The following highlights some of the work of the State House during the first eight weeks of the Session.
Review of Statutes of Limitations: The House Judiciary Committee is seeking to extend the statute of limitations for several crimes, including manslaughter, first-degree domestic assault, and sexual exploitation of a minor. These extensions will help ensure that even if a criminal investigation goes on for several years—or in the cases of the most vulnerable victims, if knowledge of a crime does not reach law enforcement for years—the Vermont judicial system will still be able to see justice served.
Expungement and Criminal Justice Reform: Many Vermonters with a single criminal offense on their records may be prevented from improving their lives in many ways, including finding a better job. The House Judiciary Committee is working to increase the types of convictions eligible to be expunged from a criminal record. Vermonters who have lived as law-abiding citizens for years can have the chance to move on from a troubled past.
Bias-Motivated Crimes: The House Judiciary Committee is studying bias-motivated crimes so that Vermonters need not fear for their safety or the safety of their families because of others’ prejudice against their race, religion, sex, gender identity, disability, or similar status. The Committee is looking at changes in the law that could help Vermonters swiftly stop such harassment.
Fair and Impartial Policing: The House Judiciary Committee continues its work on fair and impartial policing. The Committee’s efforts have recently focused on allowing local law enforcement agencies to keep information regarding citizenship and immigration status confidential to a greater degree than the existing fair and impartial policing model policy currently allows.
Childhood Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations: The Committee is also working to ensure justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse by removing the statue of limitations on when civil actions addressing such crimes can be brought (H.330). Current law only allows for civil actions to be brought no later than six years after the abuse suffered or six years after the victim discovers that an injury or condition was caused by abuse. Many victims of such crimes are not ready to move forward with public disclosure until decades after the abuse took place (the average age of disclosure is 52). Removing the statue of limitations on civil actions will allow victims to move forward when they are able to do so.
The Right to an Attorney: Roughly 10% of those charged with a crime are not eligible for a public defender. H.342 would require that public defender services be available to any person charged with a crime, thus easing the challenges of navigating the criminal justice system for people unable to afford represenation.
Creating an Education System for All of Us: The House is committed to eradicating structural racism to build a truly just and equitable society. People of all races and genders who live in, work in, and visit Vermont should feel welcome and safe. One of the first bills the House Education Committee took up this year was H.3, the ethnic studies bill. The bill aims to identify structural racism, reduce bias, and build a culture of equity in Vermont schools. The State should teach students the history of all of us, including ethnic and social groups that have been historically marginalized, harassed, discriminated against, or persecuted.
The bill would establish a working group to review Vermont’s education standards on ethnic studies. By June 2021, the task force would recommend any updated or new standards to the State Board of Education. If adopted, each school would then be guided by these standards in reviewing—and, if necessary, revamping—its classroom practices, curriculum, and extracurricular programs.
Assessing the Needs of our School Buildings: Our schools are the bedrock of Vermont communities. However, the buildings that make up our school infrastructure are old and, in some cases, require substantial construction updates. The House is looking at the needs of our schools to ensure that all our students learn in safe, healthy environments.
The Education Committee is reviewing a bill (H.138) that would require the Vermont Department of Health to perform radon tests in schools and establish a statewide radon mitigation study. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and children are particularly vulnerable to exposure.
The Education Committee is also taking up S.40, a bill that would require all schools and childcare facilities to test their drinking and cooking water for lead by the end of 2019. The Senate bill, which passed by a unanimous vote, would set a stricter standard than the level currently required by the State or the EPA. The State would pay for the testing, while the cost of remediation would be evenly split between the school and the State.
Finally, the Education Committee is reviewing a bill (H.209) that would require periodic capital needs assessments of every school building in the state, including deferred maintenance, and end the moratorium on state construction aid. The bill would prioritize projects that are emergencies or the result of Act 46 school consolidations. Except for emergency projects, state school-construction aid has been suspended since 2007.
E-Cigarettes & Vaping: In December 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General declared that e-cigarette use among teens was an epidemic. New data shows a 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students in just one year (2017-2018), which also saw middle school use increase by 48%.
According to Dr. Mark Levine, the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, e-cigarettes cause youth to become addicted to nicotine while their brains are still forming. Teens who use e-cigarettes are four times more likely to become regular tobacco users. Companies advertise to teens on social media, market an enormous assortment of flavors, use cool design and packaging to increase appeal, and sell to minors via the Internet.
The legislature has taken a multi-pronged approach to addressing this issue. First, the Vermont House voted to pass a bill (H.47) that places a substantial excise tax on the liquids and delivery devices of e-cigarettes to discourage use among youth, who are the most price-sensitive consumers. Just as we tax other tobacco products, 92% of the wholesale value of e-cigarettes will be collected at the licensed distributor level and used for prevention purposes. Second, the Senate passed S.86, which increases the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. Third, the House Human Resources Committee passed H.26, which will restrict the Internet sale of e-cigarettes, liquid nicotine, and tobacco paraphernalia in Vermont. The House will vote on H.26 when it returns from its Town Meeting break.
