I am honored to represent District 7-1 in the important work that has been accomplished in the virtual State House. The following addresses some of the legislature’s accomplishments this session, including those of the Judiciary Committee, on which I sit.
I. COVID RECOVERY
The legislature is creating an equitable recovery plan to rebuild the economy in all 14 counties. Federal funding over the past year gives Vermont a unique opportunity to make thoughtful investments over several years that advance our priorities and accelerate recovery in every corner of the State. Our current FY2022 budget and American Rescue Plan Act investments prioritize:
● Strengthening systems and services that increase mental and physical health and social well-being.
● Expanding broadband and connectivity to facilitate remote work, telehealth, online learning, and small business creation.
● Investing in childcare to increase access, affordability, and quality for working families and raise wages for early learning professionals.
● Increasing affordable housing stock for low- and middle-income Vermonters; transitioning homeless Vermonters to permanent housing with services.
● Addressing climate change by curbing emissions, electrifying transportation, and weatherizing more homes.
● Investing in higher education and workforce development to prepare Vermonters for 21st century jobs within the State.
● Advancing clean water and the health of our lakes, rivers, wetlands, groundwater, and drinking water systems; ensuring a toxics-free environment that protects our natural resources.
● Fostering racial and social equity in our investments; dismantling structural inequities that limit the economic opportunity and mobility of Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, New Americans, and vulnerable Vermonters.
Investments to Ensure COVID Recovery
In the Spring of 2020, Vermont received $1.25 billion in federal CARES funding. These
dollars provided relief for Vermonters in desperate need, including individuals, families, communities, and local businesses in all 14 counties. These dollars were also key to stabilizing critical systems in healthcare, human services, and childcare.
Spring 2021 has brought Vermont $1.052 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and once again the legislature is focused on leaving no one behind. To the extent allowed by federal regulation, Vermont’s use of ARPA dollars is focused on the well-being, present and future, of the State’s human infrastructure.
This investment is apparent in the allocations of ARPA funding in the FY2022 State budget, a total of $599.2 million. Included, for instance, is $109.2 million targeted to economy, workforce, and communities; $99 million to housing; and $51 million to rental assistance. The State has also allotted $150 million for broadband investments and $52 million for technology modernization, as well as $50 million for climate action and $115 million for clean water investments. ARPA dollars not “spoken for” are still available for use when we have a better sense of ongoing or unanticipated needs. This flexibility is permitted by ARPA, as we have through FY2025 to use these funds.
Business & Workforce Grant Programs Launched
To get relief to Vermonters quickly, the legislature passed Act 9 in early April, a $97.5 million pandemic relief bill that invested federal funds before the end of the session to jumpstart the State’s recovery. This bill created $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, targeting new and small businesses not initially eligible for assistance. Act 9 also allocated $500,000 to the EMBRACE Grants for Micro Business program, providing up to $5,000 to low- and moderate-income Vermonters with businesses under five employees and less than $25,000 in annual revenue. Finally, $8.2 million was approved for the Vermont State Colleges, UVM, and VSAC to provide up to two free classes to adult Vermonters looking to boost job skills or change careers, and to all 2020 and 2021 high-school grads, as well as to train more licensed nurses (LPNs).
Building Back Better: Statewide Infrastructure
The legislature passes a Capital Bill in the first year of each biennium. This is where we make long-term investments in buildings and infrastructure using money from state-issued bonds. This year’s Capital Bill, Act 50, invests $123 million in a range of projects critical both to pandemic recovery and to the future of Vermont, including courthouse renovations and HVAC, clean water, State park upgrades, State office building maintenance, mental health facilities, and affordable housing.
The legislation also expands the Building Communities Grant Program, which invests in local economies and helps communities preserve historic buildings, improve ADA accessibility, and address fire safety in recreational, educational, cultural, and human service facilities. Municipalities, schools, libraries, and nonprofits are encouraged to apply.
Universal Access to Broadband
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how essential high-speed internet is to daily life. We use the internet to go to work, attend school, see a doctor, interact with the government, and connect with our communities and the world at large. Unfortunately, the promise of modern communications has bypassed too many rural communities in the State with twenty-five percent of Vermonters still lacking access to broadband.
