The Vermont House of Representatives passed its final bills and adjourned on Friday, September 25th. This concluded an unprecedented two-year session in which COVID-19 caused numerous disruptions, including the closure of Vermont’s State House. Despite the challenges of legislating remotely, we were able to move forward Vermonters’ priorities.
The public health crisis prompted rapid action, and we responded, providing crucial support to Vermonters in need. Following the closure of the State House, lawmakers immediately transitioned our work online and set up a system for remote meetings. The legislature rapidly authorized hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency needs.
Relief efforts continued through the Spring and into the Summer. The House worked collaboratively with our state and federal partners to advocate for additional resources to help us rebuild strong, healthy communities. All told, we authorized more than $1.2 billion of federal aid to individuals, small businesses, our schools and public colleges, and the frontline workers who have kept us safe.
At the same time, we addressed long-term challenges. Over the course of the two-year biennium, we passed a law to connect more Vermonters to broadband, established a permanent funding source for clean water, increased support for childcare, protected reproductive rights, and began a process to reform our criminal justice system. This year, we overrode the Governor’s veto to increase the minimum wage to give thousands of Vermonters a raise.
In the one-month session that began August 25th, we enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act, over the Governor’s veto, to move us toward our climate goals. We advanced meaningful police reform and measures to address systemic racism in our corrections system. And we created a COVID-19 Equity Stimulus Package to ensure that women- and minority-owned businesses can access the resources they need.
These are challenging times for our nation and state. Vermont has faced its share of hardship and tragedy. And 2020 has brought a set of challenges that are uniquely fraught with uncertainty. I am proud of all we have accomplished together as Vermonters to face these challenges. Our work will continue into the Winter as we prepare for the next legislative session, which begins in January. My focus is on the needs of our community and on ensuring no one falls behind during this pandemic. If you need any assistance, please reach out. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-3086.
The Vermont House of Representatives gave final approval to the $7.17 billion state budget bill on Friday, September 25th, and the Governor signed it into law on October 1st. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our region, this year’s budgeting process was longer and more complex than any in recent history. The fiscal year 2021 budget expedites relief to those in need and puts us on a strong financial footing to continue our recovery efforts when the legislature reconvenes in January.
The budget builds on the priorities we established in 2019. The bill authorizes the final round of federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to strengthen our communities. It bolsters all Vermont colleges and makes a record investment in public post-secondary education, including $23.8 million in bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges system and $10 million in pandemic relief for UVM.
The budget allocates resources to make childcare more affordable, provides dollars for vulnerable Vermonters looking to start businesses, expands hazard pay for frontline workers, directs financial assistance to Vermonters left out of federal stimulus payments, and supports the reform of our corrections system. It funds the State’s Global Warming Solutions Act and strengthens public transportation and incentives to reduce the cost of electric vehicles.
These investments are achieved without making cuts to the services Vermonters count on. Our budget priority list was developed with feedback from constituents, with several public sessions held throughout the state in August. We sought creative ways to fund critical programs while keeping our promise to fully fund long-term obligations. Our rainy day funds are also funded at or above statutory levels, ensuring we have a cushion to absorb financial shocks in the uncertain months ahead.
Criminal Justice and Police Reform
During this Biennium, the House has been focused on criminal justice reform. The work is driven by a commitment to building a criminal justice system that is equitable and rehabilitative; a system where sentenced and incarcerated Vermonters have access to due process and services that meet their needs and set them up for successful re-entry and participation in our communities; a system where people are treated with dignity and respect; and a system that ensures public safety.
Despite foundational strengths and progress to improve criminal justice outcomes, Vermont now faces some challenges in continuing to safely reduce corrections populations. We have started to see an increase in violent crime, overcrowded prison facilities, and critical gaps in how people within the corrections system with behavioral health needs are identified and connected to resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has put additional stressors on our mental health and correctional systems.
This session the legislature passed Act 148 (S.338), Justice Reinvestment II, a significant piece of legislation that restructures furlough and parole to consistency and access to due process. The bill also advances policies to allow people to earn more time off their sentences for good behavior, strengthens connections to appropriate substance use disorder treatment and mental health services in the community, and develops re-entry housing that better fits the needs of people leaving prison. These policy changes and strategic investments will enable more successful re-entry for those leaving prison and lower recidivism and re-incarceration rates, which should result in savings, greater public safety and better outcomes.
