Facing Climate Change

The world is facing unprecedented challenges associated with climate change as a result of human activities. Last year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change confirmed the consensus of the scientific community, warning that “climate change is the defining challenge of our time.” This is a critical issue for Vermont. As the Vermont Climate Action Commission has noted, “global climate change is a fundamental threat to Vermont, to our economy, environment, and way of life.”

In my four years in the State House, I have been advocating for Vermont to do its part in addressing the climate challenge. For example, I have sponsored bills that would place a price on carbon with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation and heating sectors. This approach, however, has faced strong opposition in the legislature. Although I continue to believe that placing disincentives on the use of fossil fuels should be part of the solution, this biennium I am seeking other approaches to make progress on this issue.

A recent report commissioned by the legislature from the Regulatory Assistance Project, an independent organization focused on clean energy, supports alternative approaches. Indeed, the report concludes that attempting to reduce Vermont’s carbon emissions based on carbon pricing alone would be more costly and less effective than other public policies. This report suggests policies that will allow “a transition to low-carbon energy services in Vermont based on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and fuel switching from fossil sources to beneficial electrification, especially for vehicles and home heating.”

As a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus, comprised of over eighty members from the House and Senate, I am collaborating to enact such policies to meaningfully respond to the crisis of climate change. The Caucus is advocating for key investments in the 2020 budget. These include doubling the number of homes covered by the State’s weatherization assistance program and maintaining the Clean Energy Development Fund to assist with alternative heating sources.

In addition, one of the key initiatives this biennium will be to increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) in Vermont and the infrastructure to support them. Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan provides that about 50,000 Electric Vehicles (EVs) should be on Vermont roads by 2025 to replace gasoline-powered vehicles. If Vermont switched all our gasoline-powered cars and trucks over to electric today, that would save Vermonters around $500 million in fuel costs every year. This year’s transportation bill includes a pilot incentive program that would help households purchase an EV: $2,500 off of the purchase of an EV or plug-in hybrid at the point of sale. There are proposed limits on the income of those who would receive grants (140% of median household income, about $75,000) and the base value of the vehicle.

With only about 3,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids registered in Vermont today, the House Transportation Committee is discussing ways to leverage funds received from lawsuits against VW and Fiat-Chrysler to enhance the proposed EV incentive program. Additionally, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and VTrans are proposing to spend settlement money on EV-charging infrastructure grants, an electric school bus pilot program, and other efforts to limit emissions from “clean diesel” vehicles.

Although my emphasis is moving away from efforts to place a price on carbon, I have not abandoned that approach. For instance, to help pay for EV incentives and infrastructure, I have sponsored a bill to raise funds from a five-cent increase in Vermont’s gas tax, which would bring in approximately $30 million dollars. I also support a bill that would authorize Vermont to join a multi-state carbon pricing program.

Town Meeting Report

The following highlights some of the work of the State House during the first eight weeks of the Session.

Judiciary Committee

Review of Statutes of Limitations: The House Judiciary Committee is seeking to extend the statute of limitations for several crimes, including manslaughter, first-degree domestic assault, and sexual exploitation of a minor. These extensions will help ensure that even if a criminal investigation goes on for several years—or in the cases of the most vulnerable victims, if knowledge of a crime does not reach law enforcement for years—the Vermont judicial system will still be able to see justice served.

Expungement and Criminal Justice Reform: Many Vermonters with a single criminal offense on their records may be prevented from improving their lives in many ways, including finding a better job. The House Judiciary Committee is working to increase the types of convictions eligible to be expunged from a criminal record. Vermonters who have lived as law-abiding citizens for years can have the chance to move on from a troubled past.

Bias-Motivated Crimes: The House Judiciary Committee is studying bias-motivated crimes so that Vermonters need not fear for their safety or the safety of their families because of others’ prejudice against their race, religion, sex, gender identity, disability, or similar status. The Committee is looking at changes in the law that could help Vermonters swiftly stop such harassment.

Fair and Impartial Policing: The House Judiciary Committee continues its work on fair and impartial policing. The Committee’s efforts have recently focused on allowing local law enforcement agencies to keep information regarding citizenship and immigration status confidential to a greater degree than the existing fair and impartial policing model policy currently allows.

Childhood Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations: The Committee is also working to ensure justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse by removing the statue of limitations on when civil actions addressing such crimes can be brought (H.330). Current law only allows for civil actions to be brought no later than six years after the abuse suffered or six years after the victim discovers that an injury or condition was caused by abuse. Many victims of such crimes are not ready to move forward with public disclosure until decades after the abuse took place (the average age of disclosure is 52). Removing the statue of limitations on civil actions will allow victims to move forward when they are able to do so.

The Right to an Attorney: Roughly 10% of those charged with a crime are not eligible for a public defender. H.342 would require that public defender services be available to any person charged with a crime, thus easing the challenges of navigating the criminal justice system for people unable to afford represenation.