Climate Solutions: The Climate Solutions Caucus is a working caucus of the Vermont legislature, comprised of over eighty members from the House and Senate, who collaborate to enact meaningful responses to the crisis of climate change. After hearing detailed reports evaluating evidence-based approaches from consultants hired by the legislature, the Climate Solutions Caucus is advocating for key investments in the 2020 budget. These include doubling the number of homes covered by the State’s weatherization assistance program, using VW settlement money to help Vermonters transition to electric vehicles, maintaining the Clean Energy Development Fund to assist with alternative heating sources, and fully funding the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. The Caucus is also pushing to create a Climate Budget that allows us to more clearly measure and weigh these important investments. Additionally, the Caucus is advocating for key policies — from bans on new fossil fuel infrastructure to a Global Warming Solutions Act that holds us to our emissions reduction goals, and much more.
Electric Vehicle Incentives and Infrastructure: Vermont is one of the cleanest, most environmentally pristine states in our country. Our environment and the jobs it creates are under threat from climate change. Weaning our economy off of fossil fuels and generating more of Vermont’s energy locally not only address climate change, they strengthen our economic future.
Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan provides that about 50,000 Electric Vehicles (EVs) should be on Vermont roads by 2025. Other statistics show that if Vermont switched all of our gasoline-powered cars and trucks over to electric today, that would save Vermonters $500 million in fuel costs every year. This year’s transportation bill includes a proposal for a pilot incentive program that would help households purchase an EV: $2,500 off of the purchase of an EV or plug-in hybrid at the point of sale. There are proposed limits on the income of those who would receive grants (140% of median household income, about $75,000) and the base value of the vehicle.
With only about 3,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids registered in Vermont today, the House Transportation Committee is discussing ways to leverage funds received from lawsuits against VW and Fiat-Chrysler to enhance the proposed EV incentive program. Additionally, the Department of Environmental Conservation and VTrans are proposing to spend VW settlement money on EV charging infrastructure grants, an electric school bus pilot program, and other efforts to limit emissions from “clean diesel” vehicles.
The Governor’s Climate Action Commission recommended that all of these funds be spent on EV charging infrastructure and incentives to help improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Proposed funding for EV charging projects in the next year have the goal of putting a DCFC Level 3 “Fast Charger” within 30 miles of every Vermonter. The House Transportation Committee will continue to look at ways to build out our EV infrastructure so more Vermonters can take advantage of this emerging transportation option.
Act 250: Act 250 was enacted in 1970 to address Vermonters’ concerns over impacts to the environment and on their communities from unregulated housing developments. The law regulates certain kinds of developments at the State level, on top of any existing local review, in order to protect and conserve State lands and to ensure they will be devoted to uses not detrimental to the public. After 50 years and many requests to update and amend Act 250, the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee is considering draft legislation based upon a report written by a commission tasked with planning for the next 50 years of the law. As the House deliberates on draft Act 250 legislation, it is considering changes that would prevent the fragmentation of important farmland, forestland, and critical resources. Act 250 would thus apply to smaller-scale development, preventing “death by a thousand cuts” to critical Vermont resource areas. The Committee is also considering enhanced designations for areas that achieve the goals of Act 250 locally: to safeguard our farms and forests from sprawl, protect our natural resources, and help our towns to balance growth with the costs of development.
Water Quality Initiatives: Vermont’s pristine environment is central to the appeal of the Vermont brand. But for years, pollution has harmed the health of our waterways. Today, harmful runoff has caused toxic algae blooms and other terrible pollution across the State. The Vermont House is committed to putting in place a sustainable, long-term funding source to clean up our streams, rivers, and lakes.
This year, the capital budget provides for $12 million for the State’s clean water funding in the form of loans and grant programs that are managed by the Agency of Agriculture, the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). These dollars are used to fund several initiatives: equipment for improving water quality on farms; loans for construction of municipal stormwater, wastewater and water quality projects; and land conservation to protect waterways and watersheds. VHCB is funded through the property transfer tax and federal grants, but even though property transfer tax receipts are up $3 million, the Scott Administration has proposed a $1 million reduction to VCHB’s conservation spending. VHCB is requesting that the House work to restore that funding, which will be decided after Town Meeting.
The House is also reviewing other avenues to establish an ongoing funding mechanism for cleaning the State’s waterways. One such avenue may involve advanced light detection imaging, along with updated parcel mapping, to allow authorities to see exactly where Vermont’s land is covered in impervious surfaces, which do not absorb stormwater runoff. The accuracy of these methods makes it possible to assess impervious surface fees statewide as a possible sustainable revenue source to fund water clean-up over the next 28 years. When Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce completed her clean water funding study in 2016, she concluded that to raise funds to clean Vermont’s waters, Vermonters need to be “all in” and that any revenue collected should have a nexus to clean water. Impervious surface fees fit both criteria. Further, if collected at the town level on property tax bills, the cost of administration is hoped to be relatively low.