The legislation also creates a working group that includes members of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel and the Executive Director of Racial Equity, and members from the judiciary and law enforcement. The group will work with the Crime Research Group to look at the relationship between race and sentencing outcomes. It will also evaluate where current data systems and collections are insufficient and what staffing or resources are needed to support more robust reporting on race and demographics.
Addressing Systemic Racism Within the Department of Corrections
S.24 aims to address systemic racism and promote social equity within the Department of Corrections (DOC) by focusing on training and supervision practices and shifting the Department’s focus from a model of punishment and surveillance to one emphasizing human services. The goal is to create a system based on inclusive, reparative, and restorative practices with a focus on recruiting, training, and retaining a diverse and high-quality workforce.
The bill tasks the Commissioner of the DOC to present a proposal for a long-term strategy that focuses on changing the way the DOC recruits and trains its workforce with an aim of emphasizing equity and inclusivity. This legislation sets a direction for the DOC to change its culture and systems to be more equitable and just for the people who are incarcerated and for our state employees.
The national reaction to events over the past several months has brought systemic racism in the United States into dramatic focus. While Vermont’s legislature has pursued many efforts over recent years to begin to identify and address implicit bias, recognition of the urgency of this work has grown, particularly related to law enforcement. In response, the legislature passed S.124, which addresses many issues affected by implicit bias. Provisions in S. 124 include:
Police Oversight. The bill changes the membership of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council (VCJTC), which oversees police training and reviews police misconduct, to add members of the public for the first time and more non-law enforcement members, such as the Executive Director of Racial Equity. It also requires a report back to the General Assembly in January on models of civilian oversight that can be used across the state.
Police Misconduct. The bill revises the law so that more instances of police misconduct will be reported to the VCJTC and requires a report to the General Assembly to identify a central point for reporting allegations of police misconduct.
Data Collection. The bill prohibits a law enforcement agency from having officers trained at the Police Academy if the agency is not in compliance with the requirements for collecting roadside stop data. It also requires the Vermont Criminal Information Center to ensure that such data is more uniform.
Training and Hiring. The bill requires the VCJTC to adopt rules for alternate routes to police certification aside from attending the Police Academy. It also requires the Council to report to the General Assembly on whether appropriate training is provided in the areas of cultural awareness, implicit bias, and de-escalation as well as recognizing and responding to people with mental health conditions. It requires a hiring law enforcement agency to contact an officer’s current law enforcement agency about that officer’s performance at that agency. It also requires reports to the General Assembly on universal standards for interviewing and hiring officers, and cultural sensitivities in and overall appropriateness of law enforcement exams.
Body Cameras. The bill requires all law enforcement agencies to follow a model body camera policy. It also requires a report to the General Assembly on changes that may need to be made to that model policy, including how to respond to public record requests for body camera footage.
Military Equipment. The bill requires a report to the General Assembly on the development of a policy on limiting the acquisition of surplus military equipment by police departments.
Addressing Racial Bias and Excessive Use of Force by Law Enforcement
Act No. 147 (S.219) makes State grant funding to law enforcement contingent on the Secretary of Administration confirming that the agency has complied with race data reporting requirements within the past six months. It requires that the roadside stop data collected by law enforcement includes data on law enforcement use of force, including threatened force; that the data collected be sent to the Executive Director of Racial Equity; and that it be posted in a manner that is analyzable, accessible to the public, clear, and understandable.
The law also amends unprofessional conduct parameters for law enforcement, providing for discipline of an officer who uses a prohibited restraint or fails to intervene or report to a supervisor when an officer observes another officer using a prohibited restraint or otherwise using excessive force on a person. A prohibited restraint is defined as the use of any maneuver that applies pressure to the neck, throat, windpipe, or carotid artery that may prevent or hinder breathing, reduce intake of air, or impede the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain.
The law creates a new crime prohibiting law enforcement from using prohibited restraints that cause serious bodily injury or death.
Finally, the law requires the Department of Public Safety to equip all Vermont State Police with video recording devices.