Education

Creating an Education System for All of Us: The House is committed to eradicating 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. One of the first bills the House Education Committee took up this year was H.3, the ethnic studies bill. The bill aims to identify structural racism, reduce bias, and build a culture of equity in Vermont schools. The State should teach students the history of all of us, including ethnic and social groups that have been historically marginalized, harassed, discriminated against, or persecuted.

The bill would establish a working group to review Vermont’s education standards on ethnic studies. By June 2021, the task force would recommend any updated or new standards to the State Board of Education. If adopted, each school would then be guided by these standards in reviewing—and, if necessary, revamping—its classroom practices, curriculum, and extracurricular programs.

Assessing the Needs of our School Buildings: Our schools are the bedrock of Vermont communities. However, the buildings that make up our school infrastructure are old and, in some cases, require substantial construction updates. The House is looking at the needs of our schools to ensure that all our students learn in safe, healthy environments.
The Education Committee is reviewing a bill (H.138) that would require the Vermont Department of Health to perform radon tests in schools and establish a statewide radon mitigation study. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and children are particularly vulnerable to exposure.

The Education Committee is also taking up S.40, a bill that would require all schools and childcare facilities to test their drinking and cooking water for lead by the end of 2019. The Senate bill, which passed by a unanimous vote, would set a stricter standard than the level currently required by the State or the EPA. The State would pay for the testing, while the cost of remediation would be evenly split between the school and the State.
Finally, the Education Committee is reviewing a bill (H.209) that would require periodic capital needs assessments of every school building in the state, including deferred maintenance, and end the moratorium on state construction aid. The bill would prioritize projects that are emergencies or the result of Act 46 school consolidations. Except for emergency projects, state school-construction aid has been suspended since 2007.

E-Cigarettes & Vaping: In December 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General declared that e-cigarette use among teens was an epidemic. New data shows a 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students in just one year (2017-2018), which also saw middle school use increase by 48%.

According to Dr. Mark Levine, the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, e-cigarettes cause youth to become addicted to nicotine while their brains are still forming. Teens who use e-cigarettes are four times more likely to become regular tobacco users. Companies advertise to teens on social media, market an enormous assortment of flavors, use cool design and packaging to increase appeal, and sell to minors via the Internet.

The legislature has taken a multi-pronged approach to addressing this issue. First, the Vermont House voted to pass a bill (H.47) that places a substantial excise tax on the liquids and delivery devices of e-cigarettes to discourage use among youth, who are the most price-sensitive consumers. Just as we tax other tobacco products, 92% of the wholesale value of e-cigarettes will be collected at the licensed distributor level and used for prevention purposes. Second, the Senate passed S.86, which increases the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. Third, the House Human Resources Committee passed H.26, which will restrict the Internet sale of e-cigarettes, liquid nicotine, and tobacco paraphernalia in Vermont. The House will vote on H.26 when it returns from its Town Meeting break.

Environmental Issues

Climate Solutions: The Climate Solutions Caucus is a working caucus of the Vermont legislature, comprised of over eighty members from the House and Senate, who collaborate to enact meaningful responses to the crisis of climate change. After hearing detailed reports evaluating evidence-based approaches from consultants hired by the legislature, the Climate Solutions Caucus is advocating for key investments in the 2020 budget. These include doubling the number of homes covered by the State’s weatherization assistance program, using VW settlement money to help Vermonters transition to electric vehicles, maintaining the Clean Energy Development Fund to assist with alternative heating sources, and fully funding the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. The Caucus is also pushing to create a Climate Budget that allows us to more clearly measure and weigh these important investments. Additionally, the Caucus is advocating for key policies — from bans on new fossil fuel infrastructure to a Global Warming Solutions Act that holds us to our emissions reduction goals, and much more.

Electric Vehicle Incentives and Infrastructure: Vermont is one of the cleanest, most environmentally pristine states in our country. Our environment and the jobs it creates are under threat from climate change. Weaning our economy off of fossil fuels and generating more of Vermont’s energy locally not only address climate change, they strengthen our economic future.

Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan provides that about 50,000 Electric Vehicles (EVs) should be on Vermont roads by 2025. Other statistics show that if Vermont switched all of our gasoline-powered cars and trucks over to electric today, that would save Vermonters $500 million in fuel costs every year. This year’s transportation bill includes a proposal for a pilot incentive program that would help households purchase an EV: $2,500 off of the purchase of an EV or plug-in hybrid at the point of sale. There are proposed limits on the income of those who would receive grants (140% of median household income, about $75,000) and the base value of the vehicle.

With only about 3,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids registered in Vermont today, the House Transportation Committee is discussing ways to leverage funds received from lawsuits against VW and Fiat-Chrysler to enhance the proposed EV incentive program. Additionally, the Department of Environmental Conservation and VTrans are proposing to spend VW settlement money on EV charging infrastructure grants, an electric school bus pilot program, and other efforts to limit emissions from “clean diesel” vehicles.
The Governor’s Climate Action Commission recommended that all of these funds be spent on EV charging infrastructure and incentives to help improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Proposed funding for EV charging projects in the next year have the goal of putting a DCFC Level 3 “Fast Charger” within 30 miles of every Vermonter. The House Transportation Committee will continue to look at ways to build out our EV infrastructure so more Vermonters can take advantage of this emerging transportation option.

