Cleaning Up Vermont’s Waterways
Increasingly severe storms resulting from climate change are harming Vermont’s homes, farms, and businesses. Stormwaters scour unprotected topsoils, sending sediment down rivers and streams and into our lakes. That sediment feeds algae blooms and lowers water quality, threatening the survival of the fish and wildlife that depend on clean water. Left unchecked, stormwater reduces access to clean water and water recreation for Vermonters and lowers not only the market value of properties bordering water but also the value of grand lists for the towns in which those properties are located.
The legislature passed S.96, which would create a new way to allocate clean water funding. Prioritizing investment in clean water infrastructure incorporates climate change resilience in bridges, roads, and riparian barriers along the banks of our rivers and streams.
Clean water building projects mean economic growth measured in jobs and in the positive ripple effects on the economy that those jobs create. Clean water building projects mean farmers can prevent phosphorus and nutrient run-off into streams, rivers, and lakes. Clean water building projects mean Vermont can make progress on its path to satisfying its agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce phosphorus runoff into all of the basin’s waters.
Soil health and fertility also ties directly to the cleanup of Lake Champlain. When soil is full of biomatter, it acts like a sponge. Water does not “run off,” but instead it remains and generates growth. This describes regenerative farming. Furthermore, healthy soils and what they support (crops and pasture, forests and wetlands) pull out far more CO2 than sickly soil or parking lots.
The legislature passed S.160, which will jumpstart the pioneering work being done on food system strategies, ecosystem services, and carbon sequestration. Another bill codifies three healthy soil initiatives: the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and the Agriculture Environmental Management Program.
After many years of work and smaller incremental successes, the legislature also finally established a dedicated long-term funding source for the Clean Water Fund. We allocated 6% of the existing rooms and meals tax to the Fund, resulting in $7.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year and almost $12 million thereafter.
The rooms and meals tax, the property tax surcharge, and the escheats (unclaimed deposits), will all go into the Clean Water Fund and will be distributed to projects that reduce the most pollution for our investment. With appropriations through the Capital Bill, the Transportation Bill, and General Fund, the total available for clean water will be $50 million for fiscal year 2020 and $55 million per year thereafter.
Encouraging Electric Vehicles
The transportation bill (H.529) passed by the legislature includes a pilot program to help Vermont take a small step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the $800 million Vermonters spend on fossil fuels imported from out of state for transportation each year. Only about 3,000 plug-in Electric Vehicles are registered in Vermont today. Knowing that our Comprehensive Energy Plan looks to have 45,000 EV’s registered by 2025, this program would offer low to moderate income households a $2,500 incentive (or more for lower income households) toward the purchase or lease of a new or used plug-in EV. Also, this coming year, the Agency of Transportation has the goal of ensuring that there is a Level 3 “fast-charge” station within 30 miles of every Vermonter.
Banning Single-Use Disposable Products
The Governor signed S.113 into law, which bans some single-use disposable products, including single-use carryout plastic bags at point of sale (the plastic bags at retail and grocery stores’ checkout stations), single-use plastic straws (although establishments may offer plastic straws upon request), single-use plastic stirrers, and expanded polystyrene food service products.
The bill aims to help businesses by creating one consistent statewide program, rather than having numerous, municipal-based initiatives across the State, each with a different set of requirements. It will mitigate the harmful effects of these single-use products on the environment and recycling facilities, while relieving pressure on Vermont’s sole landfill to manage the disposition of single-use products. Overtime, this will save all Vermonters money by deferring the need to build additional landfill capacity in the future.
Regulating Toxic Substances in Drinking and Surface Waters
The legislature passed S.49 to regulate polyflouroalkyl substances in drinking and surface waters. Perflouroalkyl and ployflouralkyl substances (PFAS) are used in a wide variety of industrial and commercial processes and are found in everyday products such as non-stick cookware, water- and stain-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, carpets, cosmetics, firefighting foams, and other products that resist grease, water, and oil. These products are bio-accumulative, highly mobile in water, highly resistant to degradation, and toxic to humans in very small concentrations. Manufacturers continue to produce these chemicals and to produce thousands of alternative PFAS that are likely to pose significant health risks.
PFAS have been found in more than 400 drinking water wells in Bennington County, in private and public water supplies near the Southern Vermont Airport in Clarendon, and in a drinking water supply near Shaftsbury Landfill. The bill would establish an interim Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for five PFAS compounds, set deadlines for the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to finalize MCL and surface water standards for these compounds, and require PFAS testing of public water systems. The bill also establishes a public process for ANR to evaluate regulation of PFAS compounds in drinking water, complete a statewide evaluation of sources of PFAS contamination, and evaluate treatment options for PFAS in landfill leachate.