Act 71 dedicates $150 million of the federal stimulus funds to the construction of broadband infrastructure in the most underserved parts of the State. (The legislature anticipates spending a total of $250 million for broadband deployment over the next three years.) The bill includes funding for pre-construction planning and design costs, grants for building broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and a new broadband workforce development program.
Childcare: Essential to Economic Recovery
The pandemic highlighted the importance of available and affordable childcare to support Vermont’s children, families, communities, and economy. Act 45 takes significant steps towards reforming our childcare system. Not only does Act 45 make childcare more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a study to identify future revenue sources for a more securely-subsidized universal childcare system.
By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare workers’ wages, we can support and grow our workforce of early care and learning professionals. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving our youngest Vermonters a head start to success.
II. PROMOTING EQUITY
Expanding Office of Racial Equity
Before the 2021 session, legislators heard from constituents that Vermonters were not dealing with one pandemic, but three: COVID-19, climate, and systemic racism. In addressing systemic racism, one of the glaring needs identified was bolstering personnel at the State’s Office of Racial Equity. When this office was created and Xusana Davis hired as Director, the legislature did not know the extent of how widely its services would be used and requested.
The workload has continued to grow, with the Director being flooded by requests to sit on committees and boards, meet with Vermonters, review policies, and offer expertise to all three branches of State government. It became clear that the needs of the Office were far greater than one person could handle. To help, two positions were added to the Office of Racial Equity and passed in the budget, effective July 1, 2021.
Promoting Healthcare Equity
The Department of Health’s 2018 State Health Assessment reveals that not all Vermonters have an equal opportunity to be healthy. From higher morbidity to access to health care, statistics show significant disparities across the Green Mountain State based on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status. Act 33 begins the long-term process of breaking down these barriers. The bill creates a Health Equity Advisory Commission made up primarily of Vermonters whose lives have been impacted by historic inequitable treatment in accessing health care, while empowering them to develop an Office of Health Equity by no later than January 1, 2023.
Healthcare for Undocumented Children and Pregnant Women
Act 48 provides immediate increased access to healthcare for income-eligible children and pregnant women, regardless of their immigration status, by establishing a Dr. Dynasaur-like healthcare program. This coverage begins on July 1, 2021. These undocumented women and children often work or live with their families on the farms and dairies that are essential to our Vermont economy. Because of fear that their immigration status will be revealed, confidentiality is critical. We know that prenatal care and medical care in childhood can improve health outcomes over a lifetime, as well as reduce costs for both education and healthcare systems.
Promoting Economic Opportunity for BIPOC Businesses
This session, legislators embraced their responsibility to address racial wealth disparities and begin addressing the historical impacts of economic exploitation and exclusion from economic opportunity. The legislature engaged BIPOC business and community leaders across the State to inform and develop legislation to create the BIPOC business development project detailed in H.159. It invests $150,000 in a process to be driven by the BIPOC community and may include the creation of a minority business development center or authority. This legislation will also provide technical support for BIPOC businesses in procurement of State contracts, improve language access and cultural competency practices within State economic development programs, and strengthen State data collection to better serve the variety of identities represented within the BIPOC community. H.159 did not itself pass, but these provisions were incorporated into the budget bill.
Equitable Access to Transportation
In the transportation sector, inequity takes any forms, from not having “a seat at the table” when large transportation projects are planned to not being able to access or afford private or public transportation. This year’s Transportation Bill addresses inequity by requiring a comprehensive analysis of Vermont’s transportation programs. The resulting report will create an equity framework that will be used to increase mobility options, reduce air pollution, and enhance economic opportunity for Vermonters in communities that have been historically underserved by the State’s transportation programs. In addition, millions of dollars in incentives have been appropriated to help Vermonters who may have to choose between filling up the flivver or filling up the fridge. These income-qualifying programs include “Emissions Repair” (to help pay for repairs needed to pass vehicle inspection), “Replace Your Ride” (an incentive to turn in an inefficient vehicle), and “Mileage Smart” (to help purchase a used vehicle). And for those using public transit, Zero Fare bus transportation continues through June 2022.
