2022 End of Session Report

I. Expanding Safe and Affordable Housing

Over the past three years, the General Assembly has committed about $375 million to housing — roughly half from federal COVID relief funds and half from the General Fund and prop- erty transfer tax. These appropriations have been used to enhance shelter capacity and supportive services for those who are homeless, to build more than 1,000 units of housing that will be affordable to low- and middle-income families, to repair rental properties that are currently un- available because they are not up to code, and to provide incentives to develop accessory dwelling units and down-payment grants for first-generation homebuyers.

Given Vermont’s critical housing needs, bolstering our housing stock was once again a top priority. Through federal COVID relief funds, over $42 million was earmarked this year in S.210 and S.226 to help Vermont renters and homeowners. With this funding, we were able to:

● Dedicate $20 million toward forgivable loans to property owners to bring rental proper- ties up to code, and incentivize the construction of new Accessory Dwelling Units, to expand Vermont’s rental housing stock.

● Direct $22 million to subsidize new construction to lower costs for middle-income home- buyers, plus $1 million to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) for down payment grants for first-generation homebuyers. Repair and improvement grants will also be available for manufactured homes.

● Reform zoning laws, expand tax credits, and create pilot projects to encourage denser development and more vibrant town centers.

● Create a statewide contractor registry to protect against consumer fraud in residential construction projects with a value of over $10,000.

● Increase the Department of Fire Safety’s capacity to conduct rental inspections.

Overall, these investments — a total of over $90 million when combined with mid-year budget adjustments dedicated to emergency shelter and low-income housing — will enable us to provide more safe, healthy, and affordable housing as soon as we can. We’ve advanced funding and policy that will make a dent in our critical housing needs, while establishing pilot programs that could provide a template for future investment on a state and federal level.

II. Investing in Workforce and Economic Development

S.11 is a significant workforce and economic development bill that addresses the negative economic impacts of COVID on our employers, workers, and families and establishes opportunities to grow Vermont’s economy. The bill creates or enhances programs to increase workforce participation and reinforce and sustain workers in nursing, mental health care, childcare, and the trades. It includes scholarships, forgivable loans, education, training, and intern- ship programs. S.11 provides for economic development programs to support businesses and municipalities, sick leave related to COVID, and tax credits. It also assists specific sectors, including the creative economy.

In total, $113.5 million is appropriated using ARPA and General and Education Funds to achieve these goals. A few highlights include:

● Forgivable loans for businesses ($19 million)

● Creative economy ($9 million)

● Nursing and healthcare ($12.5 million)

● Trades ($4.5 million)

● COVID paid family leave ($15.18 million)

● Unemployment insurance ($8 million)

● Community recovery and revitalization grant program ($10 million)

● Downtown and village tax credit ($2.45 million)

● Continuation of Everyone Eats program ($1.3 million)

III. Financial Stability for Our Public Pension System

The General Assembly has put the State’s public pension system on a path toward long- term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and other state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Legislators balanced commitments — one to state employees and teachers and another to Vermont taxpayers — in the face of a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that would have continued to grow with- out action.

Act 114 is the result of 15 months of hard work to engage Vermonters in a shared and sustainable solution. The State of Vermont will contribute $200 million in one-time surplus revenues. Meanwhile, teachers and state employees will increase and restructure their contributions — higher-income workers will pay a higher percentage of their income — and accept a small adjustment to cost-of-living increases. These savings will be re-invested into the pension system to retire the debt sooner.

In all, these changes will eliminate $2 billion of unfunded liability and ensure retirement security and healthcare certainty for retired teachers and state employees for years to come. The law represents the culmination of months of hard work and negotiation by the Pension Task Force, made up of legislators, public employees, and an administration employee. Through that collaboration, we won unequivocal tripartisan support and got a deal across the finish line.

The Governor vetoed the bill, but the House and Senate voted unanimously to override. The resounding override sends a clear and strong signal of support for our hard-working teachers and state employees. This is the first time in State history that both chambers have voted unanimously to override a veto.

Act 114 gives our teachers and state employees peace of mind: They will have their hard-earned pension when they retire.