Law Enforcement Use of Force Standards
The last time the legislature put restrictions on police use of force was in 1840. At that time, it provided that a law enforcement officer will be guiltless if he kills or wounds someone, while serving legal process, or in suppressing opposition against him in the just and necessary discharge of his duty. This hoary and likely unconstitutional language provides lax guidelines for police use of lethal force and is in dire need of updating. S.119, which the legislature passed on the last day of the Biennium, modernizes statutory standards for law enforcement use of force. It clarifies what Vermonters expect of law enforcement and ensures that law enforcement officers are accountable when their use of force does not meet these expectations.
While the Judiciary Committee first considered S.119 in June, it became clear that many people in communities affected by police use of force wanted to weigh in on that bill as well as on other police reform efforts. To enable that input, we took advantage of the time that the recess offered and, with the Government Operations Committee, hosted three public hearings on S.124 and S.119. In coordinating those hearings, we worked with the legislature’s Social Equity Caucus to ensure that we were reaching out to Black people, indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) and disability rights communities to encourage their involvement. The Social Equity Caucus also conducted an online survey that, among other topics, asked for input on S.119. There were over 1500 responses to the survey.
When the House Judiciary Committee started the post-recess session, we invited representatives of the BIPOC and disability rights communities to testify on the bill. The Committee also heard from representatives of the law enforcement community. They were generally not supportive of placing use of force standards into statute. Instead, they would prefer to have such standards set forth in a uniform state-wide policy to be developed through the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.
To address the concerns of law enforcement, the bill establishes that the Department of Public Safety and Executive Director of Racial Equity will work out the details of implementing the use of force standards in a uniform state-wide policy pursuant to the Governor’s Executive Order issued this past August. Broadly, the statutory standards provide that the use of force by law enforcement is lawful if it is “objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportional” and the use of deadly force is lawful if it is “objectively reasonable and necessary in defense of human life.” It is the oversight responsibility of the legislature to create standards governing the use of force. For the most part, Vermont police already train and act in a manner consistent with these standards. But, by putting these standards in statute, they are enforceable in court and have far more potential to shape police culture and provide further protections for BIPOC Vermonters ad others.
Other Work of the House Judiciary Committee
Act 145: This law establishs requirements for creating life estate deeds in Vermont. Life estate deeds are gaining in usage as a means to transfer property after the death of the owner. Lack of clarity in existing law has the potential to create genuine hardships for some Vermont families. This law will help prevent that.
Act 96: With all of the challenges and uncertainty people are facing in our current circumstances, many have come to the conclusion that they should create a will or update an existing one. This becomes a challenge, however, because the law had required two witnesses to be in the same room for the signing of the document: a violation of social distancing that could especially endanger the older Vermonters most inclined to address their wills during the pandemic. Current law also risked turning a notary into a potential transmitter of the virus. Act 96 provides that, during Emergency Administrative Rules for Remote Notarial Acts adopted by the Vermont Secretary of State, wills may be signed while the witnesses take part in the proceeding via video-conference. This will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensures an important legal process can be completed without needlessly endangering Vermonters. When the emergency rules are no longer in place, the system for completing wills will revert to what it is now, but Act 96 will make remote witnesses possible for any similar emergencies in the future without further legislative action.
S.234: In a rural state like Vermont, access to transportation is critical for economic prosperity, public safety, and healthy communities. Many Vermonters lack access to a vehicle or public transportation, but a less obvious barrier exists in the form of driver’s license suspensions. Most driver’s license suspensions are due to either failure to pay underlying tickets or failure to pay the reinstatement fee necessary to get the license back. Around 25,000 Vermonters have a suspended license because they have not paid their tickets or their reinstatement fee. Often, their poverty keeps them from being able to pay and their inability to drive to work perpetuates that poverty. Over the past several years, the legislature has passed bills that reduce the number of individuals who have a suspended license solely because of failure to pay a fine or court fees. Section 25 of S.234 continues that work. The bill establishes a Reinstatement Fee Waiver Program. It requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to reinstate drivers’ licenses without requiring a reinstatement fee under certain conditions. Vermonters who have had their licenses suspended for non-criminal reasons can have their licenses reinstated if the suspension has lasted more than one year and if the person has satisfied all other reinstatement conditions and requirements. Those licenses are under suspension for accumulating 10 or more points as of the program’s effective date are not eligible for the fee waiver. DMV must reinstate eligible licenses by April 30, 2021.
