The 2021-2022 biennium began in total virtual mode with legislators logging into Zoom from 150 locations across Vermont. We are mirroring the schedule of a normal in-person session, though the process of legislating remotely 5-7 hours per day is somewhat slower than normal. Despite these challenges, we are making progress on critical policy goals, including:
- Creating an equitable COVID recovery plan that rebuilds the economy in all 14 counties
- Increasing affordable housing options for Vermont’s working families
- Investing in the state’s child-care system to improve access, affordability, and quality
- Expanding broadband service to rural communities for telehealth, education, and remote work
- Crafting policies with a revised lens of racial and social equity that uplift BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable Vermonters
Below, I provide highlights of some of the work of the House Committees, starting with the Judiciary Committee, on which I serve.
Clarifying Police Use of Force
Near the end of the legislature’s extended session last year, and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide outcry that arose in response to it, we passed legislation establishing new standards for use of force by law enforcement officers that specifically prohibited chokeholds. This year we are revisiting and clarifying this law via H.145. All Vermonters deserve the assurance that they will not be subjected to excessive use of force by law enforcement in any situation. Our law enforcement officers deserve a clear and concise statement of what Vermont law allows and prohibits while they conduct their jobs and protect the public. Our work on this important legislation will add clarity to the law and better establish the protections for all Vermonters put in place last year.
Smoothing Paperwork Path for Home Buyers & Sellers
COVID has disrupted many aspects of our daily lives. One important event that has been completely altered is the buying or selling of a home. While we are in quarantine, it is not possible to get the buyers and sellers into the same room for the signing of legal documents. As a result of this, signings are currently being done by other people using power of attorney for the actual buyer and seller. Because this is a new process, it is inevitable that some of these documents will contain errors—not properly referencing the power of attorney used to carry out the signing of the documents, for example. We are working on a bill, H.199, that will ensure the validation of these documents despite the errors that may creep into the current process. Vermonters attempting to get through the challenges of COVID should not discover years later that one of the most important legal transactions they will ever conduct, the buying of their home, is not technically valid. We are working to ensure stability in this process for Vermont homeowners.
For additional details regarding the work of the Judiciary Committee, please review my post dated February 25, 2021.
Fiscal Year 2022 Budget
House Appropriations is currently working on the FY2022 budget, which covers the programs of state government and its community partner organizations from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022. The committee is on target to present its proposed budget to the full House in the middle of March.
Balancing the extraordinary infusion of federal and state revenues that will not be sustained over time while meeting the extraordinary need of Vermonters as they endure the pandemic are the principal challenges of developing the budget. In a typical year, there is a structural gap between revenues and expenditures. This year, when we have 10 times the usual number of people living in temporary housing, when we have five times the usual number of unemployed people, when every downtown and rural community has businesses that are struggling on a day-to-day basis, the challenge is making strategic use of non-recurring money that will help Vermont build back better.
The committee is going deep into the numbers, hearing budget testimony from all state-related entities from all three branches of government. It is looking at performance accountability in new and old initiatives. It has sought input from the public, hearing from 73 Vermonters in oral testimony and 29 in written testimony. It has also sought recommendations from each of the legislative policy committees.
The goals? To craft a fiscally responsible budget that supports and strengthens Vermont communities and families. To protect and lift up the most vulnerable Vermonters. To move us beyond a maintenance budget, across all 14 counties, and leave no one behind.
Federal Support: Dollars Flowing from DC
Since the early weeks of the pandemic in 2020, the COVID-related dollars flowing to Vermont from Washington have been substantial. As of mid-January 2021, the federal infusion equaled approximately 20 percent of our state’s economy. It is estimated to yet reach as much as 30 percent.
As of early December, approximately $5 billion had come to Vermont, much passing directly to agencies and departments for specified COVID relief purposes. Within this amount was the $1.25 billion that became the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), from which the legislature had authority to appropriate dollars to target specific support of Vermonters and their communities. Allocations ranged from assistance to dairy and non-dairy farms, working lands, state parks and other public lands to connectivity, health care stabilization, and childcare; to a variety of economic business sectors, both for-profit and nonprofit, to UVM and the Vermont State Colleges system; from municipalities and pre-K-12 school districts, to all manner of housing and justice-related entities.