Act 250: Act 250 was enacted in 1970 to address Vermonters’ concerns over impacts to the environment and on their communities from unregulated housing developments. The law regulates certain kinds of developments at the State level, on top of any existing local review, in order to protect and conserve State lands and to ensure they will be devoted to uses not detrimental to the public. After 50 years and many requests to update and amend Act 250, the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee is considering draft legislation based upon a report written by a commission tasked with planning for the next 50 years of the law. As the House deliberates on draft Act 250 legislation, it is considering changes that would prevent the fragmentation of important farmland, forestland, and critical resources. Act 250 would thus apply to smaller-scale development, preventing “death by a thousand cuts” to critical Vermont resource areas. The Committee is also considering enhanced designations for areas that achieve the goals of Act 250 locally: to safeguard our farms and forests from sprawl, protect our natural resources, and help our towns to balance growth with the costs of development.

Water Quality Initiatives: Vermont’s pristine environment is central to the appeal of the Vermont brand. But for years, pollution has harmed the health of our waterways. Today, harmful runoff has caused toxic algae blooms and other terrible pollution across the State. The Vermont House is committed to putting in place a sustainable, long-term funding source to clean up our streams, rivers, and lakes.

This year, the capital budget provides for $12 million for the State’s clean water funding in the form of loans and grant programs that are managed by the Agency of Agriculture, the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). These dollars are used to fund several initiatives: equipment for improving water quality on farms; loans for construction of municipal stormwater, wastewater and water quality projects; and land conservation to protect waterways and watersheds. VHCB is funded through the property transfer tax and federal grants, but even though property transfer tax receipts are up $3 million, the Scott Administration has proposed a $1 million reduction to VCHB’s conservation spending. VHCB is requesting that the House work to restore that funding, which will be decided after Town Meeting.

The House is also reviewing other avenues to establish an ongoing funding mechanism for cleaning the State’s waterways. One such avenue may involve advanced light detection imaging, along with updated parcel mapping, to allow authorities to see exactly where Vermont’s land is covered in impervious surfaces, which do not absorb stormwater runoff. The accuracy of these methods makes it possible to assess impervious surface fees statewide as a possible sustainable revenue source to fund water clean-up over the next 28 years. When Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce completed her clean water funding study in 2016, she concluded that to raise funds to clean Vermont’s waters, Vermonters need to be “all in” and that any revenue collected should have a nexus to clean water. Impervious surface fees fit both criteria. Further, if collected at the town level on property tax bills, the cost of administration is hoped to be relatively low.

The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee is working with the Ways and Means Committee to pursue other potential revenue sources. Two of these sources are suggested in a bill to fund water quality (H.171): a Water Quality Occupancy Surcharge on all short-term room rentals, such as hotel rooms and other similar accommodations, and reinstatement of the Clean Water Surcharge on the Property Transfer Tax. The House will continue its work to identify sustainable, long-term funding sources to clean up our polluted waterways and protect our environment.

Pollinator Protection: In recent years, scientists have become concerned about the health of our pollinators, which include domesticated honeybees and native pollinators like bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, and several other species including birds and bats. To some, getting rid of bugs might be tempting but our pollinators serve a vital function that cannot be replicated. They help produce the food we eat and without them our diets would look very different.

We have lost approximately 40% of the insect population in recent years and that loss may be due to more prolific use of chemical pesticides. In order to protect pollinator populations, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee is working on a bill (H.205) that would require regulation of the sale and application of neonicotinoid pesticides. The bill also requires the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets to register, as a restricted-use pesticide, any neonicotinoid pesticide labeled as approved for outdoor use that is distributed, sold, or offered for sale in the State. Certain products, including treated article seed and pet products, would be exempt from this registration requirement. The registration fee would be used to provide educational services, technical assistance, and increased inspection services related to neonicotinoid pesticides and pollinator health.

Working Vermonters

Making Vermont Affordable for Families: Many young families in Vermont have difficulty purchasing a home and finding childcare. The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development has been looking at obstacles to economic development in our State. We recognize that many working Vermonters count on affordable housing, reliable early childcare, and after-school programs to be successful employees.

The problem of affordable housing varies across the State, but rents are generally high and in most regions buying a home can be out of reach for working Vermonters. The House is partnering with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Home Finance Agency to make home ownership possible through creative programs offering low-interest loans to support first-time home buyers.

Childcare: Childcare is a top priority for the House. Access to high-quality, affordable childcare in our communities is critical to giving all of Vermont’s children a fair shot at a bright future as well as giving both parents the opportunity to work if they choose to do so.
Quality childcare is too expensive for many families. At the same time, childcare professionals are not always being compensated by a living wage. The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development is trying to address this challenge by looking at different childcare models, including shared services and certificates, internships, and associate degree programs that can advance early childhood education professionals.