H.962: A victim of domestic abuse can seek a Relief From Abuse (RFA) order from a court. Initially, the victim can seek that order without the alleged abuser having to be present at the court hearing. The court can then issue a temporary order and must schedule a hearing within 14 days includes the alleged abuser. Under current law, if the defendant does not attend the court hearing, the temporary RFA ends with the court proceeding and any subsequent RFA ordered by the court does not go into effect until the defendant has been personally served with the paperwork. This places the victim in a situation where they lose the protection of the temporary RFA order for an unknown amount of time, which can be an added psychological burden in what is already a traumatic time. It also gives some defendants incentive not to attend the court hearing and then avoid law enforcement attempts to serve the RFA, as doing so allows them to continue to attempt to hold power over the victim. It also uses a considerable amount of law enforcement time as they attempt to serve the RFA on someone who has decided to actively avoid them. H.962 remedies this situation by continuing the terms of the temporary RFA until the defendant is actually served with the new RFA. This fix is to remain in effect until the current state of emergency is lifted. During the next Biennium, we will consider whether to make it permanent.
Protecting the Environment
Global Warming Solutions Act
The House and Senate overrode the Governor’s veto of H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act. The GWSA will put Vermont on a path toward meeting its commitment to the Paris Climate Accord by 2025 and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Act puts in place a comprehensive response to the climate crisis appropriate to Vermont. It sets a required timeline for reducing carbon emissions. It also requires strategies to enhance resilience and mitigate consequences of the changing climate. The bill creates a Climate Council of 23 experts and executive agency heads. The Council is charged with crafting a Climate Action Plan to coordinate programs, measurement and evaluation, and also to ensure geographic, economic and social equity in the Plan. The Agency of Natural Resources will then propose rules to implement the Plan.
GWSA sets an aggressive schedule for these actions commensurate with the challenge before us. But the Climate Council and ANR are not on autopilot. The Council reports back to the Legislature annually regarding progress and recommendations for necessary legislation. The Plan’s fiscal impacts will be analyzed by the Joint Fiscal Office and reviewed by legislative policy and money committees. The Agency of Natural Resources’ proposed rules will be reviewed by the Council and legislative policy committees prior to undergoing the normal rule-making process.
Importantly, GWSA allows citizens to file a lawsuit to hold state government responsible for meeting the obligation to act. But the remedy is limited to complying with the law — there is no provision for monetary damages or penalties — and the State may recover costs and attorneys’ fees if the case is “frivolous or lacked a reasonable basis in law or fact.”
Reducing Transportation Emissions
To address the fact that 45% of carbon dioxide emissions in Vermont come from our transportation activities, the General Assembly established a New Plug-In Electric Vehicle (EV) incentive program that rolled out in December 2019. It has already helped incentivize about 200 new plug-in car purchases. This program still has funding from last year that is available for more EVs to get on the road. In addition, in the 2021 budget, the legislature added $1,000,000 toward the program. With a combination of VW Settlement funds and new state investments, every Vermonter will have a DC Fast-Charging station within 30 miles of their home by the end of 2021. We have also set up MileageSmart, a grant program to help low-income Vermonters trade up into higher-efficiency vehicles.
Improving public transit and reducing single occupancy vehicle travel is a top priority for additional funding and has received significant federal funding due to COVID-19. In the 2020 Transportation Bill (Act 121 / H.942), the legislature funded a grant program to increase more flexible “microtransit” bus routes as well as innovative Transportation Demand Management (TDM) activities. TDM promotes carpools, biking, and telecommuting to reduce the need for commuting and parking spaces. This year’s budget also includes more funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects and the Downtown Transportation Program.
Efficiency Vermont’s Role in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Efficiency Vermont is an energy efficiency utility that has, over the years, helped to substantially reduce electrical demand in the State. S.337, signed by the Governor in September, broadens its role by allowing it to use up to $2 million annually of its current funds to assist in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy and transportation sectors. Vermonters spend 80% of their energy budget on how they get around and how they heat their homes. Those two sectors also account for 90% of Vermont’s carbon emissions. The bill does not affect the current efficiency charge paid on monthly electric bills.