IV. Reproductive Liberty as a Constitutional Right

For many decades, Vermont has recognized reproductive choices as deeply personal, fundamental rights that should be free from governmental or political restrictions. Reproductive choices affect all Vermonters in their freedom to become a parent, use birth control, or choose or refuse sterilization.

This session, after a four-year, deliberate, and inclusive legislative process, the House passed Proposal 5 by an overwhelming majority. If ratified by the voters in November, Prop 5 will enshrine reproductive liberty into our State’s constitution, ensuring that these rights are preserved for future generations.

While the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn federal protections provided by Roe vs. Wade, and many states across the country are slipping backwards in their laws regarding reproductive liberty, Vermonters will now be able to vote these values into our State Constitution this November, a historic opportunity at a critical time for our nation.

V. Environmental Protection

A. Clean Water

The legislature continues to support clean water for Vermont and Vermonters. This includes investing in water, sewer, and stormwater infra- structure and programs that improve community resilience to climate change impacts, such as flooding.

In total, Vermont received $1.2 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. In the FY22 budget, $100 million of that amount was designated for water and sewer investments. The FY23 budget allocates an additional $104 million. This includes:

● $31 million for permitting, design, and construction support in certain stormwater retro- fit projects

● $15 million to support design and construction of community-scale water and decentralized wastewater projects to reinforce underserved designated centers

● $5 million to municipalities, businesses, and nonprofits to install or enhance pretreatment processes to address high-strength or toxic wastes

● $10 million to municipalities with small and primarily residential customer bases to up- grade or replace water or wastewater treatment systems at risk of failure

● $20 million to assist municipalities to design and construct projects to reduce or eliminate wet weather sewer overflows

● $6.5 million for improving water and wastewater systems at coop-owned and nonprofit mobile home parks

● $15 million to replace failed on-site water and wastewater supplies for Vermonters with low income or who are unable to access or afford market rate loans

● $1.5 million to update leaking service lines and old plumbing and replace outdated fixtures with high-efficiency devices

Looking ahead, $355 million more is anticipated for water investments through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Funds are anticipated mid to late summer: $9.5 million to the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund (CWSRF) this year, increasing to $13 million by 2026; and $19 million to the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) this year, increasing to $26 million by 2026. In each of five years there will also be $30 million for lead service line replacement.

Anticipated this year for tackling PFAS- chemical contaminants is $500,000 to the CWSRF, increasing to $1.125 million by 2026, as well as $8 million for five years to the DWSRF. There will also be $8 million per year for five years targeting Lake Champlain water quality projects. This federal IIJA funding is in addition to an ongoing annual appropriation of $6 million through the EPA/Lake Champlain Basin Program. There are, addition- ally, millions anticipated to help clean up twelve Superfund sites and more than 5,000 brownfield properties in Vermont.

In 2022, the legislature also passed H.466 with strong tri-partisan support. This bill creates a program to track and manage our State’s surface water withdrawals. The program ensures that there is adequate surface water, even at times of drought, to meet our water needs and maintain water quality standards now and into the future. A major housing bill, S.226, also contains flood- plain protection incentives to reduce the flood damage risks that face our communities.

B. Investing in Climate Action

The State’s FY23 budget includes $566.7 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Of that amount, $129.8 million is allocated for weatherization and other climate change mitigation investments. These allocations are informed by the knowledge that, in Vermont, transportation and thermal (building heating) are the sectors that pose the greatest challenges in reducing greenhouse emissions. They include:

● $45 million to the Home Weatherization Assistance Program for lower-income households

● $35 million to the Electric Efficiency Fund for weatherization incentives to Vermonters of moderate income

● $2 million to support continued build- out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure along highway networks

● $20 million to provide low- and moderate-income households with financial and technical assistance to upgrade home electrical systems to enable installation of energy saving technologies, plus $5 million to install, at low or no cost, heat-pump water heaters

● $15 million to improve landscape resilience and mitigate flood hazards

● $2 million to help low- and moderate-in- come households purchase electric equipment for heating, cooling, and vehicle charging, plus support for municipal back-up electricity storage installations

● $4.8 million to provide farms with help implementing soil-based practices that improve soil quality and nutrient retention, increase crop production, minimize erosion potential, and re- duce waste discharges

● $1 million for the Urban and Community Forestry Program to plant up to 5,000 trees to improve air quality and reduce heat island effects

The FY23 budget also includes climate investments from the General and Transportation Funds: $32.2 million and $600,000 respectively. These allocations support electric vehicle charging infrastructure, electrification incentives, and investments in public transportation.