Racism as a Public Health Emergency
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the severe inequities in our public health systems. For example, while Black residents comprise only 1 percent of Vermont’s population, they accounted for almost 5 percent of the State’s COVID-19 cases in 2020.
Highlighting a strong body of evidence, J.R.H.6 acknowledges systemic racism as a direct cause of the adverse health outcomes experienced by BIPOC communities in Vermont. It also commits our State to the “sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems.”
J.R.H.6 was drafted through the collaboration of impacted communities, and gained the broad support of the legislature and the Vermont Department of Health. J.R.H.6 is just one important step in an ongoing effort to create equitable systems that promote justice, dignity, and health for all Vermonters.
Legislature Apologizes for Eugenics
In J.R.H.2, the Vermont legislature acknowledges and apologizes for sanctioning
and supporting eugenics policies and practices through legislation that led to forced family separation, sterilization, incarceration, and institutionalization for hundreds of Vermonters in the early 20th century. These policies targeted the poor and persons with mental and physical disabilities, as well as individuals, families, and communities whose heritage was documented as French-Canadian, French-Indian, or of other mixed ethnic or racial composition, and persons whose extended families’ successor generations now identify as Abenaki or as members of ther indigenous bands or tribes.
The traumatic ripple effect of these State led actions has been felt through generations and has had real and tangible effects on the lives of Vermonters today. The resolution does not undo the harms of the past, but it marks an essential step towards a future of accountability and reconciliation for the generations of Vermonters who were harmed by State-sanctioned violence. The resolution recognizes that further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impacts of eugenics policies.
III. CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Addressing Sexual Assault in Vermont
The legislature passed Act 68, which revises and clarifies our laws addressing consent to sexual activity, including the impact of alcohol consumption. The law will clarify when consent to sexual activity has not or cannot be given. The bill also creates a Campus Sexual Harm Task Force to confront the high number of sexual assaults that take place on our college campuses.
Eliminating the “Trans Panic” Defense
In some states, courts have allowed defendants to rely on a “trans panic” defense to have assault charges against them reduced or dismissed altogether. The defense is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent action against the victim. Act 18 prohibits the use of such a defense in Vermont.
Penalties for Hate-Motivated Crimes
Act 34 updates Vermont’s response to crimes motivated by hate, providing an enhanced penalty that a prosecutor can charge in addition to the underlying crime. To apply the enhancement, the law had provided that a prosecutor must prove that a crime was maliciously motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, service in the U.S. Armed Forces or the National Guard, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived membership in any such group. Act 34 eases the burden for prosecutors by providing that the person need not be maliciously motivated; rather the person need be simply motivated in whole or in part by the victim’s inclusion in one of the protected categories.
Clarifying Police Use of Force
Last year, the legislature enacted Acts 147 and 165 that together provided statutory standards for police use of force, including lethal force. This year, the legislature passed Act 27, which clarified that law enforcement may use chokeholds only when lethal force is justified. Under the law, before use of a chokehold or other deadly force can be justified, its use must be objectively reasonable and necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury and there must be no reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force to prevent death or serious bodily injury. The use of a chokehold must cease as soon as the subject no longer poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.
Mental Health and Criminal Justice
The legislature passed Act 57, which clarifies provisions related to court proceedings in criminal cases that address either the defendant’s sanity at the time the offense was committed or the defendant’s competency to stand trial for the offense. Under current law, if an individual is found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial and is also a danger to self or others, the person is committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health for treatment. That law provides no way for the crime victim to be made aware when the person returns to the community. Act 57 closes that gap by creating a system of victim notification in such cases. In addition, the bill creates a forensic working group to identify gaps in mental health coverage and procedures in Vermont’s criminal justice system and to make recommendations as to whether a new forensic treatment facility is necessary to house individuals who have been committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health.
Reforming Vermont’s Correctional System
Recognition of the need for reform and culture-level change in the criminal justice and corrections systems has been growing for years. “Warehousing” offenders does not help them prepare to reenter society successfully. Vermont is committed to building a criminal justice system that is equitable and rehabilitative, where State employees and the incarcerated Vermonters in their care are safe and treated with dignity and respect.