Because use of CRF dollars had to follow strict federal guidance, until Washington unexpectedly changed that guidance at the very end of 2020, portions of allocations were reverted, reallocated, transferred. The bottom line is that, as of early February, $6.3 million was back in the CRF. The House Appropriations Committee is considering carefully so as to allocate those dollars to the greatest immediate needs.
Note that all of this federal help, with even more on the way, is one-time money. Once we are at the better side of the pandemic, Vermont must stand on its own in support of Vermonters coping with residual and on-going economic, emotional, and social hardship.
Commerce & Economic Development
Protecting Vermont’s Small Businesses
The COVID-19 pandemic has had serious impacts on many small businesses, including the hospitality, events, and tourism industries in particular. Over the past year, a number of federal and state grants and forgivable loans have helped to ensure the survival of these operations. However, some businesses (such as those started or purchased in 2020 or late 2019) have not qualified for nor been able to access this assistance due to program criteria. The legislature has been working with the Governor’s administration to create a $10 million “gap” grant program to help businesses that have received minimal to no assistance. This grant program recognizes that all businesses, whether new or smaller in size, play a critical role in the state’s economic recovery by putting Vermonters to work.
After the completion of a pilot program, the legislature is working with the Governor to devote $5 million to create the Better Places Program. This program would provide grants between $5,000 and $20,000 to improve the vitality of downtowns, with a focus on projects that can make an immediate impact to public spaces. Public area beautification, bike baths, use of vacant property and storefronts, enhancing farmers’ markets or community gardens, and projects to support downtown performing arts are examples of ways these funds could be used to revitalize town centers. Municipalities, community groups, and nonprofits would be eligible to apply.
A further budget request has been recommended to add $5 million to the Downtown Transportation Fund. This fund supports many larger projects aimed at improving the infrastructure of downtown centers, including streetscape improvements, street lighting, parking and signage upgrades, and pedestrian and bicycle safety.
Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife
Bringing the Bottle Bill into the 21st Century
Vermont’s beverage container and redemption law, the “Bottle Bill,” was enacted in 1973 to address roadside litter and increase recycling. It was last updated 30 years ago to add liquor bottles and containers of beer, wine coolers, and carbonated beverages. After three decades, another update is needed to address the growing variety of beverage containers and rising litter and recycling needs.
The update has three main parts. First, an increase in the deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents. The nickel deposit has not changed in nearly 50 years. If the deposit had kept up with inflation, it would be closer to 30 cents today. Second, an expansion of the types of containers accepted, to include wine bottles, hard cider and non-carbonated drinks except for milk. Third, bill would provide an increase in the handling fee given to vendors.
The Bottle Bill has been an effective policy that incentivizes recycling and reduces waste. Containers covered under the Bottle Bill have greater market value for recycling than those that go through the general recycling stream. Updating the Bottle Bill will allow us to capitalize on market demand and ensure that less waste ends up in the state’s only operating landfill.
Protecting Water Quality
Water quality standards are the foundational tool that the state uses in its efforts to restore and maintain the health and proper uses of its surface waters. These standards are codified in the federal Clean Water Act and approved by the EPA; they are used to assess the quality of water for drinking, swimming, fishing, boating, and habitat function.
H.108 clarifies the long-time interpretation and practice that Vermont’s water quality standards apply to all surface waters, including rivers, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. The bill also updates the state’s Clean Water Act Section 401 provision to help the state better manage large projects that may discharge to Vermont’s surface waters. This includes projects that are subject to a federal permit or license, such as an interstate energy project.
Promoting Forest Health & Biodiversity
The Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee is developing strategies to support forest health, including initiatives to support and enhance wildlands and intact forests. Protecting the biodiversity of our forests is essential. We are facing a moment in time when forest fragmentation, habitat loss, the loss of connecting habitat, and the introduction of invasive pest and plant species are severely impacting our wildlife, diminishing the abundance, diversity, and native species type of wildlife populations. Biodiverse forests not only protect our wildlife, they also store precipitation during severe weather events, and are a cost-effective means of sequestering (absorbing) and storing carbon. The committee is looking at how our neighbors, New Hampshire and Maine, support wildland conservation.