The House Human Services Committee is also considering a series of childcare-related bills. Early education in Vermont is a patchwork of 1,246 public and private regulated center-based programs, homes offering childcare, and afterschool programs serving 32,432 Vermont infants, toddlers, and preschool and school-age children.
The last three years have seen a marked decline in the number of childcare slots, a trend recognized by the Agency of Human Services’ Child Development Division with new targeted strategies and investments. These efforts are coupled with the work of advocates who are stepping up to address the problem with new facilities and home-based programs.

While the quality of childcare programs is improving with more providers participating in the STARS program, the State’s quality recognition system, Vermont families still face challenges to access and affordability. Childcare businesses are also struggling to find early learning professionals to replace retired workers in the midst of low unemployment. In the coming months, the Human Services Committee will look closely at the low pay and benefits that childcare providers receive.

Family and Medical Leave Insurance: Today, too many Vermonters face the choice of taking care of a family member or keeping their paycheck. Making paid family and medical leave a part of every job would improve the lives of Vermont’s working families and allow them to take the time they need to keep their family healthy and thriving.
The House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee advanced a bill (H.107) to create a Family and Medical Leave Insurance program for Vermonters. Prior to its passage, the Committee collected feedback from numerous small and large business owners, as well as working Vermonters and their advocates. Compelling testimony illuminated the importance of Family and Medical Leave Insurance to better support Vermonters in all aspects of their lives. Employers testified that these kinds of programs help attract and retain talent, improve employee morale, and save money in the short- and long-term.

The current version of H.107 proposes up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave financed through an insurance premium, shared equally by employers and employees. Ongoing financial modelling continues to demonstrate that universal participation in the program will keep costs low and benefits high.

The House Ways & Means Committee has begun work on H.107. There are a number of decisions to be made regarding the bill, such as what types of leave it will cover. An employee’s own serious illness or disability and family leave are two primary considerations. Family leave can be used to cover care for a seriously ill or injured family member, the employee’s pregnancy, the birth of the employee’s child, or the initial placement of a child age 18 or younger for adoption or foster care. The Committee will also be looking into the long-term costs and viability of the program, how the program will be administered, the level of benefits offered, and the cost share between employer and employee.

Judiciary Committee Update

In early January, I was reappointed to the Judiciary Committee, where I had spent my first two terms in the legislature. The Committee has five new members, including four representatives in their first term. To orient these new members, the Committee spent the first weeks of the session with witnesses who explained the State’s judicial and criminal justice systems and introduced issues that the Committee will grapple with throughout the session. Our new members soon learned that the Committee addresses a wide range of important topics.

To evaluate the status of law enforcement’s implementation of a Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, we heard from representatives of the NAACP, the State Police, the Sheriffs Association, the Human Rights Commission, Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, LGBTQIA Alliance, the Office of the Attorney General, Migrant Justice, Criminal Justice Training Council, the ACLU, and the Immigration Task Force. The policy is intended to ensure that law enforcement will treat equally all persons living in, visiting, or traveling through Vermont regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, or other personal criteria. The Committee will continue to evaluate whether the current policy is working and whether changes are required to strengthen its protections.

The Committee passed out its first bill of the Session, H.19, which creates an offense prohibiting the sexual exploitation of a person in law enforcement custody. One would think that such behavior would already be prohibited, but we occasionally uncover gaps in our criminal code that need closing. To this end, the Committee will also pass out H.7, which relates to second-degree aggravated domestic assault. At times someone committing the crime of domestic assault in Vermont will also have committed a similar offense outside the State, but only crimes committed in Vermont can be used in determining the severity of the charges. H.7 would allow comparable offenses in other states to be factored into potential charges.

The Judiciary Committee has also begun its consideration of H.103, which would modify the State’s drug crimes. Under current law, an individual can face a felony conviction for possessing a certain amount of various drugs, sometimes an amount that an individual suffering from substance abuse disorder could use on a daily basis. H.103 would make possession of any amount of illegal drugs a misdemeanor rather than a felony. An individual possessing any amount of drugs with the intent to sell would, however, face a felony conviction. The bill is intended to continue the shift toward addressing addiction as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice matter.

In addition, the Committee will evaluate changes to the State’s expungement law. Individuals who plead guilty or are convicted of an offense often suffer legal consequences beyond prison and fines because of their criminal record. Collateral consequences of having a criminal record may include being unable to get or keep some licenses, permits, or jobs; being unable to get or keep benefits such as public housing or education loans; or being unable to serve in the military or on a jury. To reduce these collateral consequences, individuals who have fulfilled the terms of their sentence and have met other requirements may, after a waiting period, seek to have their criminal records expunged, meaning their criminal record is erased. The Committee will consider how to expand the availability of expungement.

In the coming weeks, the Committee will be taking testimony on certain legal issues related to H.57, an act relating to preserving the right to abortion. The bill recognizes the fundamental right to the freedom of reproductive choice for women. It does not change current practice in Vermont but, given the politics in Washington, there is a need to protect those fundamental rights in State law.

The Committee will also consider how to provide effective protections or remedies when an individual is facing repeated intimidation or harassment based on the individual’s protected class (for example, their race or religion). These are just a sampling of the many issues that will pass through the Judiciary Committee during the session.