One final investment in this category is $8 million from the General Fund to provide up to 70% reimbursement to municipal and cooperative electrical distribution utilities for implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure. This infrastructure provides information necessary to improve energy efficiency, while also helping utilities manage costs and improve customer service.

C. Helping Vermonters Switch to Clean Heat

The House and Senate passed H.715, the Clean Heat Standard (“CHS”), to put Vermont on a path to a more affordable, lower-emissions energy future. The CHS is the most significant policy recommended in Vermont’s Climate Action Plan and the most important climate bill passed by the legislature this year.

The CHS would obligate companies selling heating fuel in Vermont to lower greenhouse gas emissions over time. The requirements could be met by delivering a range of clean heat alternatives — heat pumps, weatherization, advanced wood heating — that reduce fossil fuel consumption, or by displacing some fossil fuel delivery with lower carbon-intensity biofuels. Consumers would continue to have a choice with their heating options and would benefit from more incentives when they choose cleaner heat alternatives.

In early May, the Governor vetoed H.715. In his letter to the General Assembly, he requested that the CHS return to the legislature for final review before its 2025 approval and that the bill include more analysis of CHS costs and impacts. In fact, the final bill had included these measures so it is unclear why the Governor used these rationales to justify his veto. Unfortunately, the House was one vote short of overriding the veto.

The climate crisis is a threat to our com- munity and our prosperity and we cannot afford to delay action. We must move forward to help all Vermonters adapt our lives, communities, and businesses to the accelerating effects of climate change in a way that leaves no one behind.

D. Protecting Biodiversity

Vermont biodiversity has been declining precipitously in recent decades. The State continues to lose forest cover, and the remaining forest is increasingly fragmented. H.606 establishes
the goals of conserving 30% of the State’s land by 2030 and 50% by 2050. The Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources will develop a plan to meet these goals using Vermont Conservation Design as a guide.

VCD is a state-created map of “the areas of the state that are of highest priority for maintaining ecological integrity.” Conservation would be achieved through a combination of private, state, and federal land. To further these goals, H.697 extends the Use Value (Current Use) program to include reserve forestland under certain conditions. Reserve forestland is land that is managed for the purpose of attaining old forest values and functions. This extension encourages the management of land for old forests, which currently comprise less than one percent of Vermont’s forestland. Protecting old forests is important as they are more complex than young forests and thus harbor greater biodiversity.

VI. Judiciary Committee Work

A. Advancing Firearm Safety Measures

Some of our most at-risk Vermonters are those fleeing domestic violence. The majority
of all homicides in Vermont are domestic violence-related, and almost everyone involves a firearm. Act 87 helps address this danger by clarifying that judges can order the relinquishment of firearms in an emergency Relief from Abuse Order to remove guns from emotional, potentially dangerous situations.

The law advances further important public safety measures. It removes firearms from other potentially volatile situations—and protects our frontline health care workers—by banning fire- arms from hospitals. The law also protects Vermonters by extending the amount of time some- one must wait to purchase a firearm when their criminal background check is delayed.

B. Identifying Racial Disparities in Vermont’s Criminal Justice System

We continue to work toward a fairer and more equitable Vermont. But we know that Vermonters of color are much more likely to be stopped by law enforcement than white Vermonters. We also know that Black Vermonters make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated persons in our State. To help identify and address the sources of these disparities, we need better data from the State’s criminal justice system.