Equity & COVID Recovery
The focus of the Education Committee’s work this year has been equity and the intentional allocation of educational resources, instruction, access, and opportunities according to need. We started by hearing updates from Vermont schools on their COVID-19 response plan and how they will continue to move all students forward into the recovery and learning re-engagement phase. Common themes emerged: the most at-risk students need critical supports, the social and emotional needs of students are significant, access to stable internet has been an ongoing challenge, staffing is difficult due to COVID, and capacity and resources have been seriously stretched. Through all these challenges, staff and students have shown remarkable innovation and resiliency. We’ll continue to keep an eye on equity as we seek to better serve all students statewide, while directing our resources in a targeted way to assist students who struggle.
School Construction: Taking Stock & Studying Funding
Built decades ago, it’s no secret that many of Vermont’s school buildings are aging and in dire need of repair. We are working on addressing the state of our school buildings and significant deferred maintenance needs by moving forward with a committee bill (DR 21-0782). Vermont is currently the only state in New England without a school construction funding program; with the exception of emergency projects, our aid program has been suspended since 2007. The proposed language starts with an update of the school facility standards and a statewide needs assessment survey for all school buildings. It also includes a report on funding options due in December 2022. Improving the physical learning space yields healthy and energy-efficient facilities and better educational outcomes.
Education Funding: The Weighting Study
The committee is continuing to address proposed changes to Vermont’s education funding formula. A December 2019 legislative study conducted by UVM (Study of Pupil Weights in Vermont’s Education Funding Formula) concluded that the manner in which the state calculates the cost of educating certain categories of students (including low-income students, English language learners, secondary and preK, and rural students) is outdated and inaccurate. While this work is starting in the Senate, the committee is discussing various proposals regarding how to implement the report’s recommendations and provide more equitable funding across the state.
Vermont State Colleges: A Critical Crossroads
Last year, former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding touched off a firestorm when he published a white paper on the crisis facing the Vermont State Colleges. In response, the legislature passed Act 120 of 2020, which created the Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education to address “the urgent needs of the Vermont State Colleges and develop an integrated vision and plan for a high-quality, affordable, and workforce-connected future for public higher education” in Vermont. Working with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), the committee delivered its second report to the legislature on February 12. The report urges the legislature to “act with urgency” in providing sufficient funding — over the next six fiscal years — to keep the state colleges stable while VSC commits to a far-reaching restructuring plan. Recommendations include maintaining the Community College of Vermont as a separate entity focused on sub-baccalaureate and workforce-relevant training (especially for adults); combining Vermont Tech, Castleton, and Northern Vermont University under a single accreditation; and an “aggressive coordination” of administrative services. The FY22 budget request of $67.4 million includes a historic $30 million base appropriation, funding to cover the ongoing structural deficit (gap between anticipated revenues and expenses), and investments in institutional transformation (IT, project management, marketing and more).
Corrections and Institutions
Funding Capital Projects at State & Local Level
The Corrections and Institutions Committee continues to take testimony regarding the Governor’s proposed Capital Budget. The $123 million proposal funds building and infrastructure projects across state departments through the allocation of bonded dollars each biennium. Projects in the pipeline span restoring the slate roofs at the Waterbury State Office Complex, replacing door controls at Southern State Correctional Facility, relocating the courthouse in Newport, and an overhaul of the parking garage at 108 Cherry Street in Burlington. While the majority of funds go to specifically planned projects, a significant amount of money is designated for grants and loans to Vermont communities.
This locally-focused component of the Capital Budget creates important opportunities for municipalities and community entities to leverage state dollars to initiate projects, stimulate growth, and address local needs. Some of the grant and loan opportunities considered include:
- Building Community Grants (these cover a variety of areas, from recreation and cultural facilities to historic barn restoration and economic development initiatives)
- Agricultural Water Quality Grants
- Drinking Water State Revolving Fund
- Municipal Pollution Control Grants
- Land Conservation and Water Quality Projects
Visit each program’s website to learn more about the application process and deadlines.