This year, the legislature passed Act 56 to address sexual misconduct and systemic issues within the Department of Corrections (DOC) that came to light at the women’s facility in South Burlington. Act 56 establishes an independent Corrections Monitoring Commission and a Corrections Investigative Unit; expands State law to criminalize sexual contact between DOC employees and anyone under the department’s supervision; and requires that DOC work with the Criminal Justice Council to develop a proposal for training standards and a process for certification and decertification of correctional officers.
New Women’s Correctional & Reentry Facility in Planning Stages
Changing the culture of Corrections is not only a matter of programming, it is also a matter of facilities. Most of Vermont’s six regional correctional facilities were designed with a mindset that is now outdated and built decades ago. Most require significant repair and maintenance. In particular, the women’s Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility is in dire need of replacement to better serve women and their unique reentry needs.
The Capital Bill includes an initial $1.5 million investment in planning and program design for a new women’s correctional and reentry facility or facilities. In summer and fall 2021, the Department of Corrections (DOC) will hold focus groups with key stakeholders, including correctional officers and other staff, inmates, and outside service providers. DOC will work with Buildings and General Services to develop a proposal for size, location, and preliminary design that the legislature will review during the 2022 session.
IV. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Prohibiting “Forever Chemicals” from Consumer Products
Many Vermonters know that polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals were found to contaminate drinking water in Bennington and North Bennington in 2016. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate within our bodies over time and do not biodegrade in the environment. This exposure leads to a number of adverse health effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Research is showing that even those who do not live in a contaminated area may be exposed to PFAS because these chemicals are used in many consumer products.
Rather than limiting our solutions to downstream clean-up, Act 36 addresses this issue upstream by preventing these toxic substances from entering our State. It prohibits the manufacture and sale of PFAS from four products that pose the highest risks to Vermonters’ well-being: food packaging, fire extinguisher foam and firefighting PPE, rugs and carpets, and ski wax. Act 36 takes comprehensive steps to protect Vermonters from toxic chemicals and prevent future harm to the environment and public health.
Updating Vermont’s Bottle Bill
An update to Vermont’s 50-year-old bottle bill passed the House this session. H.175 will expand the types of containers subject to deposits, which will now include water bottles, wine bottles, hard cider and tea containers, and others. This bill will also increase the handling fees paid to vendors, which will encourage the opening of more redemption centers. Containers recycled via the deposit system are cleaner and more valuable than if they go through the general recycling stream, and a greater percentage of them will be made into new containers. Glass, in particular, is much easier to manage as a recycled material if it goes through redemption centers versus a curbside bin. The bill has not yet passed the Senate.
New Agricultural Innovation Board Created
Act 49 creates the Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB). It will tackle areas of concern such as pesticide use and how to reduce it, and how to transition from agricultural use of plastics to more biodegradable materials. Vermont is the only state that has a Seed Review Committee that allows for the review of the seed traits of a new genetically engineered seed proposed for sale, distribution, or use in the State. The legislature created this committee last biennium in response to the use of Dicamba (a pest-controlling herbicide) in other parts of the country. The AIB’s approach will be a more holistic approach to soil health and pesticide use.
Steering Vermont Transportation Into the Future
For a century, the word “transportation” in America has been virtually synonymous with the word “car.” And not just any car, but cars using an internal combustion engine (ICE). This year, the legislature worked on several bills that recognize and embrace that change is here, driven by customer demand and environmental concerns. The Transportation Bill and FY2022 State Budget appropriated millions of dollars for incentives to help Vermonters shift gears from ICE vehicles to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). To make sure Vermonters can “fill up” their new rides, support is also set aside for additional public charging stations. Don’t want to drive? Sign up soon for $200 off an electric bike. And while electrifying our transportation system saves Vermonters money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation transformation is best approached comprehensively. As such, funds were also directed to address stormwater and improve water quality, to construct bicycle and pedestrian facilities as well as Park and Rides, and to support the growth of carpools and vanpools.