Vermont is an important stop for birds that migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. And Vermonters lead the nation in the percentage of bird watchers per capita. But the state has experienced a 14% decline in its forest bird populations over a 25-year period.
With the passage of H.683, the legislature restores important protections for migratory birds. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a century-old law, was weakened by the federal government in 2017, making migratory birds more vulnerable to the impacts of environmental degradation, oil spills and chemical contamination, unprotected utility wires, and negative habitat impacts.
H.683 provides incentives for industries to follow best practices that will sustain these bird populations.
Ban on Plastic Bags
At many Town Meetings across Vermont over the past few years, voters overwhelmingly supported banning plastic bags because of concern about the environmental impacts of single use products on our environment and in our landfills and solid waste districts. Faced with a different set of rules in every location, the Vermont Grocers and Retailers asked for one uniform statewide law. The legislature listened.
Act 69 prohibits single use plastic carryout bags at check-out. Stores must charge no less than 10 cents (to which no tax is added) for a carryout paper bag to dissuade customers from switching to paper and to help merchants cover the cost of paper bags. Vermonters can use their own reusable bags at carryout. According to the Vermont Departments of Health and of Environmental Conservation regarding COVID-19, “Neither single-use nor reusable bags nor cardboard present a particular health hazard.”
Act 69 also bans plastic stir sticks and plastic-foam food and beverage containers. In restaurants, plastic straws can be provided upon request. Recyclable paper bags, bags used by a pharmacy for prescription medications, and all bags used inside a store and not at the register are allowed under Act 69.
The 2021 budget provides $103 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) appropriations for PreK-12 education. Of this total, $13.5 million is directed to Efficiency Vermont to support and fund school district work to improve air quality in schools by upgrading heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. The remaining $88.3 million is to reimburse school districts for COVID-19 costs through the Coronavirus Relief Fund LEA Grant Program being administered through the Vermont Agency of Education.
The bill also addresses education policy issues for the 2020-2021 school year. It establishes a count for average daily membership (ADM) – the pupil count for which a school district receives money from the Education Fund – for each school district not less than the district’s 2019–20 school year ADM. It requires 170 student attendance days, down from 175 days, for the 2020-21 school year. The bill also creates an Afterschool Task Force to recommend the framework for, the costs of, and long-term funding sources for access to universal afterschool programs.
Though the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) oversees the licensure of 50 different professions, there are some professions whose regulation and licensing requirements fall to a different entity. It is important that all professions, regardless of which entity oversees them, have certain uniform standards. S.233 requires that OPR, the Department of Environmental Conservation (for well drillers), the Standards Board for Professional Educators, the Electricians’ Licensing Board, the Board of Medical Practice, and the Plumber’s Examining Board create uniform standards for the licensing processes of the professions they regulate. Among other changes, the bill requires each entity to have a process to allow individuals licensed in other states to work in Vermont. By making licensure more uniform and taking into account professional experience in other states or countries, we hope to attract much-needed skilled workers to Vermont.
In September, the House passed the cannabis bill (S.54). The bill creates a Cannabis Control Board to establish a retail cannabis market in Vermont, with licensed marijuana dispensaries to open as soon as May 1, 2022. The commission will issue regulations that will enable adults to buy safe, consistent, tested products. Taxes on the sale of cannabis will be used, in part, to fund youth drug use prevention programs. Highway safety will be addressed by allowing saliva tests pursuant to warrants to screen drivers for drug use and enhancing drug impairment training for law enforcement across the state. Municipalities will need to vote in favor of allowing dispensaries within their boundaries. The Cannabis Control Board will recommend advertising restrictions in consultation with the Vermont Health Department and the Attorney General’s office.
The bill also brings Vermont’s medical marijuana system into alignment with the new adult-use market, which will make cannabis for symptom relief easier to access for Vermonters who need it. Small, Vermont-scale growers and retailers will be given priority in the new cannabis market, as will women- and minority-owned businesses. Also, Vermonters who have a criminal record for cannabis offenses in the past will not be automatically prohibited from getting a license in the new cannabis market. In a separate bill (S.924), cannabis convictions from the past era of prohibition will be automatically expunged.