Corrections: Investigating Allegations, Changing the Culture
The Corrections and Institutions Committee recently reviewed a report produced at the request of the Agency of Human Services by law firm Downs Rachlin Martin. Committee members took extensive testimony about the issues the report raised, as well as the intention of Department of Corrections to change its culture. The report was the culmination of months of investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and exploitation at the Chittenden Women’s Correctional Facility. While clear guidelines have been in place regarding these issues since 2014, numerous misconduct allegations were reported nonetheless. Interim Commissioner James Baker wants to incorporate many of the DRM report recommendations seeking to change the workplace environment in the state’s correctional facilities and throughout DOC. Proposed changes include: having staff that provide direct service to incarcerated individuals wear body cameras, having pre-employment polygraph tests, and forming both an advisory commission and a special investigation commission to address these kinds of misconduct.
Energy & Technology
Broadband: Supporting Rural Buildout
Access to high-speed internet is essential to daily life. We use the internet to go to work, attend school, see a doctor, interact with government, and connect with our community and the world. Unfortunately, the promise of modern communications has bypassed many rural communities in Vermont.
H.360 seeks to accelerate community broadband deployment throughout Vermont. Key elements include: funding for pre-construction expenses, expanded grants and loans for building broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas, a new workforce development program, and protections for Vermonters’ privacy and unrestricted access to the internet. This bill would bring over $50 million of new capital to support the construction of community-based fiber assets in the most underserved parts of the state.
The legislation also establishes the Vermont Community Broadband Authority to coordinate and fund broadband buildout, to support Vermont’s regional communications union districts (CUDs) and their partners, and to advocate at the federal level for programs and policies that will accelerate the deployment of universal broadband in rural Vermont.
Modernizing Our IT Infrastructure
For decades, Vermont has under-invested in state government’s information technology infrastructure. By dedicating a significant down payment to long-deferred IT projects this year while establishing a funding mechanism for ongoing upgrades, we can address an issue that affects all of state government. The pace required to keep up with the necessary technology replacements and maintain hundreds of applications requires a systemic approach and consistent funding. In particular, the fast-evolving cyber-security landscape brings new threats to the functionality of government systems and the security of private information.
The legislature is considering one-time investments for systems upgrades such as replacing the four-decade-old mainframe at the Department of Motor Vehicles, modernizing the Bright Futures Information System to serve childcare programs, addressing severe technology constraints at the Department of Labor’s unemployment program, and making critical cybersecurity upgrades.
Weatherization: Energy Savings & Healthier Homes
Vermont has some of the most energy-inefficient housing stock in the nation. Addressing this issue can help our state meet its climate goals, save Vermonters money, improve our local economy, and help citizens be more comfortable and healthy in their homes. The legislature will be providing increased support for accelerated weatherization programs. Weatherizing a home often pays for the investment in less than five years and provides continued reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, energy costs, and health care costs, while increasing public health, for many years into the future.
General, Housing & Military Affairs
A Place at the Bargaining Table for All School Employees
In Act 11 of 2018, the General Assembly set up a mechanism for negotiating school employees’ health care benefits on a statewide basis. The first go-round convinced both sides that Act 11 needed statutory revisions. The House passed those revisions, which incorporate recommendations from both the Vermont National Educators Association and the Vermont School Boards Association, on February 17. The bill would allow negotiation teams to bargain premium shares and out-of-pocket expenses that are different for support staff members, teachers, and administrators. If the parties are unable to reach agreement, current law provides a dispute resolution process. H.81 would increase the transparency of this process, particularly related to the health insurance costs to be borne by employees and employers.
Formal Apology for Eugenics
House General is considering a Joint Resolution (J.R.H.2) that would formally apologize for the role of the Vermont General Assembly in supporting Vermont’s eugenics program. In 1931, the General Assembly officially endorsed eugenics through statute by passing an “Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization,” which sought to prevent procreation of “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons” to improve the public welfare. Historians testified that eugenics project activities extended beyond sterilization to removing children from their families and institutionalizing or incarcerating individuals, with generational implications.
The resolution recognizes and apologizes for the General Assembly’s role in state-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices. In addition to the apology, the resolution further commits that further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impact of eugenics policies and the related practices of disenfranchisement, ethnocide, and genocide in Vermont.