To that end, H.546 creates a Division of Racial Justice Statistics. The new division will collect data on individual interactions with law enforcement, State’s Attorneys, Vermont courts, the Department of Corrections, and other entities to uncover and remedy systemic racial bias and disparities in our criminal and juvenile justice system. An advisory council has also been created to incorporate the data into suggestions for concrete actions the legislature can take as we strive to make our State welcoming to people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

C. Access to Adoption Records

Act 100 allows adopted Vermonters to access their original birth certificates. During testimony on this bill, many adoptees spoke movingly on how incomplete they felt, how difficult it was to move on without having birth documents — access that most Vermonters take for granted. With passage of this law, adopted Vermonters— over 30,000 of our neighbors—will own their history in a way previously denied to them. It also creates a registry for future birth parents to clarify if they wish to be contacted by children they have felt the need to give up for adoption. This registry also allows them to share any information they wish their birth children to know, making this process kinder for both birth parents and adoptees.

D. Medical Monitoring for Vermonters Exposed to Toxic Substances

Over the past several years, Vermonters have been disturbed to learn of several incidents of toxic contamination in our State. People exposed to these toxic substances often have
no way of knowing what the long-term consequences could be for their health. But they may not have the financial means to afford the medical monitoring that could catch health issues at an early stage when treatment would be most beneficial. Act 93 provides a cause of action for compelling the party responsible for exposure to a toxic substance to cover the costs of medical monitoring of those affected by the contamination. It lifts a burden of uncertainty off Vermonters coping with long-term health concerns through no fault of their own.

VII. Advancing Equity

A. Amending Vermont’s Constitution to Address Slavery

Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777 when it ratified its first constitution. But the ban is not absolute. As currently written, the prohibition against slavery only applies to people over the age of 21. Additionally, under the current language, the Constitution does not bar a Vermonter over 21 from consenting to being bound into slavery. Proposal 2 would amend Article 1, Chapter 1 of the Vermont Constitution, replacing this original section with language stating plainly that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Changing the State constitution is a four-year process. The legislature must approve proposed language in two successive biennia.

In early February 2022, the legislature gave its second vote of approval. The proposed amendment will be on the ballot for all Vermont voters to consider in November 2022. Some may question the need for this change because slavery has been outlawed in the United States since 1865. The unfortunate reality in 2022 is that forms of modern slavery, such as sex trafficking and the labor of undocumented immigrants, still exist in this country and Vermont has not been spared. Given the continuing challenges with racism in our society, passing Prop 2 sends a crucial message about the aspirations we have for our State and how all Vermonters deserve to be treated.

B. Truth and Reconciliation Commission

If signed by the Governor, Act 128 establishes the Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission will spend three years examining systemic discrimination that has been caused or permitted by State laws and policies. Its final report, due by June 2026, will detail findings and recommend steps Vermont can take to eliminate institutional, structural, and systemic discrimination, and to address the related harm. Progress reports are due every year to the legislature. In creating a Vermont that works for all of us, it’s essential to seek out the voices of com- munities that have been and remain impacted by discrimination and racism, to learn from their experiences and work with them to eliminate disparities and redress harms.

C. Expanding Access, Lowering Barriers to Safe and Affordable Housing

In 2015, the General Assembly created a revolving fund within the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. That fund, the Down Payment Assistance Program, assists first-time homebuyers who meet income-based criteria. The program has been very successful. From 2015 through March of 2022, it has provided $7,474,098 in loans to 1,565 borrowers. If signed by the Governor, S.226 would expand the program to include a $1 million grant program for first-time homebuyers who are also first-generation buyers. The bill recognizes that Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color have historically lacked access to capital for home ownership and have been systemically discriminated against in the housing market. It directs the Housing Finance Agency to work with community racial justice organizations to develop an outreach plan, which would ensure that down payment assistance opportunities are effectively communicated, and that funds are equitably available, to communities of Vermonters who have historically suffered housing discrimination.

S.226 also would amend provisions of the Vermont public accommodations and fair housing laws. Those laws are currently under-enforced because Vermont courts inconsistently apply the current standards for harassment and discrimination claims in the sale or rental of a dwelling
or real estate. S.226 clarifies and simplifies those standards to remove barriers to such claims. (In a separate bill, H.729, the statute of limitations for filing such claims is extended to six years.)

