The Vermont legislature is nearly halfway through our 2022 session. Our work officially began on January 4, with legislators working remotely to protect public health as the Omicron surge peaked. On January 18, we returned to the State House in hybrid mode, a welcome shift. Below, I highlight some of the significant legislation the House has passed or considered in these first two months. Meanwhile, work on our key priorities will continue up to our anticipated mid-May adjournment. It’s an honor to serve as your State Representative. Please reach out anytime with ideas, questions, and concerns.
2022 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES
The legislature is tackling a wide range of issues in 2022. While none of these challenges can be solved in a single session, our priorities include:
- Investing Vermont’s federal stimulus funds to boost recovery and set the stage for a strong future, while building a balanced budget that reflects our values
- Managing the complex and interconnected challenges of housing, workforce, and childcare
- Enacting forward-looking, inclusive strategies to combat climate change and transition to a sustainable way of life as we prepare for shifting and severe weather patterns
- Addressing our unfunded pension liability in a way that’s fair to teachers, state employees, and taxpayers
This is far from a comprehensive list. With 150 members and 14 standing committees, the House can get a lot done during our five months in Montpelier. The following explains some of what we have accomplished so far.
In the Judiciary Committee, on which I serve, we have worked on the following matters:
Updating Our Adoption Laws
While public perception of adoption has changed, our laws have not kept up. Many adopted individuals are unable to access their birth records, which prevents them from discovering important health information. Many also testified it prevents them from finding closure as they work to build adult lives. That’s why the Judiciary Committee is working on H.629, which would open all adoption records in the state unless a birth parent has specifically requested that they be closed. This will allow adoptees access to information about themselves that they have been denied far too long.
Advancing Racial Equity in the Criminal Justice System
In order to understand the realities of life in Vermont and craft good laws, we need good data. We are working to make strides in racial equity in our state with H.546. This bill creates a Division of Racial Justice Statistics, which will collect and analyze data relating to racial bias and disparities in Vermont’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. This work continues and builds upon previous efforts to address systemic racism and make our State a more welcoming home for people of color. Like the rest of our country, Vermont still has much work to do regarding systemic racism in our criminal justice system, but H.546 is a substantial step towards better addressing it.
Ensuring Uniformity in Vermont’s Criminal Code
Unlike most states, Vermont does not have uniform criminal penalties. Unfortunately, this creates inconsistency in sentencing, with penalties for some crimes being more severe than those for comparable crimes. H.475 and H.505 continue the work of the legislature to create a uniform and fair classification system in our state. These bills address sex crimes, crimes against persons, and drug crimes, placing each offense into a classification system established in a bill (H.87) enacted last year. This work is slow and detailed, but when the process is complete, Vermont will have a more uniform and fair criminal justice system.
PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT AND ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE
Conserving Our Land: 30 by 2030
Land conservation of intact, connected ecosystems protects our communities from the worst effects of climate change and helps mitigate biodiversity loss. Vermont’s diverse geography places us at an important crossroads for species conservation as the climate changes. Additionally, old forests play a critical role in both climate mitigation and habitat protection, but they currently occupy less than one percent of Vermont’s forestland.
In H.606, the legislature is establishing significant goals: conserving 30 percent of the land of the state by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050. The Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources would be required to develop a plan to meet these goals using Vermont Conservation Design (VCD) as a guide. VCD identifies the highest priority areas of the state for maintaining ecological integrity. Conservation goals would be met through a combination of private, state and federal land.
To help further these biodiversity and conservation goals, we are doing additional work on Vermont’s Current Use tax incentive program. H.697 would extend the Use Value (Current Use) program to include reserve forestland under certain conditions. This bill encourages the management of land for old forests. Reserve forestland is land that is managed for the purpose of attaining old forest values and functions.
Plastics in compost create an increasing problem as communities contend with packaged food waste. Vermont faces the challenge of how to safely divert food waste out of landfills and create usable, safe compost. “Depackaging” is an automated process to remove food waste, but it is not perfect and can result in an unknown amount of plastic entering our compost. To address this issue, H.501 would place a moratorium on the construction of new depackaging facilities in Vermont and requires that rules be enacted before a new facility could be permitted.