The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee is working with the Ways and Means Committee to pursue other potential revenue sources. Two of these sources are suggested in a bill to fund water quality (H.171): a Water Quality Occupancy Surcharge on all short-term room rentals, such as hotel rooms and other similar accommodations, and reinstatement of the Clean Water Surcharge on the Property Transfer Tax. The House will continue its work to identify sustainable, long-term funding sources to clean up our polluted waterways and protect our environment.
Pollinator Protection: In recent years, scientists have become concerned about the health of our pollinators, which include domesticated honeybees and native pollinators like bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, and several other species including birds and bats. To some, getting rid of bugs might be tempting but our pollinators serve a vital function that cannot be replicated. They help produce the food we eat and without them our diets would look very different.
We have lost approximately 40% of the insect population in recent years and that loss may be due to more prolific use of chemical pesticides. In order to protect pollinator populations, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee is working on a bill (H.205) that would require regulation of the sale and application of neonicotinoid pesticides. The bill also requires the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets to register, as a restricted-use pesticide, any neonicotinoid pesticide labeled as approved for outdoor use that is distributed, sold, or offered for sale in the State. Certain products, including treated article seed and pet products, would be exempt from this registration requirement. The registration fee would be used to provide educational services, technical assistance, and increased inspection services related to neonicotinoid pesticides and pollinator health.
Making Vermont Affordable for Families: Many young families in Vermont have difficulty purchasing a home and finding childcare. The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development has been looking at obstacles to economic development in our State. We recognize that many working Vermonters count on affordable housing, reliable early childcare, and after-school programs to be successful employees.
The problem of affordable housing varies across the State, but rents are generally high and in most regions buying a home can be out of reach for working Vermonters. The House is partnering with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Home Finance Agency to make home ownership possible through creative programs offering low-interest loans to support first-time home buyers.
Childcare: Childcare is a top priority for the House. Access to high-quality, affordable childcare in our communities is critical to giving all of Vermont’s children a fair shot at a bright future as well as giving both parents the opportunity to work if they choose to do so.
Quality childcare is too expensive for many families. At the same time, childcare professionals are not always being compensated by a living wage. The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development is trying to address this challenge by looking at different childcare models, including shared services and certificates, internships, and associate degree programs that can advance early childhood education professionals.
The House Human Services Committee is also considering a series of childcare-related bills. Early education in Vermont is a patchwork of 1,246 public and private regulated center-based programs, homes offering childcare, and afterschool programs serving 32,432 Vermont infants, toddlers, and preschool and school-age children.
The last three years have seen a marked decline in the number of childcare slots, a trend recognized by the Agency of Human Services’ Child Development Division with new targeted strategies and investments. These efforts are coupled with the work of advocates who are stepping up to address the problem with new facilities and home-based programs.
While the quality of childcare programs is improving with more providers participating in the STARS program, the State’s quality recognition system, Vermont families still face challenges to access and affordability. Childcare businesses are also struggling to find early learning professionals to replace retired workers in the midst of low unemployment. In the coming months, the Human Services Committee will look closely at the low pay and benefits that childcare providers receive.
Family and Medical Leave Insurance: Today, too many Vermonters face the choice of taking care of a family member or keeping their paycheck. Making paid family and medical leave a part of every job would improve the lives of Vermont’s working families and allow them to take the time they need to keep their family healthy and thriving.
The House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee advanced a bill (H.107) to create a Family and Medical Leave Insurance program for Vermonters. Prior to its passage, the Committee collected feedback from numerous small and large business owners, as well as working Vermonters and their advocates. Compelling testimony illuminated the importance of Family and Medical Leave Insurance to better support Vermonters in all aspects of their lives. Employers testified that these kinds of programs help attract and retain talent, improve employee morale, and save money in the short- and long-term.
The current version of H.107 proposes up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave financed through an insurance premium, shared equally by employers and employees. Ongoing financial modelling continues to demonstrate that universal participation in the program will keep costs low and benefits high.
The House Ways & Means Committee has begun work on H.107. There are a number of decisions to be made regarding the bill, such as what types of leave it will cover. An employee’s own serious illness or disability and family leave are two primary considerations. Family leave can be used to cover care for a seriously ill or injured family member, the employee’s pregnancy, the birth of the employee’s child, or the initial placement of a child age 18 or younger for adoption or foster care. The Committee will also be looking into the long-term costs and viability of the program, how the program will be administered, the level of benefits offered, and the cost share between employer and employee.