Expansion of Broadband
The Coronavirus shutdown exposed Vermont’s digital divide. Students in families without access to broadband lost three months of school. Medically vulnerable people without internet service could not avail themselves of telehealth services. Office workers lacking connectivity — who otherwise could have telecommuted — were out of work.
The Public Service Department drafted an Emergency Broadband Action Plan, components of which were included in H.966 (Act 137): $19.5 million toward line extensions and last-mile builds including fixed wireless and WiFi hotspots (many already deployed); “lifeline” internet subscription subsidies; telehealth capabilities; Communications Union District logistics; and telecom recovery planning. The 2021 budget added an additional $3 million to this effort.
Longer-term parts of the Emergency Broadband Action Plan will require additional funding and further work: support for partnerships among existing telecom providers, electric utilities, and Communication Union Districts; state assistance for such groups to access federal funding; and development of training for telecom line workers and installers.
Housing for the Vulnerable
As the pandemic began, the State instituted a moratorium on ejectment and foreclosure actions during the emergency. 1,961 people, including 273 children, were moved out of shelters into hotels in order to mitigate contagion. A rehousing plan was developed with advocates, other House committees, and the administration to use federal dollars from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to systematically address the needs of those precariously housed. This $85 million housing plan supports homeless and low-income Vermonters. It provides capital investments to create more affordable housing and renovate shelters, rental arrearage and foreclosure stabilization, financial and technical assistance for landlords and tenants, and wraparound services for rehousing those with multiple needs.
The legislature passed a number of bills to make it easier for cities and towns to operate and address fiscal concerns during the COVID-19 crisis. These bills include:
- H. 681 (Act 92) – This Act allows city and town selectboards and other public bodies to choose not to designate a location for an open meeting or to have a person present at that location during the COVID-19 state of emergency. It also allows a quorum of members of the public body to attend that meeting through electronic means as long as the public can access the meeting through the same or similar means.
- H. 947 (Act 105) – This Act allows a legislative body of a city or town to adopt a budget and municipal tax rate for FY21 if an annual or special meeting cannot be held in 2020.
- H. 948 (Act 106) – This Act addresses boards of civil authority and other quasi-judicial proceedings and allows them to be conducted through electronic means during the COVID-19 state of emergency. It also permits a board of civil authority to decline to physically inspect a property that is subject to a valuation appeal, but rather inspect the property through electronic means.
- S. 344 (Act 102) – This Act provides that during the COVID-19 state of emergency a city or town’s legislative body is authorized to:
- Extend or establish a new time and method of payment for property taxes;
- Establish a grace period for, decrease, or waive any penalty, interest or fee imposed on taxpayers for the late payment of property taxes; and
- Reduce the municipal property tax rate.
- S. 345 (Act 113) – This Act allows a selectboard or other public body to post any meeting agenda or notice of a special meeting in two designated electronic locations instead of in two public places during the COVID-19 state of emergency. It also must post the notice at or near the clerk’s office and provide a copy to the newspaper of general circulation for the city or town.
In addition to this assistance, the General Assembly passed H. 966, which among other things, provided $15 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to reimburse cities and towns for eligible COVID-19 expenses. Out of the $15 million, $12.65 million was available to counties and local governments. The bill would set aside $200,000 for solid waste management districts’ eligible COVID-19 expenses and $150,000 to be used to contract with one or more regional planning commissions to help smaller towns identify and document eligible COVID-19 expenses. The bill also provides $2 million in grants to towns to digitize their land records if they had offices that were closed due to COVID-19.
When a state of emergency was declared on March 13, the legislature had already passed essential legislation to ensure that the critical systems that support Vermonters’ medical, mental health and economic security needs would be fully operational. Telehealth services were expanded for patients and clients with insurance reimbursements approved for providers, and most insurance companies granted enhanced coverage with waived co-pays for Coronavirus-related care.