Finally, S.226 would establish an advisory Land Access Opportunity Board, composed of representatives of groups that have faced historic discrimination in land and home ownership. The new board will work with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and its partners to re- duce current disparities as a result of that dis- crimination.

D. Supporting Transgender Youth

Recognizing that several states have restricted or banned access to best practice medical care for transgender youth, the General Assembly in J.R.S.53 affirmed its support for transgender youth who seek essential medical care for the treatment of gender dysphoria. Mi- nor patients, their parents, and their healthcare providers should have the freedom to decide what medical care is appropriate in accordance with current medical best practices. In the resolution, the General Assembly commits to exploring all available options to ensure that transgender youth and their families are safe in Vermont and able to make the best medical care decisions for themselves in consultation with their healthcare providers.

E. Pupil Weighting Factors

In Vermont, we take seriously our collective responsibility for educating all our students in every corner of the State. This year, Act 127, we took significant steps to update our education funding system to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students. For example, it costs more to achieve equivalent educational outcomes for English language learners or children from economically-deprived backgrounds than for children who are not in those cohorts. S.287 modifies the educational funding mechanism to provide districts with the resources needed to achieve strong outcomes for all students.

VIII. Education

A. Mental Health Support for Educators and Students

The COVID pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on the social, emotional, and mental health of Vermont’s school communities. Act 112 taps into $3 million in federal stimulus funds to establish a two-year program that will offer COVID recovery support for teachers and staff ($500,000) and provide grants to expand mental health and wellbeing services for children and youth ($2.5 million).

The student-focused grants can be used for a wide variety of programs, such as expanding school-based counseling and after-school or summer programs. Grant recipients must work closely with teachers, school counselors, and staff to provide one-on-one or small-group sessions that address important topics like resilience, sub- stance abuse, suicide prevention, social isolation, and anxiety. The grants will target geographically diverse and underserved regions in Vermont.

B. Free Universal Breakfast and Lunch for the 2022–2023 School Year

Vermont made huge strides in combating food insecurity during the pandemic. With federal support, public schools provided free breakfast and lunch for all students during the last two school years. But this federal funding ends in June 2022. To maintain this critical program, the legislature passed S.100 to continue universal school meals through the 2022–2023 school year with $29 million from the Education Fund surplus.

S.100 reduces hunger and erases stigma in our schools by ensuring that a nutritious break- fast and lunch are available to all students. Under the pre-pandemic program, not all food-insecure students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunch; the income limit was set very low, at $32,227 for a single parent with one child. During the upcoming school year, we will collect data around the cost of universal school meals and study potential long-term funding opportunities for this program.

C. School Construction Updates

This year the legislature continued its work on school facilities statewide, including obtaining an inventory and conditions assessment of Vermont’s school buildings. It covered 305 schools and made initial assessments on safety, security, technology, and systems such as roofing, HVAC, plumbing, and fire suppression and prevention. Additional assessment is ongoing. Schools must also conduct radon testing by 2025.

D. Investing in Childcare

Vermonters spend more of their income on childcare than the citizens of any other State. Vermont parents of toddlers spend an average of one quarter of their annual income on childcare. Even for those who can afford it, quality childcare is scarce. To meet that demand, we need to create more than 8,000 new slots. Over the past four years, the legislature has been working to help in many different ways, including:

● Expansion of the Child Care Financial Assistance Program eligibility requirement from 300% to 350% of the federal poverty level

● Elimination of co-pays for all families below 150% of poverty level

● Early educator access to a loan repayment program of $700,000 and a scholarship program of $1.8 million

● A study looking into the goals of no family paying more than 10% of income for childcare and higher compensation for early childhood educators

● $27 million of Vermont’s ARPA funds invested in childcare stabilization

in FY22 budget adjustment and $1 million added in FY23 budget

● $800,000 a year for capacity grants to create more slots in childcare centers with a focus on ages 0 to 3

● $125,000 grants to students pursuing early childhood education careers

● $6,000,000 for childcare from unallocated reserves if we have at least $86 million in undesignated funds at the end of FY22

● $6 million added for retention bonuses

IX. A Balanced and Transformative State Budget

The FY2023 state budget (H.740) totals $8.3 billion, a 5 percent increase over the current fiscal year. The budget honors the commitment the legislature made at the beginning of the pan- demic: to support Vermonters, their families, and their communities across all 14 counties, and to leave no one behind in a strong statewide recovery.