We’re also addressing the collection and proper disposal of household hazardous waste. Currently taxpayers bear the costs for managing this waste, but H.115 would require the manufacturers of household products that contain hazardous substances to belong to a program that would pay for collection and disposal. Similar programs already exist for paint, mercury-containing batteries, and compact fluorescent lights.
Banning Neonics, Protecting Pollinators
Due to exposure from pesticides, climate change, habitat loss, and increased vulnerability to pests and pathogens, our honeybee population is in jeopardy. Vermont’s beekeepers currently lose 30 to 50 percent of their colonies on average every winter.
The legislature is taking steps to address the pollinator crisis with H.626. This bill proposes to ban seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides until the Agency of Agriculture develops comprehensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) rules. Neonics are a family of neurotoxic insecticides that attack the nervous system of insects, both “bad bugs” and beneficial species like pollinators. A few years ago, the legislature banned the household use of neonics, but treated seeds—for corn and soybeans—were exempt.
It’s not easy to switch back to non-treated seeds because they require a much longer lead time to order. The way forward on this issue is to fast-track IPM, which uses tools and cropping techniques to make pesticides a last resort.
Addressing Climate Change in Our Transportation Sector
As residents of a rural state, Vermonters drive a lot, resulting in 40 percent of Vermont’s carbon emissions. Fortunately, we have unprecedented federal funds to help address this problem, though the State must match the invested funds. Millions are going toward paving, rail, aviation, and aid for town highways and bridges. The State also plans to invest millions in electric vehicles (EV), electric vehicle charging equipment (EVSE), and public transit.
The House Transportation Committee is reviewing the Governor’s recommended Transportation Bill,” which suggests approximately $40 million in investments to support a state highway EVSE network, grants to install EVSE at multiple locations, and incentives for EVs as well as electric bicycles, ATVs, and snowmobiles.
Meanwhile, this year’s Transportation Innovation Act, H.552, proposes millions in investments for EVSE grants; incentives for electric vehicles, buses, and e-bikes; support for municipal grant programs and innovative mobility programs; and funding for transportation programs for lower income Vermonters and to continue zero-fare public transit.
Creating Energy Resilience for Our Municipalities
Vermont’s municipalities own and maintain approximately 2,000 old buildings that are expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. In order to meet our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals — and reduce the cost of fossil fuel heating on municipal budgets and taxpayers — H.518 supports communities with technical assistance, design support, and funding to make municipal building more energy efficient and to decarbonize the fuels they employ.
Helping Vermonters Switch to Clean Heat
More than one-third of Vermont’s climate pollution comes from fossil fuels used to heat our buildings and water. Dependence on fossil fuels — especially propane and fuel oil — is expensive, with unpredictable price swings for Vermont consumers.
The Clean Heat Standard (CHS) is a performance standard that obligates companies selling heating fuel in Vermont to lower greenhouse gas emissions over time. It’s similar to our Renewable Energy Standard, which directs Vermont’s electric utilities to annually increase the amount of renewable energy in their electricity mix.
The CHS requirements could be met either by delivering a range of clean heat alternatives — heat pumps, weatherization, advanced wood heating — that reduce fossil fuel consumption or by replacing some fossil fuel delivery with biofuels. The CHS prioritizes the lowest-cost, highest emissions-reducing options. Consumers would continue to have a choice on their heating options, with more incentives to choose cleaner options.
Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act requires a 40 percent reduction in emissions by the end of the decade. The Clean Heat Standard puts Vermont on a predictable, sustainable pathway to achieve those reduction goals. It’s the most significant emissions reduction policy recommended by Vermont’s Climate Council in the Climate Action Plan.
Developing a Vibrant Workforce
Workforce development is one of our legislative priorities this year. With 25,000 job openings in Vermont and an unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent, we’re trying to identify and remove the barriers preventing people from working or returning to work. We’re also listening to education and training providers to see if we can provide better opportunities for Vermonters to gain postsecondary credentials and degrees to increase earning potential in rewarding careers.
