings and reducing the likelihood of fatal overdose from fentanyl.

There are a number of barriers to Vermonters receiving prescribed buprenorphine, however, including geographic distance from a clinic, lack of transportation or insurance coverage, inconvenient clinic hours, and other cumbersome requirements to maintain a prescription. In response to the urgent need to reduce harm from opioid use, Act 46 removes criminal penalties for possession of non-prescribed buprenorphine that is less than a two-week supply. This legislation will save lives by supporting Vermonters in the management of their substance use disorders, encouraging them to seek safer alternatives and begin formal treatment.

Legislative Climate Action

Water wells going dry in parts of Vermont due to an ongoing drought. A shortened sugaring season. Recurring annual algae blooms as Lake Champlain and other State bodies of water become progressively warmer.

These all serve as reminders that Vermonters need to continue to do their part in addressing climate change. The choices and actions of individuals are important to reduce carbon emissions. The choices and actions of the State’s legislature and Governor are also critical to address the challenge. 

At the State level, last year the Vermont legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). This Act creates legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It requires the State to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The law created a Vermont Climate Council and charged it with developing a Climate Action Plan by December 1 of this year. That Plan must lay out an implementation strategy for the transformative change required by the statute. The Council must consider methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, opportunities for long-term carbon sequestration, and ways to enhance the resilience of Vermont’s communities and ecosystems to weather events caused by climate change. 

The legislature continued its work on climate this year. In the budget, it is supporting the work of the Climate Council and also investing $50 million on climate action. Those funds will be used, in part, to weatherize homes and support renewable energy projects.  

It also passed legislation that establishes Vermont as a leader in fighting climate change in the transportation sector. For a century, the word “transportation” in America has been virtually synonymous with the word “car.” And not just any car, but cars using an internal combustion engine. This year, the legislature worked on several bills that recognize and embrace that change is here, driven by consumer demand and environmental concerns. The Transportation Bill and FY2022 State Budget appropriated millions of dollars to triple incentives to help Vermonters shift gears from internal combustion engine vehicles to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles. An individual earning less than $50,000 is now eligible for incentives of $3000 for a plug-in electric hybrid or $4000 for an electric vehicle. For individuals with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 or families with incomes of up to $125,000, the incentives are $1500 and $2500.

To make sure Vermonters can “fill up” their new electric rides, the legislature also set aside support for additional public charging stations. Additionally, it provided grants for charging stations at multi-unit apartment buildings. And for those who would rather ride than drive, the legislature clarified regulations for electric bikes and provided an incentive program to encourage individuals to purchase this mode of transport.

 While electrifying our transportation system saves Vermonters money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation transformation is best approached comprehensively. So legislation provided funds to construct bicycle lanes and safer streets for pedestrians and to expand Park and Ride facilities to support the growth of carpools and vanpools. The legislature also extended for a year a program providing fare-free transit on buses statewide and continued its support for establishing direct rail from Burlington to New York City.                 There is, of course, much more that needs to be done, both at the personal and State level, to do our part to address the threat of climate change.