A Step Forward on School Buildings
Built decades ago, it’s no surprise that many of Vermont’s school buildings, including our South Burlington schools, are aging and in urgent need of repair. Act 72 is an initial step to address the problem. The work begins with an update of the State’s school facility standards and a statewide conditions inventory and assessment for all school buildings. The bill also establishes a renewable and efficiency heating systems grant program administered by Efficiency Vermont and requires each public and independent school in the State to perform radon measurements by June 2023. Additional time for testing is granted to schools in the process of implementing indoor air quality improvement projects. The long-term goal is to make sure that our school buildings are well-maintained, energy-efficient, safe, and healthy places that meet the needs of 21st century education and technology. Unfortunately, a funding source to upgrade our school buildings has not yet been identified.
Community Schools Pilot Program
As schools across Vermont focus on pandemic recovery and re-engagement, Act 67 invests $3.3 million in a demonstration grant program that will allow eligible districts to explore the innovative “community schools” model. Sometimes known as full-service schools, community schools help kids and families access vital services such as healthcare, mental health counseling, or help with food or housing, often right in the building. They serve as resource hubs that provide a range of accessible, well-coordinated, and culturally inclusive supports and services. Now gaining traction across the country, community schools tackle head-on the challenging and complex out-of-school barriers, like poverty and hunger, that hold so many of our students back. They help close the achievement gap for low-income students, special education students, BIPOC students, and English language learners, and improve student outcomes ranging from attendance and academic performance to graduation rates. The bill also kick-starts a grant program to help schools buy more food that’s grown or produced in Vermont, and creates a task force with the goal of achieving universal school lunches by the 2026-2027 school year.
Task Force to Implement Pupil Weighting Factors
In 2019, a team of UVM-led researchers delivered an extensive report on Vermont’s “weights,” the numeric factors used to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students—for example, English language learners or children from economically deprived backgrounds. Act 59 establishes a task force that will work over the summer to develop an implementation plan, a roadmap the legislature will use next session in considering how to integrate the new recommended weights into our complex education funding formula. The weights have a profound impact on how we calculate equalized pupils, which in turn affects taxing capacity from district to district. The report, due in December 2021, will also consider the excess spending threshold, how we calculate poverty for the purposes of school finance, and other factors intertwined with our unique school funding system.
IV. OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Preserving Public Pensions System for State Employees & Teachers
The Legislature focused this session on putting Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and all State employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Legislators are balancing commitments – one to State employees and teachers and another to Vermont taxpayers – in the face of a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will continue to grow exponentially without action.
Act 75 engages more stakeholder voices in the process. The legislation focuses on governance changes that will amend the Vermont Pension Investment Commission to include more independent, financial expertise. It also established the Pension Benefits, Design & Funding Task Force to meet this summer with a “report-back” to the legislature with recommendations for putting the retirement systems on a sustainable path.
The legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars (freed up by ARPA dollars), along with a separate annual payment of $316 million, for a total investment this year of $466 million. This amount is a massive commitment from the legislature in a single year. Resolving this pension crisis in the short term with robust participation from all stakeholders is the fair and responsible thing to do for all concerned.
Increasing Access for Voters
Universal Vote-By-Mail was a great success during the 2020 General Election, contributing to record turnout even during a pandemic of a 74 percent participation rate. It expanded voter access and encouraged increased participation in our democratic process. Act 60 continues the Vote- By-Mail program, adds other important election measures, and counters the prevailing trend across the U.S. where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws.
Harm Reduction Through Buprenorphine
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont has been suffering from an epidemic of fatal drug overdoses. With 157 opioid-related deaths, 2020 was one of Vermont’s deadliest years for overdose on record. Almost all of these deaths were accidental, and the vast majority (88%) involved fentanyl, an extremely potent opiate that, unbeknownst to the user, is mixed with heroin. Use of buprenorphine offers a safer alternative for people living with opioid use disorder. Buprenorphine reduces the risk of relapse for people in recovery by blocking opioid cravings and reducing the likelihood of fatal overdose from fentanyl.
There are a number of barriers to Vermonters receiving prescribed buprenorphine, however, including geographic distance from a clinic, lack of transportation or insurance coverage, inconvenient clinic hours, and other cumbersome requirements to maintain a prescription. In response to the urgent need to reduce harm from opioid use, Act 46 removes criminal penalties for possession of non-prescribed buprenorphine that is less than a two-week supply. This legislation will save lives by supporting Vermonters in the management of their substance use disorders, encouraging them to seek safer alternatives and begin formal treatment.