That commitment includes investing $453.7 million in federal COVID relief in five broad areas: Economy, Workforce, and Communities; Housing; Broadband Connectivity; Climate Action; and Clean Water. Those investments, added to FY2022 investments, complete the allocations
of the $1.2 billion received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The budget includes a long-overdue rate increase of 8 percent to community mental health providers, designated agencies, specialized service agencies, and home health care providers. It provides millions to support substance abuse disorder prevention and recovery. It includes increased funds for Adult Day programs, Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont Health Care Advocate.

We’re investing $96 million in broadband projects and $137.8 million in community, work- force, and economic development. The University of Vermont base budget is increased by $10 mil- lion, the first increase in 14 years. The Vermont State College System also has a base increase of $10 million, plus $14.9 million to serve as a “bridge” in their ongoing transition to fiscal and operational stability. Coverage is expanded by $4.9 million for working families within the Child Care Financial Assistance Program.

This year’s investments in housing pro- grams, including the “missing middle” and manufactured housing, tally $90 million. Transformational climate and water initiatives include $80 million for weatherization and $45 million for municipal energy resilience grants. There is also $8 million for advanced metering infrastructure and over $60 million for additional electrification initiatives.

Judiciary Committee 2022 Accomplishments

The legislature’s work in the 2021-22 Biennium resulted in major accomplishments, including investing significant funds in housing and workforce development, putting the State’s public pensions on a path to sustainability, and assisting vulnerable Vermonters. The House Judiciary Committee on which I serve also produced important legislation that may not have received as much attention. Below, I focus on four of those bills from this past Session.

Firearm Safety Measures.  Some of our most at-risk Vermonters are those fleeing domestic violence. The majority of all homicides in Vermont are domestic violence-related, and usually involve a firearm. Act 87 helps address this danger by clarifying that judges can order the relinquishment of firearms in an emergency relief from abuse order to remove guns from emotional, potentially dangerous situations.

The law advances other important public safety measures.  It removes firearms from potentially volatile situations—and protects our frontline healthcare workers—by banning firearms from hospitals. The law also protects Vermonters by extending the amount of time someone must wait to purchase a firearm when their criminal background check is delayed.

 Identifying Racial Disparities in Vermont’s Criminal Justice System. Vermonters of color make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated persons in our state. To help identify and address the sources of these disparities, we need better data from the State’s criminal justice system. To that end, H.546 creates a Division of Racial Justice Statistics. The new division will collect data on individual interactions with law enforcement, State’s Attorneys, Vermont courts, the Department of Corrections, and other entities in order to uncover and remedy systemic racial bias and disparities in our criminal and juvenile justice system. An advisory council has also been created to incorporate the data collected into suggestions for concrete actions the legislature can take as we strive to make our state welcoming to people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.         

Access to Adoption Records.  Act 100 allows adopted Vermonters to access their original birth certificates. During testimony on this bill, many adoptees spoke movingly on how incomplete they felt and how difficult it was to move on without having birth documents — access that most Vermonters take for granted. With passage of this law, adopted Vermonters—over 30,000 of our neighbors—will own their history in a way previously denied to them. It also creates a registry for future birth parents to clarify if they wish to be contacted by children they given up for adoption. This registry also allows them to share any information they wish their birth children to know, making this process kinder for both birth parents and adoptees.

Medical Monitoring for Vermonters Exposed to Toxic Substances. Over the past several years, Vermonters have been disturbed to learn of several instances of toxic contamination in our state. People exposed to these toxic substances often have no way of knowing what the long-term consequences could be for their health. They also may not have the financial means to afford the medical monitoring that could catch health issues at an early stage, when treatment would be most beneficial. Act 93 provides a cause of action for compelling the party responsible for exposure to a toxic substance to cover the costs of medical monitoring to those affected by the contamination. It lifts a burden of uncertainty off Vermonters coping with long-term health concerns through no fault of their own.