Equally important, the legislature continues to support scholarships and grants that make these opportunities affordable for all Vermonters. We’re also working with employers and business associations to identify their long-term workforce needs.
Building a Better Nursing Pipeline
Before the pandemic, Vermont already had a shortage of registered nurses (RNs) and an aging population in need of more healthcare services. Our nursing shortage has become critical following the so-called “Great Resignation” and the unique pressures placed on the healthcare system by COVID-19.
To meet this need, Vermont must find ways for more students to gain access to nursing education and careers. The legislature is looking for ways to support Vermont’s colleges in expanding their nursing programs. Due to a shortage of nursing professors, we want to ensure resources are available to attract nursing professors and help current RNs who wish to become professors. Scholarships and grants, some of which the legislature created in 2021, can continue to make a college program in nursing affordable to Vermonters. And by investing in nurse education, Vermont can build a better pipeline for the workforce needed now and in the future.
Promoting Career and Technical Education
Workforce development is a priority for the legislature this year. Vermont’s 17 regional career and Technical Education (CTE) centers provide critical pathways to improve career readiness for students and adult learners. Stakeholders across Vermont in the business, nonprofit, education, and government sectors have committed to a common goal: By 2025, 70 percent of Vermonters will possess a postsecondary degree or credential of value, such as an apprenticeship, certificate, or license. Currently, only 51 percent of Vermonters possess these degrees or credentials. Our CTE centers play a significant role in helping our State meet this goal and in the development of a thriving workforce across all 14 counties.
Since 2015, we’ve been working to identify and resolve concerns relating to Vermont’s CTE system. The way we fund our CTE centers, for example, is widely seen as a barrier to enrollment. The legislature is considering several proposals to revamp and support CTE, with bills under consideration in several committees.
Making Progress on Vermont’s Housing Shortage
Vermont is facing a statewide housing crisis. Part of the problem lies in a significant drop in the rate at which housing has been built over the past four decades. Between 1980 and 2019, the rate at which housing stock was growing had dropped by 87 percent to an annual rate of 0.2 percent per year. This translates into a reduction in housing units from 3,200 additional units per year to about 400.
The pandemic exacerbated the shortage. With federal relief funding, the legislature has responded with initiatives to address the needs of renters, landlords, and houseless Vermonters, and to speed the production of new or rehabilitated housing. A few statistics:
- Federal relief funds totaling more than $57 million have helped Vermont renters stay in their homes and helped make landlords whole. For information on your county, go to this link.
- Federal relief and General Fund dollars have enabled the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to develop 475 new units of rental housing and to bring a number of projects online that will result in over 1,100 new rental units by 2023.
- Federal dollars allowed 1,300 households to exit homelessness in 2021, with continued work to be appropriated in the months ahead.
This year in its annual budget adjustment, the House included $50 million to support more mixed-income units and multi-family rentals and to increase shelter capacity, with priority given to populations who may be displaced from the hotel/motel voucher program or are currently without housing.
Between now and the end of the session, we expect to allocate up to $25 million to rehabilitate 400 existing units that are uninhabitable because of code violations, as well as a pilot for middle-income buyers.
Creating Potential Health Insurance Savings for Vermonters
Vermonters have an opportunity to see significant savings on their health insurance costs because of extended subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Those directly enrolled in the individual market can roll over to Vermont Health Connect with no change in benefits and gain the advantage of federal subsidies. Between $58 to $76 million is available to Vermonters in subsidies for plan year 2023. Check out the Vermont Health Connect page to learn more about potential savings.
Furthering the Federal No Surprises Act
The House passed a bill ensuring state compliance and enforcement of the federal No Surprises Act. That law addresses situations in which patients receive an unexpected medical bill, also known as a “balance bill,” when they unknowingly receive care from providers that do not participate in their health plan and therefore are out-of-network. The insurance provider denies the claim for payment to that provider and the patient becomes responsible for the entire bill. For example, the patient may go to an in-network hospital for knee replacement surgery with an in-network orthopedist, but receive a bill from an out-of-network anesthesiologist. If you have concerns about a “surprise“ bill, you should contact the Office of the Health Care Advocate at this link or DFR at this link, or call DFR consumer service representatives at (802) 828-3301.