In recent years, the legislature has seen concern over the health of our pollinators, which include domesticated honeybees as well as our native pollinators like bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, and a host of other species including birds and bats. Pollinators serve a very important function, helping to produce the food we eat. It is estimated that we have lost 40% of the insect population in recent years, and one theory is that it is due to more prolific use of chemical pesticides including neonicotinoids.
The Governor signed H.205, an act that requires regulation of the sale and application of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect pollinator populations. The law 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. The increased registration fee for a neonicotinoid pesticide will be used to provide educational services, technical assistance, and increased inspection services related to neonicotinoid pesticides and pollinator health.
Another goal of H.205 is to educate beekeepers about the negative effects of viruses spread by Varroa mites. When they register their hives, beekeepers will be asked to report a current Varroa mite and pest mitigation plan for each registered hive.
The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is tasked with establishing a training program that will address such subjects as bee health, Varroa mite identification and control, identification of common diseases or pests, and proper maintenance of hives. A person who completes the course will be awarded a Vermont Beekeeper Educational Program Certificate.
Increasing Renewable Energy
Increasing the proportion of electricity produced by renewable generation is good for Vermont. The House passed two bills this year to build this capacity. S.95, which awaits the Governor’s signature, doubles the cap on net-metering projects as it applies to school districts. S.95 also sets a timeline for approval of new net-metering applications. H.133, which the Governor has signed into law, updates how small hydro projects get paid, so they receive a fair price. H.133 also adds energy storage systems to the types of electric facilities covered by grid planning and coordination.
Integrating renewable energy into our electric system insulates our economy from fossil-fuel price volatility. It provides more support jobs and keeps more of our utility expenditures in our local economy. It reduces our contribution to climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions. And it enhances our ability to weather the more frequent and more intense storms caused by climate change.
Our Environmental Commitment
Altogether, the FY2020 budget makes a number of investments to address environmental challenges like climate change. This year’s budget includes:
- $2.8 million for electric vehicles and charging stations;
- $38 million for public transit subsidies and park & ride facilities;
- $35 million for rail subsidies and upgrades;
- $16 million for home weatherization assistance for Vermonters of low and moderate income;
- $500,000 for conservation of significant lands for forest integrity and watershed protection;
- $50 million for clean water efforts;
- Funding for working groups on Forest Carbon Sequestration; Carbon Emissions Reduction; Public Transit Ridership; a Transportation & Climate Initiative; the creation of an All Fuels Energy Efficiency Program; Building Energy Labeling; and Ecosystems Services.
- The total budgetary investment in our environment, including existing and new funding, tallies $167 million.
JUDICIARY COMMITTEE ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Statute of Limitations Reform
Sexual abuse of a child often leads to depression, PTSD, alcohol and opioid abuse, and many other health problems. It is an Adverse Childhood Experience that can lead to years of negative impact on the victim. However, victims of childhood sexual abuse often do not disclose the abuse until long after it occurred. Victims are often ashamed of the abuse and keep it secret. They may suffer severe psychological and emotional damage that may not manifest itself until adulthood. Others develop an arsenal of defense mechanisms and may repress memory of the abuse for an extended period of time. In addition, the abuser may be someone the victim trusted or someone in a position of power. These associations can lead victims not to disclose their victimization promptly, if at all. The average age for disclosure of childhood sexual abuse is 52 years old.
Victims of childhood sexual abuse may seek monetary damages from their abuser in a civil action. Under current Vermont law, a victim can bring a civil lawsuit for childhood sexual abuse within six years after the abuse or within six years after the victim has “discovered” that an injury or condition was caused by the abuse. If there is a restrictive statute of limitations, delayed disclosure can prohibit a victim from seeking justice in a courtroom.
The Governor signed H.330, which eliminates the statute of limitations for bringing claims of childhood sexual abuse. Victims would be able to sue their abusers at any time, when they are ready to do so. The law provides that the elimination of the statute of limitations for claims of childhood sexual abuse applies retroactively. That means if a victim’s claim had been barred by the previous statute of limitations, the victim will now be able to bring the claim.
A victim of childhood sexual abuse can also make a claim against an entity that employed, supervised, or had responsibility for the person allegedly committing the sexual abuse if that entity failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent the abuse. This bill eliminates the statute of limitations for that claim as well.