U.S. Census & VT Reapportionment
The U.S. Constitution calls for a nationwide census and reapportionment process every 10 years. This ensures that any population changes are reflected in legislative districts to maintain equal representation. This time around, COVID and other factors have thrown a wrench in the gears, and the Government Operations Committee is hearing that the U.S. Census data won’t be ready until September 30.
While Vermont doesn’t have a big job with our single U.S. Congressional district, state legislative districts will have to be aligned with any population shifts. One national trend that may impact some districts is a move away from multiple-member districts. Last year, the legislature passed a bill to change the Chittenden County format from one district with six senators to two districts with three senators. The current state population sets the suggested number of constituents per House district at 4,200. The Secretary of State’s website has a map with some preliminary looks at reapportionment and some districts that are not meeting the 4,200 threshold. That process will have a different timeline now, given the Census delay. Learn more here.
Pensions: Bridging the Unfunded Gap
State pensions are grabbing lots of headlines recently. Vermont oversees the pension management for three groups: state employees; teachers in pre-K to 12 schools; and municipal workers. The upkeep and viability of these funds is a vital oversight concern for the Legislature. In a January report, Treasurer Beth Pearce recommended changes that would significantly reduce the $4.5 billion unfunded pension and other retirement liabilities — for example, increasing employee contributions or reducing cost-of-living adjustments for future retirees — but it’s important to remember that her report is just a starting point. The Speaker has committed to bringing together all stakeholders to craft an equitable solution, and the Government Operations Committee has so far heard from the Joint Fiscal Office, Treasurer Pearce, and key employee groups. The process of determining the best course of action will be time-consuming and laborious. Stay tuned.
Solutions for Healthcare Workforce Crisis
Vermont is facing a healthcare workforce crisis. The Rural Health Task Force submitted a report on January 10, 2020 (before COVID) that highlighted needs in nearly all healthcare professions and settings. One year later, we have an even deeper understanding of the needs of our healthcare workforce.
The Health Care Committee is exploring this problem in depth. We know that the population in Vermont and our healthcare workforce is aging. Demand for healthcare and long-term care services and support are increasing. It is estimated that roughly 5,000 nursing-related positions were needed prior to the pandemic, a deficit that’s likely to increase.
Solutions are being implemented to address this problem, including scholarships and loan forgiveness for healthcare providers, tax incentives to retain newly graduated nurses, and modifying professional requirements so more nurses can be trained. One particularly exciting new program is the Vermont Workforce Loan Program (VWLP). Since inception, the VWLP has awarded 69 scholarships to students in LPN/RN programs. This compares to 5–8 annual scholarships awarded in previous years since 2015. The Health Care Committee is exploring how to extend and expand this program.
Addressing Healthcare Disparities
A disturbing reality has been brought into focus by the pandemic. Data from a December 2020 Vermont Department of Health report reflects the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC): “Although BIPOC Vermonters represent 6% of the population, they represent 18% of COVID-19 cases. In addition, BIPOC Vermonters have significantly higher hospitalization and chronic disease rates, relative to white non-Hispanic people with COVID-19.” A recent Health Department survey reveals that health disparities are greatest for Vermonters of color, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, and those living in poverty.
H. 210, an act relating to addressing disparities in the healthcare system, was introduced to address these worrisome concerns. The bill proposes to: (1) establish the Office of Health Equity; (2) establish the Health Equity Advisory Commission; (3) issue grants for the promotion of health equity; (4) collect data to better understand health disparities in Vermont; and (5) require an additional two hours of continuing education on cultural competency in the practice of medicine.
Meeting Mental Health Needs
The Health Care Committee has spent significant time and focus on mental health in Vermont, taking testimony from the Department of Mental Health, designated agencies, and specialized service agencies. Mental health is an essential part of overall health for adults, children, and families. The committee is exploring funding avenues to strengthen our system, as we know there will be increased demand as a result of pandemic-related stress. Pathways Vermont Support Line, funded by the Department of Mental Health, has averaged 1,200 calls per month in the last year with a dramatic increase of calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Support Line is open 24/7 to provide confidential, nonjudgmental support and connection to all Vermonters. Anyone can call (833) VT-TALKS or to text, use (833) 888-2557. COVID-19 has significantly increased the stress in all our lives and having these resources available is crucial.