Enacting a Regulatory System for Out-of-State Providers to Provide Care Via Telehealth
H.655 creates a regulatory system that would allow out-of-state healthcare professionals to become licensed or registered to deliver services to Vermont residents using telehealth. The Office of Professional Regulation is tasked with adopting rules to implement the initiative in a manner that ensures Vermonters receive safe care. This change will alleviate some of the pressure on already-stretched providers in areas such as mental health and child psychology by expanding the availability of practitioners. It also addresses equity issues in the ability of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Vermonters to be able to find therapists suited to their specific needs.
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS TO GO TO THE VOTERS
Ensuring Racial Justice in Vermont’s Constitution
The Vermont legislature has passed Proposal 2, which clarifies language in the anti-slavery clause of the Vermont Constitution. Although Vermont was the first state to ban slavery and indentured servitude, it did not prohibit those practices for individuals under 21 years old. Proposal 2 would amend Article 1 of the Constitution to provide that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” The proposal recognizes and respects the reality of descendants of enslaved Africans brought to this country, and this State, against their will. Amendments to the Vermont Constitution require voter approval, and Proposal 2 will go to the voters in November.
Protecting Reproductive Liberty in Vermont’s Constitution
The decision of whether or when to become a parent is deeply personal and central to our lives. For many decades, Vermont has recognized these reproductive choices as a fundamental right that should be free from government restrictions. Proposal 5 would enshrine reproductive autonomy and liberty into our State’s Constitution, ensuring that this right is preserved for future generations.
The passage of Proposal 5 has been deliberate and inclusive, including a four-year legislative process, and two public hearings in which we received testimony from groups both supporting and opposing the amendment. After hearing from these diverse voices, the House has passed Prop 5 with an overwhelming majority, sending the constitutional amendment to the voters during the 2022 November election.
Providing ongoing pandemic relief through the mid-year budget adjustment
H.679, the 2022 mid-year Budget Adjustment Act, represents responsible budgeting. With this important bill, the legislature keeps a careful eye on what is happening with allocations and “trues up” any area out of sync. It’s also responsible budgeting in terms of tending to the urgent needs of Vermonters and their communities, needs exacerbated by the continued COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are some key provisions in the final bill:
- $6.1 million for emergency housing initiatives, including rental risk mitigation, transportation for Vermonters needing shelter in hotels, and rapid resolution housing.
- $25 million to address emergent and exigent circumstances related to COVID, providing support to healthcare providers to prevent disruptions or business closures.
- $55 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for affordable housing and increased shelter capacity.
- $373,680 to the Vermont Veterans Home for staff retention and PPE supplies.
- $60 million for workforce retention payments, with initial focus on essential community health care and social service providers.
- $6 million for retention payments for childcare staff.
- $6 million to the Vermont Foodbank for food insecurity.
- $9.7 million to the Vermont State Colleges for critical occupations scholarships, and $1 million to UVM for workforce training.
- $1 million for Adult Day providers.
- $2 million for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.
- $400,000 to maintain the 988 Suicide Prevention Line.
- $250,000 for municipal planning grants, and $300,000 to support public, educational, governmental PEG TV services.
A provision in the bill requires that Vermont prevailing wage and fringe benefits be paid on contracts for maintenance, construction, improvement projects receiving $200,000 or more in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The bottom line is a recalibrated and balanced state budget totaling $7.9 billion, a 5% increase over the FY2022 budget passed in May 2021. It is a budget designed to continue and to strengthen our collective recovery across all 14 counties.
Building the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget
The House Appropriations Committee is working on the FY23 budget, which covers the programs of State government and its community partner organizations from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023. The committee is on target to present its proposed budget to the full House in mid-March. As is our Vermont tradition, it will be a balanced budget.