Recognizing the need to protect Vermonters from the impact of toxic chemicals, the Vermont legislature enacted Act 154 in 2016. The law directed the Agency of Natural Resources to convene a working group to address the use and regulation of toxic chemicals. In January 2017, the working group recommended that the legislature should enable individuals to recover the expense of medical monitoring for diseases when they have been exposed to toxic substances due to another’s wrongful conduct.
Medical monitoring is a program designed by experts in the field of public health and medicine. It includes screening and ongoing observation to detect the symptoms of latent diseases linked to exposure to a toxic substance. Monitoring allows for the earliest detection and treatment of these latent diseases. Similar to early detection efforts such as mammograms and colonoscopies, this program ensures the best possible health outcomes at the least cost. It ensures that those harmed are screened and referred for medical care at the earliest possible time when effective treatment can improve outcomes.
Both the House and the Senate passed S.37, which would ensure that the cost of medical monitoring is not borne by the general public or the harmed individuals, as currently is the case. Rather, that cost would be paid by the industrial entity that caused the need for incurring those health costs.
It would not be easy for individuals to prove that they are entitled to the remedy of medical monitoring. Individuals will have to convince a judge or jury that a company wrongfully exposed them to a known toxic substance; that the exposure to the toxic chemical increases their risk of developing a latent disease; that the exposure was at a level that could credibly trigger the need for medical monitoring; and that there are diagnostic tests that can detect the latent disease. While it sets a high bar of proof, the bill would provide a path for Vermonters to receive a remedy that is not currently available under Vermont law. It is not clear whether the Governor will veto this bill due to concerns expressed by businesses.
Firearm Violence Prevention
The presence of a firearm dangerously compounds the risk of impulsive acts of violence, especially suicide. Waiting periods create an important cooling-off window for gun purchasers to reconsider their intentions, which can lead to a change of heart and a saved life. In addition, waiting periods provide additional time for the completion of a thorough background check. S.169, passed by both the House and Senate, would establish a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns.
Many suicide attempts occur with little planning during a short-term crisis and those who attempt suicide impulsively are more likely to choose a violent method. Studies confirm that most suicide survivors contemplated their actions for only a brief period of time – often less than 24 hours – before making a suicide attempt. Firearms are the most lethal means of suicide, with over 85% of firearm suicide attempts resulting in death. This fact is especially important because almost all people who survive a suicide attempt go on to live out their lives and do not subsequently die by suicide.
In addition to helping prevent suicides, this waiting period may also help prevent homicides. Firearms are the most frequently-used weapons in domestic homicides and over half of all homicides in Vermont are domestic violence-related. A cooling-off period can help prevent impulsive violence in domestic disputes. A 2017 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science estimated that waiting periods for handgun purchases reduce gun homicides by roughly 17% and gun suicides by 7 to 11%.
A waiting period for handgun purchases would also help in combatting the drug trade. Currently, traffickers bring drugs into Vermont and exchange them for handguns, some purchased by Vermont residents near the time of the transaction. The waiting period would be an obstacle to such a deal and would make Vermont less attractive to those trading drugs for guns.
In the end, however, it is the logic of a waiting period that provides the strongest rationale for the passage of S.169. Lethal harm to oneself or another can occur when an impulsive act is combined with access to a lethal weapon. A waiting period provides time to cool off, to let the heat of the moment pass, to distance impulsivity from the ability to acquire a handgun.
In addition to providing a cooling-off period, this waiting period addresses a gap in the law, known as “default proceed” or the Charleston Loophole. Federal law allows a dealer to deliver a gun to a purchaser as soon as a background check is completed, which usually takes only a few minutes. Sometimes, however, a background check may not be completed instantly. In such a situation, after three business days have passed, the dealer may still provide the firearm to the purchaser, even if a background check is incomplete. S.169 would close this gap. The 24-hour waiting period would commence upon completion of the background check, including in those instances when law enforcement needs additional time to do its work, such as, for example, determining if the purchaser is subject to a domestic violence restraining order.
S.169 also eases restrictions on the transfer and use of large capacity magazines. Last year, the legislature passed Act 94, which placed restrictions on high-capacity magazines. The law, however, allowed large capacity magazines to be transported into Vermont for use in shooting competitions. But under current law, that authority will sunset in June of this year. S.169 would allow the continuation of the transport of these devices for organized shooting competitions. Without the provisions in S.169, such shooting competitions in Vermont would effectively come to an end.