Act 136: This law provided a $275 million Health Care Provider Stabilization Grant Program using federal Coronavirus Relief Funds for cash grants to eligible providers that had lost significant revenue or seen increased expenses due to the pandemic. The grants, administered by the Agency of Human Services, supported a broad spectrum of providers, spanning self-employed practitioners to peer services providers to nursing homes to hospitals. A $28 million Front-line Employees Hazard Pay Grant Program was also created to support those health care and human services workers in direct service to Vermonters affected by the COVID-19 emergency.
Act 140: This legislation brings together a series of miscellaneous health care provisions and expands telehealth care and coverage after the emergency declaration ends. The bill continues healthcare reform, addresses workforce shortages, moves closer to the integration of mental and physical health oversight, and continues a push towards transparency in consumer healthcare costs.
Older Vermonters Act
H.611 establishes rights for older Vermonters, laying out a plan that ensures our elders are aging well across the state. The bill details a system of services, supports, and protections for Vermont residents 60 years of age or older that would cover their self-determination; safety and protection; coordinated and efficient system of services; financial security; optimal health and wellness; social connection and engagement; housing, transportation and community design; and family caregiver support. The aim is to put Vermont on a path to become the best state to age in.
The legislation requires the Department for Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living to administer all programs related to the Older Americans Act, as well as to establish a State Plan on Aging. The legislation sets up a process for registering all business organizations providing in-home services to older Vermonters not covered by Medicaid. The bill creates a Self-Neglect Working Group to provide recommendations regarding adults who, due to physical or mental impairment or diminished capacity, are unable to perform essential self-care tasks.
Expanding Access to Contraceptives
This tri-partisan bill makes contraception more accessible to and affordable for those of reproductive age; ensures Vermont youth are receiving comprehensive health education in schools; and aims to reduce unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. A few highlights of H.663 include:
- ● Requires health insurance companies to cover without cost-sharing at least one drug, device or product in each method of contraception, or a name-brand product if deemed medically necessary by the health care provider
- ● Provides coverage without cost-sharing for voluntary sterilization of men and women
- ● Provides coverage for a 12-month supply of prescribed contraceptives
- ● Permits pharmacists, in accordance with state protocols established by the Commissioner of Health (to be established by Jan. 1, 2021), to sell self-administered hormonal contraceptives to patients over the counter
The bill also requires all school districts to make condoms available for free to all students in its secondary schools; at a minimum, condoms must be available in the school nurse’s office.
Updating Our Constitution
The House is committed to defeating 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. Proposal 2, a proposed amendment to ban slavery in the Vermont State Constitution, unanimously passed the House on January 21st. It would amend the Vermont Constitution to clarify that slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited. Article 1 of Vermont’s Constitution currently outlaws only adult slavery, setting the age for which a person cannot be enslaved at 21. This implies that the Vermont framers condoned child slavery. (In actuality, they were more likely allowing for youth apprenticeships that were very common at the time.) While the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in 1865, Proposal 2 would close the age loophole and send a message that slavery or indentured servitude is not condoned under the Vermont Constitution.
The process to amend the State Constitution spans two different sessions in the Legislature. An amendment must originate in the Senate and be approved by a two-thirds vote. Then it must receive a majority vote in the House. The passage of this amendment requires House and Senate approval in this biennium, which occurred, and in the next biennium (before May 2022), and then a majority vote in the general election (November 2022). It is a deliberately slow process as changing our State’s Constitution should not be taken lightly.
Additional Accomplishments of the Biennium
Highlights this biennium included increasing the minimum wage and protecting victims of domestic and sexual violence from housing discrimination. For our veterans, we secured honorable disposition of any unclaimed remains and the creation of an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Indigenous Peoples’ Day replaced Columbus Day, and Abenaki names will be included on all state park signs going forward.
The legislature established a long-term funding source for water quality projects across the State. Six percent of revenue from rooms and meals taxes will now be deposited into the Clean Water Fund to help pay for the restoration of impaired waters statewide.
Act 143 grants Abenaki free Vermont fishing and hunting licenses, righting historical wrongs and aligning Vermont law with the deed wherein an Abenaki chief conveyed land: “I have this day given to them, their heirs and assigns forever, with the following conditions and reservations, viz.–that I reserve free liberty to hunt all sorts of wild game on any of the foregoing territories, and taking fish in any of the waters thereof for myself, my heirs and successors and all Indian tribes forever.”