One effort that did not make it across the finish line involved restructuring Vermont’s criminal code. The House passed three bills that dealt with this issue (H.87, H.475, and H.505), but the Senate Judiciary Committee was unable to take them up before the Session ended. I am excited to be running to return to the State House and, if I am reelected, one of my priorities will be to finish this work.

More Choices for Clean and Affordable Heat

Recognizing the trajectory of climate change and the adverse impacts on Vermont if it goes unchecked, the Vermont General Assembly passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020. The GWSA set legally-binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It requires the State to reduce greenhouse gas pollution 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 at the end of last year.

During the current session, Vermont’s General Assembly is continuing to do its part to limit our contribution to the climate crisis. It is advancing policies that reduce reliance on fossil fuels in a manner that has the added benefit of saving money for Vermonters.

The Clean Heat Standard, which has passed the Vermont House and is being considered by the Senate, is such a policy. Heating homes and businesses produces greenhouse gases that account for one-third of Vermont’s carbon pollution. As determined in the Vermont Climate Council’s Climate Action Plan, significantly reducing pollution from heating buildings is one of the most consequential actions we can take to reduce carbon emissions and transition Vermont’s economy away from reliance on fossil fuels. 

The Clean Heat Standard would make sellers of fossil heating fuels accountable for the greenhouse gas impact of those fuels. Fuel sellers would be required to obtain “clean heat credits” in proportion to their sales.  The number of required credits increases gradually over time. Increased credits would result in increased use of cleaner heating options that, in turn, would lead to reduced use of fossil fuels and their greenhouse gas emissions.

To obtain credits, fuel sellers can help their customers reduce carbon pollution from their homes and businesses by weatherizing or switching to less-polluting fuels. Credits could be obtained by offering a range of clean heat alternatives such as electric heat pumps or advanced wood heating systems. They can be obtained by reducing fossil fuel consumption through replacing some fossil fuel delivery with biofuels.

Fuel dealers that import fossil fuels into the State would thereby take on the responsibility to move toward less-polluting heating options. It would be up to them to obtain the necessary clean heat credits by incentivizing consumers to weatherize their homes or buildings or to move to less polluting heating options. Consumers would continue to have a choice of the heating options that work best for them, but fuel dealers would be spurred to provide incentives that would prioritize the lowest-cost, best emissions-reducing options.

Dependence on fossil fuels for heating — especially propane and fuel oil — is expensive, with unpredictable price swings for Vermont consumers. By encouraging cleaner heating options that do not rely on fossil fuels, the Clean Heat Standard would help Vermonters switch to lower cost, more price-stable options like heat pumps powered with clean electricity. It would reduce our vulnerability to the volatility of fossil-fuel prices, like we are experiencing now. This change will be most beneficial to low-income Vermonters, who pay the highest percentage of their household income on heating bills.

It is possible that fuel dealers may increase the price of fossil fuels under the program to recoup the cost of acquiring clean heat credits. But there is no evidence that the policy will lead to substantial price increases in fossil fuels. The closest example to the Clean Heat Standard is Oregon’s Clean Fuels Standard. Oregon’s experience has been that, for every 5% reduction in emissions, the effect on fossil fuel prices has only been about a 1% increase. And the standard aims to replace the use of fossil fuels overall.

The Clean Heat Standard bill provides an overall policy direction – with clear parameters and guardrails – that will be implemented by the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC will conduct the necessary processes to implement the law, including public hearings, technical analysis, compliance, and verification. The Clean Heat Standards would not go into effect for two-and-a-half years after the law is passed. There will be plenty of time for the PUC to do its work, stakeholders to weigh in, and fuel dealers to transition to the Standard’s requirements. The Clean Heat Standard would give Vermonters more choices for clean, cost-effective, and price-stable heat over time while also doing our part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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.