Addressing Stagnant Wages

Many working Vermonters continue to struggle to make ends meet. A recent report from the Public Assets Institute, a Vermont think tank, noted that not enough jobs in Vermont pay wages sufficient to support a family. Despite a tight labor market with low unemployment, over the past ten years many workers have seen miniscule or even no increases in their paychecks.

To assist workers struggling to get by, the legislature passed bills last year that would have raised the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2024 and would have created a paid family leave program. These bills did not become law because the Governor vetoed them. In the coming Session, the legislature likely will again pass bills to raise the minimum wage and create a family leave program and may be in a position to override vetoes if they are forthcoming.

I am sponsoring a bill to be introduced early in the Session that would provide an additional approach to addressing stagnant wages. The bill would ban noncompete agreements in employment contracts. Currently, under Vermont law, an employer can require an individual to agree not to work at a competing company for a period of time if they leave the job. Such a noncompete agreement can suppress wages and keep would-be job seekers unemployed. If an employee is unable to readily leave one job for another due to such an agreement, that employee has less ability to negotiate for better wages. In addition, with a noncompete clause, a worker is forced to stay longer at one job, thus reducing the worker’s mobility and ability to earn a living.

My bill favors open competition and employee mobility, both of which are undermined by noncompete clauses. Eliminating noncompete clauses can help to keep Vermonters gainfully employed, able to provide for themselves and their families, and not reliant on government assistance.

Other states have taken similar approaches, including Massachusetts, which passed a bill to regulate noncompete agreements last year. The bill that I am sponsoring is modeled after a California law. Barring noncompete clauses in California has not limited the innovation and economic growth in that state. Indeed, worker mobility in California has allowed knowledge to be shared (so-called knowledge spillovers across firms and industries), which in turn has produced more innovation.

The bill would provide certain exceptions to the prohibition on noncompete clauses. Parties could enter such agreements as part of the sale of a business or the dissolution of a partnership. In addition, the ban would not prohibit an agreement related to the protection of trade secrets or confidential information.

After I introduced a similar bill last year, I heard from a number of Vermonters, including a labor lawyer who provided real-life Vermont examples of the downsides of noncompete clauses. But I also heard from an employer who was troubled by the bill’s implications. There are issues that need a closer examination. For instance, to what extent will employers have less incentive to invest in employee training absent a noncompete agreement that will ensure that the employers will reap the benefits of such training? The pluses and minuses deserve to be fully vetted, which is the task of the committees that would have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the bill, likely the Commerce Committee and the General Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which addresses labor issues. Neither committee was able to take up the similar bill last year. I’m hopeful that the ideas contained in the reintroduced bill will be fully considered in the upcoming biennium.

Nomination Statement for Mitzi Johnson

On the opening day of the Session, I had the honor of nominating Mitzi Johnson to be Speaker of the House for this, the 75th, Biennium.  The following is the statement I presented on the House Floor to nominate her:

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Mr. Secretary, I rise to nominate the member from South Hero, Representative Mitzi Johnson, to be our Speaker of the House.

Representative Johnson has the experience and skills to lead this deliberative body to a successful biennium.

Her life experiences are certainly wide ranging. She majored in environmental science and international development at the University of Vermont. After graduation, she moved to South Hero, working for years at the Allenholm Farm. She also taught piano and ran her own business making and selling silk scarves. For two decades, she was an EMT on the South Hero Rescue Squad.

She became a member of the Vermont House in 2003, serving on the Agriculture Committee for four years and then the Appropriations Committee, eventually becoming its chair. In 2013, she earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Representative Johnson brings to the House a diverse background, from practical to scholarly. And, of course, she was Speaker of the House in the last biennium, learning her new role at the same time the State had new leaders in the Senate and the Governor’s office.

As we saw last biennium, Representative Johnson is a consistently effective leader.
There are leaders who operate with the idea that leadership means convincing the organization to follow the leader’s vision. Other leaders operate with the idea that leadership means inspiring the organization to face its problems and take advantage of its opportunities. That second idea – mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges – is what defines Representative Johnson’s brand of leadership.

To identify problems and opportunities, she relies on clear values that orient her and give her focus. But to find solutions, she also relies on all of us. She is willing to listen. In fact, she is a great listener. She encourages all of us to be part of the process of identifying and solving problems to make Vermont a better place to live.

She adapts to different views, new information, and changing circumstances. Although she is open and flexible, she also helps this body maintain its focus on the tough questions. She does so, not with a heavy hand, but with intelligence and encouragement. She embodies this inspirational saying from Mahatma Gandhi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

We are lucky here in Vermont. We are lucky in the walls of this grand State House. Here, we talk to each other, we work together to solve the difficult issues, we are civil and respectful. Representative Johnson admirably sets the tone for this discourse.

Please join me in electing Representative Mitzi Johnson as our next Speaker of the House.