COVID-19 Response: Ensuring Lasting, Equitable Recovery
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented public health emergency. In response, the legislature has worked tirelessly to leave no Vermonter behind. We dedicated more than $60 million in hazard pay to our essential workers. We allocated the resources necessary for long-term care facilities to deliver services safely to older Vermonters. We assisted mental health and substance use counselors to operate remotely through telehealth. We provided the resources to sustain childcare and afterschool programs and supported organizations that assist our most vulnerable Vermonters.
With the vaccine roll-out well underway, we are expecting the next round of federal funding to continue supporting our communities. These federal funds, passed in December 2020, will further assist the state’s COVID testing, contact tracing, and vaccination efforts. Emergency rental assistance will be provided to help those who cannot pay rent or utility bills. Childcare providers will receive a boost in funding, as will mental health and substance use prevention programs. The legislature looks forward to continuing the work with our communities to ensure that relief efforts go to those who need it most.
Ambitious Plan for Childcare System
High-quality childcare is an investment in Vermont’s future. By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare worker wages, we can support and grow our early educator workforce. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving the next generation of Vermonters a head start to success.
H.171 will make these investments a reality. The reforms offered in this bill are based on feedback from Vermont’s parents, providers, employers, and community members. Not only does H.171 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.
We know that childcare is essential to keeping our communities strong. Meanwhile, Vermont’s childcare system is sorely in need of resources. H.171 is a monumental step towards funding childcare in a way that reflects its true value to our state.
Sustainable Future for Community-Based Care
Thousands of Vermonters, from the very young to the very old, are supported by private nonprofit providers who accept Medicaid as payment for services. These providers are often referred to as home and community-based providers. They serve people with a variety of risk factors including, but not limited to significant healthcare issues and drug and alcohol use. They also support needs related to aging, mental health issues, and developmental disabilities. As a state, our policy reflects the evidence-based findings that people achieve the best care and outcomes when served in their communities, close to friends and family, rather than in institutional settings. However, we have yet to develop a sustainable system to pay for these community-based services. H.153 begins to provide the framework to consider changes and recognize cost of living adjustments to the Medicaid rate reimbursement system for these critical supports to vulnerable Vermonters.
Transportation Modernization Act
The Transportation Modernization Act of 2021, introduced with 70 co-sponsors, moves climate and equity goals into the Transportation Budget Bill. The bill seeks to:
- Save Vermonters money
- Reduce climate pollution
- Expand existing programs like the state electric vehicle (EV) incentive and Mileage Smart
- Make it easier for low- and moderate-income Vermonters to purchase low- and zero-emissions vehicles that are cheaper to fuel and maintain
- Continue fare-free transit to eliminate transportation costs for people who might not be able to afford it otherwise
- Expand the Complete Streets program and improve high-traffic corridors for cyclists and pedestrians
The associated costs would ideally be funded through the increased federal monies that are coming to Vermont to support transportation. The committee will work with the Administration to find the right financial allocations for these goals.
Infusion of Federal Funds
The Transportation Committee has moved into high gear during this virtual legislative session and has been working on priorities like investing in community infrastructure, maintaining our highways and bridges, increasing rider access and affordability in suburban and rural communities, incentivizing the transition to electric vehicles, and making high-MPG cars more affordable for all income levels.
While transportation revenues remain below pre-COVID levels, we are fortunate to be receiving an infusion of federal funds, an estimated $50 million with the potential for more. The committee is determining the best use of these funds to support Vermonters by comparing the recommended budget from the Administration with the priorities of committee members.
Transition to Electric Vehicles
The legislature and administration have supported several efforts in recent years to help Vermonters transition to electric vehicles and to expand EV public infrastructure across the state. The Agency of Transportation serves on an interagency team that’s administering the current grant program for charging stations. The first two funding rounds granted approximately $1 million to add roughly 30 charging stations across Vermont. The third funding round will dedicate about $1.7 million to fill gaps in the fast-charging network along highway corridors. Once constructed, these new charging stations will put fast chargers within about 30 miles of almost every address in Vermont.
