The Vermont legislature had significant successes in the 2021 Session, investing in our childcare system, affordable housing, higher education, broadband expansion, and workforce development. In the 2022 Session, we need to build on these accomplishments. Next Session we will continue to address COVID recovery as we also find ways to make housing, mental and physical healthcare, childcare, and other essential social services more equitable and affordable. The following highlights a few of the demanding issues that the legislature will face.
Climate change: The Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), passed in 2020, created legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It requires the State to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The law created a Vermont Climate Council, which released a Climate Action Plan on December 1 of this year. The Plan lays out 64 strategies and over 230 specific steps to transform how we use and source energy, adapt Vermont communities to the warming planet, and protect natural and working lands from the harm created by climate change. Legislative action will be required to implement many of the Climate Council’s recommendations.
Redistricting: As required by the Vermont Constitution, the legislature will be reviewing the 2020 census data and re-drawing legislative districts to ensure that Vermont’s citizens have equal representation in the General Assembly. The legislature is assisted by the Legislative Apportionment Board, a tri-partisan advisory group that submits a reapportionment proposal. The legislature considers the proposal, along with input from boards of civil authority and community members, as it draws the boundaries for legislative districts that will be in place for the November 2022 elections. Since the last census in 2010, parts of the State have lost population while others, including South Burlington, have gained. Indeed, South Burlington will gain one representative for a total of five, but whether the representative will be shared with a neighboring community remains to be seen.
Pensions: Earlier this year, the Vermont House sought to put the State’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and all State employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Legislators are balancing commitments – one to State employees and teachers and another to Vermont taxpayers – in the face of a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will continue to grow without action. Over the past few months, a task force with legislators and union representatives has been meeting to find agreement on a way forward. The legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars that can be applied to reduce the unfunded liability so long as the unions agree to changes in the structure of the pension plans that put them on a more sustainable path. The legislature will consider the results of the task force’s work in the upcoming Session.
Education funding: In 2019, a team of UVM-led researchers delivered an extensive report on Vermont’s pupil “weights” — the numeric factors used to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students. For example, additional resources are required to achieve acceptable outcomes for English language learners or children in poverty. Based on the report, a legislative task force has been developing recommendations on how best to address the equity issues in education funding, including whether and how to modify the weighting of different student categories and other manners to get resources to school districts to account for the varying costs of those categories.
Workforce, housing, and childcare: In the upcoming Session, the legislature will also continue to grapple with three interrelated issues critical for Vermont’s economy. The COVID pandemic exacerbated an already bleak outlook for workforce availability and affordable housing. Employers are struggling to fill jobs due to numerous factors, including the State’s aging population. To attract and retain workers, the legislature will continue its efforts this coming Session to address the State’s shortage of affordable housing and childcare. It will also consider other proposals to develop the State’s workforce, potentially including ways to use our State Colleges for workforce training. These are only a few of the critical and complicated issues that the legislature will work on in the Session starting in January. Among other tasks, the legislature will determine where to invest remaining federal pandemic-relief funds and will continue to address issues such as firearms safety, criminal justice reform, environmental protection, social and racial equity, and infrastructure improvement. It promises to be a busy Session.