Priorities for Upcoming Session

IMG_2058When legislators return to Montpelier in January, we will be greeted by the newly-installed statue of the Goddess of Agriculture, Ceres, replacing the version that had stood atop the Capital Dome for 80 years. The Capital Dome itself has been newly gilded, while inside the State House a number of committee rooms and other spaces have had their own makeovers. Walking the halls of the State House along with veteran lawmakers will be 40 first-term representatives from across the State, bringing new energy and skills to addressing the issues facing Vermont.

I feel privileged to be returning to the restored and reinvigorated State House as one of the four representatives from South Burlington and thank the voters of my district for supporting me. I’m looking forward to advocating on behalf of the district and the State. To that end, going into this session, I have a number of priorities.

First, the legislature needs to continue to address Vermont’s demographic trends — primarily its aging overall population and declining working-age population — that are hindering the State’s economic growth. We need to retain and attract young working families. To do so, we need to attend to those strengths that attract businesses and workers: invest in and right-size our quality public education system, continue to provide health care and State programs that make Vermont one of the healthiest states, and clean up and preserve our great outdoors. We also need to reduce obstacles: attract and retain workers by investing in more affordable housing, early childcare, and family leave, and attract businesses by expanding broadband access and keeping State budget growth in line with revenue growth.

We may not, however, be able to change the demographic trends that the State is facing. Vermont is not the only state with an aging population and declining workforce. By 2026, 17 states will be “superaged,” meaning a population with 20 percent over the age of 65 and a contracting number of working-age people. These 17 states will all be competing for the dwindling pool of young working families. In addition, current restrictive federal immigration policy is blocking all states from enabling immigrants to fill the need for workers. In short, while continuing to develop policies to increase Vermont’s working-age population, the legislature should also consider policies to address the needs arising from the demographics that we have rather than the demographics that we want.
Second, I have a number of priorities that would initially be addressed by the Judiciary Committee, where I hope to serve in the coming Biennium. I intend to continue to find ways to keep individuals who struggle with substance addiction out of the criminal justice system through, for example, the expanded use of treatment courts. The State needs to treat addiction as a public health, not a criminal justice, issue. I also intend to continue to try to reduce Vermont’s incarceration rate while ensuring public safety and to improve the safety of Vermont’s highways.

Third, the legislature needs to make progress on several environmental issues, including those addressed by the Natural Resources Committee, where I may serve if I am not placed on the Judiciary Committee again. Vermont needs a stable and ongoing funding source for cleaning its waters, including Lake Champlain. That funding source should be tied to the pollution causing degradation of the waterways, such as a tax on fertilizer containing phosphorus or on impervious surfaces. The legislature should also ensure that the State is doing enough to help municipalities address combined sewage overflows. Further, to ensure the right balance between emerging environmental issues and the need for development, particularly of affordable housing, the legislature needs to update Act 250. Also, the legislature needs to make significant progress on addressing climate change. I will continue to advocate for putting a fee on carbon pollution at a State or regional level and will consider other initiatives that come out of the legislature’s study on climate solutions from the Joint Fiscal Office.

Improving Traffic Safety

In 2017, 64 fatal crashes occurred on Vermont roads resulting in 70 fatalities. That was the highest number of Vermont highway deaths since 2012. So far in 2018, 45 fatal crashes have occurred on Vermont roads causing 52 fatalities. The State still has work to do to improve highway safety.

The continuing challenges that the State faces in this area were highlighted at a day-long conference that I attended in mid-October hosted by the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance. The Alliance has been working since 2012 to minimize the occurrence and severity of highway crashes, related injuries, and fatalities. It seeks to improve highway safety by using crash data to inform the improvement of infrastructure, enforcement, education, and emergency medical services. The Alliance has identified several critical areas for improving highway safety, which are explained in Vermont’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan for 2017-2021. In the past two bienniums, I have worked in the legislature to address three of these areas: increasing the use of occupant protection, reducing impaired driving, and curbing distracted and inattentive driving. I intend to continue my work on these areas in the upcoming biennium.

Over 50% of Vermont traffic fatalities in the last two years involved drivers or passengers who were not wearing seat belts. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill on a 133 to 7 vote to enact a primary seatbelt law. Currently, a driver or passenger can be cited for not wearing a seatbelt only if the driver has been pulled over for another traffic violation. A primary seatbelt law allows law enforcement to conduct a traffic stop if the officer observes a vehicle occupant who is not wearing a seatbelt even if no other violation is apparent. States that have implemented a primary seatbelt law have increased seatbelt usage and reduced fatalities and serious injuries. Unfortunately, the Senate did not pass the bill, so it is an issue that should be taken up again next year.

Over 50% of Vermont traffic fatalities in the last two years involved drivers who were impaired by alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two. In 2016, the legislature passed a law to expand the use of ignition interlock devices (breathalyzers linked to the ignition system of a vehicle) for those charged with driving under the influence (DUI). Such devices can be used to keep an individual from driving a vehicle when the individual’s blood alcohol concentration exceeds the legal limit. The law makes these devices more widely available to those charged with a first DUI offense and mandatory for those charged with a second or subsequent DUI offense. During the upcoming session, the House Judiciary Committee will likely revisit this law to see how it is working and whether additional tweaks to the ignition interlock program are needed.