In 2021, Vermont was allocated $1.049 billion through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Of that amount, over $600 million was allocated for FY22 investments, leaving more than $400 million available. These funds must be obligated by December 31, 2024 and spent by December 31, 2026.
This infusion of federal dollars will not be sustained over time. Nor will State revenue levels that, for now, continue to increase. In developing the FY23 budget, our challenge is to make strategic use of this one-time money to address extraordinary ongoing needs. In two virtual public hearings held in February, more than 80 Vermonters gave eloquent testimony highlighting, among other struggles, issues relating to childcare, housing, recruiting and retaining employees, and food insecurity.
Our goal is to craft a fiscally responsible budget that supports and strengthens Vermont communities and families now and into the future. We seek to protect and lift up vulnerable Vermonters and to move beyond surviving COVID to transformational recovery across all 14 counties.
Setting Strategic Goals for the Vermont State College System
In recent years, the legislature has made historic investments in the Vermont State College system (VSC). As we reimagine postsecondary education in Vermont in partnership with VSC, the system has embarked on a comprehensive transformation plan to achieve financial stability and launch the new Vermont State University — comprised of Castleton, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Tech — in Fall 2023. In 2020, a statewide select committee published a report that charts a course to a sustainable higher-ed future. One recommendation is that the legislature set down in statute the State’s high-level strategic goals for VSC. H.456 accomplishes this, requiring VSC to provide an educational environment that is affordable, accessible, equitable, and relevant to Vermont’s needs.
Redrawing Vermont’s Legislative Districts
Every ten years, after the U.S. Census is taken, Vermont must adjust legislative districts to accurately reflect any changes in population. Our State Constitution spells out the criteria for reapportionment: Districts must maintain equality of representation, have either one or two Representatives, and make sense geographically.
This year, the complex and lengthy process was delayed by months because the Census was unable to deliver population numbers on time. This put our work behind schedule. The Census reported that Vermont’s population grew a little, with population declining in some areas (especially in Southern and Northeast Vermont) and increasing in others (primarily in Northwest Vermont).
The Census information guided the independent Legislative Apportionment Board’s work in providing recommendations for redistricting. Based on these recommendations and those of Boards of Civil Authority, the House Government Operations Committee has been preparing a final redistricting plan to present to the full House. District boundaries should be finalized sometime in April. South Burlington will be gaining one additional Representative, who will be shared with Williston. Here are the maps of the five South Burlington Districts that are currently under consideration: Chittenden 7-1, 7-2, 7-3, 7-4, 7-5.
Ensuring the Stability of State Employee Pensions
In the past year, the legislature has focused on putting Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Over the summer and fall, a group that included legislators, government officials, and union representatives worked together to address the issue. They reached compromises that balance our commitments to state employees and teachers with the interests of Vermont taxpayers. The Senate is taking the first pass at turning those compromises into legislation, which the House will take up after Town Meeting week.
Creating a Vermont Child Tax Credit
The federal child tax credit puts money directly into the wallets and checkbooks of families with children. It has helped people pay rent and buy food, reducing food insecurity by 25 percent. For parents with more income, the credit has helped with mortgage payments and credit card, student loan, and car debt.
H.510, which passed the House in February, would create a Vermont version of the child tax credit. This payment — $100 a month for every child age six and under — will lift families with young children out of poverty. It will also encourage young families to move to Vermont, or to stay in Vermont and thrive. Our focus on young families addresses two important goals: reducing poverty for young children and meeting our demographic challenges.
Respecting the Abenaki People
Vermont lands are the historic and current territories of the Western Abenaki people. The General Assembly acknowledges the Abenaki people as the traditional land caretakers of Ndakinna (En-DAH-kee-nah), which includes parts of Vermont, the rest of New England, and Quebec.
H.556 recognizes the historic wrong committed when the land was taken. It provides a statewide and municipal property tax exemption for property that is owned and controlled by Vermont-recognized Native American tribes or by a nonprofit organized for a tribe’s benefit and controlled by the tribe.