OTHER STATE HOUSE ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Multi-Bill Effort to Reduce Vaping and Tobacco Use Among Youth
Despite trendlines of decreasing tobacco use in recent decades, the presence of vaping and e-cigarettes has created a new crisis point. From 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use among high school and middle school students rose 78% and 48%, respectively. That amounted to the biggest one-year spike of any substance in nearly 50 years and prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to declare a public health crisis.
The House Human Services Committee spent many hours this year developing strategies to reduce the number of young Vermonters who use vaping and tobacco products. One bill (S.86), signed into law by the Governor, raises the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age. S.86 is part of a three-pronged strategy this legislative session to make it more difficult for youth to obtain and afford tobacco products. Earlier in the session, legislators overwhelmingly approved another bill (H.26) ending Internet sales of e-cigarettes, and a third (H.47) placing a 92 percent excise tax on them. The Governor signed these into law as well.
Reproductive Liberty for Vermonters
The Vermont Legislature approached reproductive liberty on two separate fronts this year: a constitutional amendment and a new statute. For more than 40 years, Vermonters have relied on protections offered by U.S. Supreme Court case law to support personal autonomy in reproductive health decisions, and citizens of the Green Mountain State have not chosen to limit or restrict those protections. Vermonters have long recognized that decisions related to reproductive health care and abortion are deeply personal and private, and are best left to a woman and her doctor.
The legislature approved Proposition 5, a Vermont constitutional amendment that would protect personal reproductive autonomy. The lack of a definitive enumeration of reproductive liberty in Vermont’s Constitution, the threats to Roe v. Wade from a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court, and the cloud of multi-state efforts to erode reproductive autonomy all build a strong case for Proposition 5.
The proposed constitutional amendment now awaits consideration by the 2021-2022 legislature. If it passes both chambers again during the next biennium, Vermonters will vote in 2022 on whether to add the language in Proposition 5 to the State Constitution.
Earlier this year, the House passed H.57 to ensure that women’s access to abortion continues to remain unconstrained by law with a strong vote of 106-37; the Senate approved H.57 by a vote of 24-6. The Governor has said he will not veto the legislation, which will become law without his signature. The bill and the constitutional amendment go hand-in-hand to guarantee Vermonters’ access to reproductive liberty both in statute and in the Vermont Constitution.
Child Care Assistance for Vermont Families
The Child Care and Early Learning bill (formerly H.531) is a $7.5 million State investment that aims to make child care more accessible and affordable for Vermont families, as well as to open up new child care spaces statewide. The legislation also seeks to support the retention and professional development of child care workers.
The bill adjusts the market rates and benefit levels for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program to ensure that families whose gross income is up to 100 percent of current federal poverty guidelines receive 100 percent assistance. The new eligibility guidelines expand the financial subsidy to a wider swath of middle-income families too.
In addition, the bill seeks to retain child care providers working in the field, many of whom struggle to earn livable wages while paying off sizable college loans. It also provides internship compensation and scholarship assistance to support current child care workers (in both center- and home-based care), as well as attract new workers to the early learning field.
We want to create an economy that works for all Vermonters, not just a select few, an economy where our workers can find well-paying jobs and a secure future, with success at any age. To create a strong Vermont economy, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development focused on the areas of consumer protection, workforce development, and economic development.
This year’s economic development bill (S.162) supports a range of programming. It will promote training opportunities for small companies, create weatherization training programs, create a Career Technical Education Program for robotics training, decrease barriers for new American citizens to enter the workforce, and provide advancement grants for additional adult training and workforce education. The bill will also help employers hire workers with barriers to employment, fund social media marketing campaigns, and provide relocation support.
In Vermont, every industry faces workforce needs, especially in health care, construction, hospitality, transportation, and advanced manufacturing. We want to see more Vermonters employed in meaningful skilled jobs through completing apprenticeships, certificates, and associate degrees. The legislature seeks to help employers hire more employees and help employees get hired in good-paying jobs that match their skills.
Creating an Education System for All of Us
The House is committed to eliminating structural racism to build a truly just and equitable society. People of all races and genders who live in, work in, and visit Vermont should feel welcome and safe. With that goal in mind, one of the first proposals the House Education Committee took up this year was the ethnic studies bill (H.3). The bill passed both the House and Senate by unanimous roll-call votes in February and was signed into law as Act 1. The law aims to identify structural racism in Vermont schools, reduce bias, and build a culture of equity by teaching students the history of all of us, including ethnic and social groups that historically have been marginalized, harassed, discriminated against, or persecuted.
Act 1 establishes a working group that will review Vermont’s education standards to determine if they meet those goals. By June 2021, the task force will recommend to the State Board of Education any updated or new standards. Each school will then be guided by these standards in reviewing—and, if necessary, revamping—its classroom practices, curriculum, and extracurricular programs.