With the legalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Vermont, the broader legalization of recreational marijuana in neighboring states, and the widespread use of opiates, it is likely that more drivers will be impaired by drugs. Earlier this year, the House passed a law that would have implemented the use of an oral fluid test for detecting the presence of drugs in impaired drivers, thus assisting in the enforcement of the State’s drugged-driving laws. Because the bill was not approved in the Senate, the legislature should revisit the need for a roadside drug test in the coming session.

Distracted driving is also a growing area of concern. In the last biennium, the legislature increased the penalties for drivers who use a handheld portable device. In the coming session, I intend to continue to follow what other states are doing to reduce the toll of distracted driving and will look for opportunities to strengthen our laws in this area.

Vermont’s Sentencing Commission

Earlier this year, the legislature passed Act 142, revitalizing the Vermont Sentencing Commission. The Commission originated in 2005 but had been dormant for several years. It was originally established to oversee criminal sentencing practices in the State, reduce disparities in sentencing, and make recommendations regarding criminal sentencing to the legislature.

Since the Commission was originally established, the State has faced the increasing crisis of opiate addiction. The opiate epidemic has affected many aspects of State government, including the judiciary. Family courts have been inundated with cases shaped by problems that arise when parents suffer from addiction. In the criminal justice system, addiction often motivates the offenses that land people in court. Individuals enter the system because they illegally possess opiates such as heroin or have committed property crimes to feed their addiction. The State is wisely moving toward understanding that addiction is best addressed as a mental health concern, not as a criminal matter.

Act 142 tasked the reconfigured Commission with developing responses to the significant impacts of increased opiate addiction on the criminal justice system. The Commission is to consider whether and under what circumstances offenses committed as a result of opioid addiction should be treated as civil rather than a criminal offenses. It will also consider whether the possession or sale of specific, lesser amounts of opioids and other regulated drugs should be treated as civil rather than criminal offenses. The Act recognizes, however, that simply changing the legal status of such offenses is not sufficient. It is not enough to move individuals whose actions have been motivated by addiction out of the criminal justice system. Rather, such individuals have to be steered toward resources that treat addiction as a mental health issue. So, Act 142 also tasks the Commission with recommending how to maximize treatment for offenders as a response to offenses committed as a result of opioid addiction.

The Commission has other, broader tasks. It will review existing sentencing law and practice to determine whether current statutory penalties are appropriate. It will also consider whether certain Vermont criminal offenses that carry only a monetary penalty should be reclassified as civil violations. In short, the Commission will determine how Vermont’s criminal laws can be transformed into a more rational criminal code.

This part of the Commission’s charge arises from the fact that Vermont’s current criminal law is somewhat of a hodgepodge. Some of the State’s crimes come from law developed by judges that has long since been written into statutes. Others were created by legislatures over the years, often triggered by a crime or social problem that gained public interest at the time, compelling the legislature to act. Over 850 criminal offenses are contained in various sections of the Vermont statutes. Statutory criminal prohibitions cover aspects of commercial interaction, environmental regulation, and traditional common law crimes of violence and property damage. Current penalties range from a fifty-cent fine to death.

The structure, or more accurately the lack of structure, of Vermont’s current criminal law presents several challenges. There are inconsistent penalties for conduct that deserves similar consequences. In addition, Vermont’s disparate criminal laws sometimes lack sufficient clarity for individuals to readily understand what conduct is prohibited and what the consequences are for engaging in illegal conduct. Without such clarity, the criminal law’s deterrence effect is weakened.

The Commission is made up of a diverse group of individuals involved in the criminal justice system: legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and representatives from the Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety, the Crime Research Group, and the Center for Crime Victim Services. I will be serving on behalf of the House Judiciary Committee. The Commission has met twice during the off-session and will submit a report and recommended legislation to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees by November 30, 2019.

Improving Public Safety

Events earlier this year both local and national have challenged Vermonters’ sense of security. The times we live in, when students are fearful about attending school and public spaces seem less safe, have called out for legislative action. In response, as I have explained in previous columns, the legislature passed rational gun restrictions earlier this year. In addition, the legislature passed Act 135, which provides an additional tool for law enforcement to improve public safety, and Act 190, which invests directly in school safety.

Act 135 creates a new crime: the felony of domestic terrorism. To show that a person has committed domestic terrorism, the prosecution must prove that the defendant took a “substantial step” toward violating a State criminal law intending to cause death or serious bodily injury to more than one person or intending to threaten any civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings or kidnapping.

A “substantial step” is an action that clearly indicates that the person is committed to engaging in future conduct that, if completed, would culminate in committing the offense. Under the substantial step test, the fact that an individual had to take further steps before completing the crime does not preclude a finding that the steps he or she has already undertaken are substantial and support a charge of domestic terrorism.
So, for example, if a person scouts out a public space or acquires an assault rifle without a lawful purpose, he could be charged with domestic terrorism if the prosecution can also show that he had the intent to kill multiple people. Without the domestic terrorism law, a prosecutor in such a situation might be able to charge attempted murder, but only if the person had been much closer to committing the crime, such as actually approaching the public space with a loaded weapon. Requiring such proximity to the actual crime in order to have a chargeable offense puts the public at higher risk.

Act 135 increases the penalty when a person knowingly possesses a firearm or a dangerous or deadly weapon on school property with the intent to injure another person. It would make a first offense a felony with a maximum sentence of three years, up from two. It would also increase the penalty for a second and subsequent offense to a maximum sentence of five years, up from three.

In Act 190, the General Assembly appropriated $4 million to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) for a School Safety and Security Grant Program (an article in the August 23rd issue of The Other Paper further explains this program). An additional $1 million for this purpose will come from federal funds. DPS must use the capital grants for planning, delivery, and equipment upgrades to existing school security equipment and for new school security equipment identified through threat assessment planning. Eligible security improvements include video monitoring and surveillance equipment, intercom systems, window coverings, exterior and interior doors, locks, and perimeter security measures. The South Burlington School District is receiving $83,859 from this grant program to help pay for $111,812 of school safety upgrades at the five district schools.

Act 190 also creates a School Safety Advisory Group to develop statewide guidelines and best practices concerning school safety and the prevention of school shootings. The Advisory Group is required to study the following issues and develop guidelines for Vermont schools: (1) improving security in and around school buildings and property, (2) ensuring staff and students know what they should do in the event of a school shooting or other incident, (3) sharing information with parents and the community if an event occurs, and (4) gathering information on security measures implemented in schools from state education and public safety departments in states where shootings have occurred. The Advisory Group is required to submit a written report to the General Assembly with its findings, including specific guidelines, best practices, and any recommendations for legislative action. In the interim, recommended school safety best practices are available from the Vermont School Safety Center.

These are helpful laws, but the legislature will need to continue to take steps to improve public safety in our State.

Addressing Threats to Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain is a critical resource for the State’s economy.  Vermonters and tourists swim, fish, and boat in it.  They drink its water and enjoy its beauty.  But the value of the lake has been under growing threat.  We know it contains too much phosphorous, a nutrient that stimulates excessive growth of algae.  Recently, though, another threat has captured our attention:  the release of untreated or partially treated wastewater that includes human waste, chemicals, pesticides, pathogens, and pharmaceuticals.

In 2018, over 10 million gallons of untreated wastewater and stormwater have been discharged into Lake Champlain.  These discharges are primarily the result of antiquated and inadequate infrastructure. Numerous Vermont communities use combined sewer systems – collection systems designed to convey sewage and stormwater through the same network of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant. In heavy rains, these systems are unable to handle the flow, leading to the discharge of untreated wastewater and stormwater through outlets, called outfalls, into State waterways.  Such discharges are referred to as combined sewer overflows (CSOs).  Heavy rains are not the only cause of CSOs, as seen in the recent discharge from Burlington’s system due to a computer malfunction.

In the past two years, the State has been making progress in addressing this issue, though much remains to be done.  Prior to September 2016, overflows were permitted discharges that did not violate any law, even if they included untreated wastewater.  By permitting CSOs, the State failed to incentivize towns to upgrade their systems or to separate wastewater from stormwater.

In 2016, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) adopted a new CSO rule.  The rule provides that, when a municipality obtains or renews a discharge permit, it must identify its CSO outfalls and work to eliminate them or reduce overflows. The municipality must implement technology-based minimum controls to reduce overflows.  If it is not able to provide these controls, the municipality must develop or update a Long Term Control Plan to abate and control its CSOs so that discharges meet Vermont Water Quality Standards.  Control alternatives can include reducing stormwater flows through the separation of combined stormwater and wastewater sewer lines, adding storage tanks or retention basins to hold overflow during storms, expanding treatment plant capacity, adding screening and disinfection facilities for overflow, and incorporating green stormwater infrastructure to reduce stormwater flow into combined sewer systems.

To implement the requirements of the CSO rule, municipalities will require significant funding.  In Act 103 of 2016 and Act 185 of 2018, the legislature amended the requirements for State grants and loans to make them more readily available to municipalities for infrastructure improvements to comply with the CSO rule.  Earlier this year, ANR adopted rules that establish a priority system for grants and loans for water pollution abatement projects.  This system takes into account how the improvements will affect public health and water quality, the resiliency and sustainability of the improvements, project readiness, and cost effectiveness.

Municipalities must take the lead in efforts to improve their wastewater infrastructure.  They must develop improvement projects, educate the public and seek input, and obtain public approval for bonding to help pay for the projects.  In turn, they can seek funding assistance through applying for grants and loans from the State.

Municipalities with CSOs are stepping up.  Numerous projects have been completed, are underway, or are in the planning stages.  This work is critical and should be expedited because, with climate change, the State will likely experience more frequent heavy rain events.  To ensure that municipalities are getting the job done, ANR has issued orders requiring them to come into compliance with the Combined Sewer Overflow rule and Vermont Water Quality Standards.  These orders are enforceable in State court.