Act 1 will help Vermont students better understand the history, contributions and perspectives of people whose stories are often not told in textbooks. It will promote cultural competency and critical thinking. It will allow students to safely explore questions of racial, social, and gender identity. It will reduce hatred and bias, making our schools safer. And it will prepare our young people to work, live, and thrive in a world that is increasingly diverse.
Broadband Build Out
Access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet service is essential for full participation in modern society. Yet roughly 17,000 Vermont households lack access to even the most basic internet service. Another 50,000 homes and businesses struggle with connection speeds that do not support 21st Century tasks. These unserved and underserved households are typically in the most rural parts of the State, where the costs of connecting to broadband internet are the highest.
This year the Vermont House passed H.513 to get high-speed internet service to the farthest corners of our State. The bill empowers local municipalities to determine the connectivity solutions most appropriate for their communities and provides financing programs to get local initiatives off the ground. It funds a technical specialist to support local groups. It explores alternatives such as allowing electric utilities to provide internet service using existing infrastructure. It streamlines procedures so providers can build broadband access more quickly and cost-effectively to our most rural communities.
A Vermont that works for everyone, regardless of where they live, must have high-speed internet access in every corner of the State. While change will not happen overnight, this year we are finally taking concrete steps to build on grassroots success stories, create viable business plans, facilitate start-up financing, and get real results.
Making Investments in a Strong
The legislature passed a balanced budget for fiscal year 2020, which goes into effect on July 1, 2019. The $6.1 billion budget represents a 2.6% increase over the previous year.
The budget is a blueprint representing our priorities and shared Vermont values. It includes significant investments in the health of our natural environment, the development of our workforce, the growth of our economy, and the needs of vulnerable Vermonters. It also makes payments towards long-term liabilities. Highlights include:
- $1.6 million for small business support in agriculture, forestry, and other working lands enterprises;
- $2.8 million in tax credits for redevelopment of Designated Downtowns and Village Centers;
- $1.3 million for regional development corporation block grants;
- $1.2 million in matching funds to businesses for training incumbent workers to gain skills resulting in higher salaries at those same businesses;
- $7.4 million, added to a $5.8 million base, plus $1.6 million in one-time funds for child care, supporting families and providers, as well as workforce incentive pilots and system investments;
- $1.3 million added to master grant funding for Parent Child Centers in support of services to young families;
- $1.5 million for appropriate community placements for persons with complex mental health challenges;
- $2.5 million added to provide a benefit increase in the Reach-Up Program;
- An additional $5.2 million to designated agencies across the entire system of mental health and developmental services;
- An additional $2.1 million for a 2% increase for home and community service providers in Choices for Care; and
- An additional $445,000 for court diversion plus a 5% increase for court security services.
Keeping Our Promises
There are three State retirement systems: the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System (VSTRS), the Vermont State Employees Retirement System (VSERS), and the Vermont Municipal Employees Retirement System (VMERS). They cover a substantial number of Vermonters.
Currently, VMERS is funded at 82.2%, VSERS at 70.7%, and VSTRS at 55.2% of the levels needed to meet the State’s projected pension liability. All three systems were adversely affected by the 2007 recession, and have been recovering. The status of VSTRS, however, reflects the decision by policymakers from 1991 through 2006 to use funds for other purposes that should have been used to cover the actuarially required annual contribution. Since 2007, when a 30-year catch-up plan was established, contribution has been no less than 100%. This year, as an example, State policymakers committed $120 million to the system, with the understanding that an average of $150 million will be required each of the next twenty years.
This catch-up plan requires significant investments, pitting pension obligations against current needs in other parts of the budget. Some would like to see the State go in an entirely different direction, changing from the long-existing defined benefit to a defined contribution approach, similar to an IRA plan. This idea has not gained traction. The State made a commitment to these three classes of employees — it is a contract, and a promise, not to be broken. Throughout the years, employees have made their required contributions. They have agreed to increases in employee contributions and a raise in the age for normal retirement, among other changes. These compromises, together with the use of one-time revenue to bump up the financial underpinnings of VSTRS and VSERS, are currently on target to save taxpayers approximately $1.3 billion in interest payments by 2038.
Adequate and reliable income in retirement helps our economy. According to the State Treasurer, retiree expenditures attributable to the pension benefits support 2,809 jobs for Vermonters. Additionally, the stability of the pension is key to reduced elderly poverty, with fewer individuals needing to rely on state and public assistance.