In the FY22 budget, the committee is reviewing the continued financial support needed to expand Level 2 charging at workplaces, multi-unit dwellings, downtowns, and other destinations. The legislature worked with various stakeholders to remove the Public Utility Commission jurisdiction over public charging stations, thus allowing charging companies to construct and operate new stations without the need to obtain a Certificate of Public Good and to price charging by per-kilowatt hour.
Federal grants have increased Vermont’s ability to purchase electric buses for the statewide transit system. Two buses are currently in service and an additional 12 have been ordered. In the FY22 Transportation Bill, the committee is reviewing a long-range plan that outlines the costs, timeline, training, maintenance and operational actions required to move to a fully-electrified public transportation fleet.
With the assistance of electric distribution utilities, Drive Electric Vermont (DEV) continues to administer a point-of-sale or lease incentive program for new plug-in electric vehicles. DEV provides consumer education and outreach relating to electric vehicles, research and data tracking, and stakeholder coordination.
Ways & Means
House Ways and Means
The Ways and Means Committee views its work in the context of six pillars that underlie good tax policy: sustainability and reliability, economic competitiveness, fairness, simplicity, accountability, and tax neutrality.
School Budgets & Yield Bill
Every year the legislature sets the education property tax rate in the “Yield Bill.” This is a complicated formula based on the sum of school district budgets, the number of equalized pupils, and the balance needed in the Education Fund after other revenue is taken into account. This has been a difficult year for revenue projections (along with everything else) and a letter from the Tax Department sent in December, based on outdated projections, pointed to significantly increased tax rates. Fortunately, thanks to significant federal spending and direct federal payments to individuals, we saw increased consumer spending statewide that led to revenues in the Education Fund above and beyond our expectations. Much of this spending happened online and Vermont has been well-poised to collect sales tax on those online sales because of recent legislation allowing us to collect taxes on online purchases sold into the state.
Additionally, proposed spending from school districts, as reported to the Agency of Education and not yet approved by voters, points to a lower increase in school budgets than anticipated. If this trend continues, the average education spending increase—which is what tax rates are based on—will be less than 1 percent. We will continue to work on this issue and on final rates, but this is the latest in a series of signals that our education property tax rates are likely to be substantially lower than were predicted in December. The yield bill that was passed out of committee (H.152) will likely keep property taxes close to flat across the state.
Tax Structure Commission Recommendations
Approximately every 10 years, the Vermont Legislature charges an independent tax commission with looking across our system of taxation to make recommendations for the future. We just received a draft of their report, and it includes recommendations for moving to a fully income-based system of education taxes, broadening the sales tax base, and seeking to tax wealth more accurately through capital gains, estate tax changes, and more. Their recommendations are not immediately actionable but will help guide our work over the next few bienniums.
Corporate Income Tax Changes
Proposed corporate tax changes in H.189 are intended to shift the tax burden away from corporations with a significant physical presence in Vermont by (1) changing to a “single sales factor,” a switch many neighboring states have made as our national economy moves towards a higher proportion of service-based corporate income; (2) changing methodologies to determine how to apportion profits (from the “Joyce Rule” to the “Finnigan Rule” — for a deep dive, click here); and (3) changing how to consider any corporate sales not taxed in any other state when assessing total and apportionable sales. Our intent is for the corporate tax burden, in general, to continue a shift to out-of-state corporations and support our Vermont employers.
Agriculture & Forestry
Working Lands & Farm to School
While new bills, like babies, often attract much oo-ing and ah-ing, it’s good policy for committees to check in with the “legacies” of past legislation. Early in the session, the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry heard “what have you been up to?” testimony on two programs it helped create and cultivate: the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEI) and the Farm to School program (F2S). Working Lands (which provides grants and consulting for rural economic development projects) is such a success that the Governor has proposed adding $3 million in a one-time appropriation to next year’s WLEI budget. F2S, which advocates for, and coordinates, getting local food into our schools, is an on-going win-win-win (farmers benefit economically, healthy students are more focused, schools achieve better results); the only restriction on expanding its success is financial, as there are never enough dollars for deserving programs.
Ag & Food: Road Map for the Future
Eighteen months in the making, with input from over 1,500 Vermonters, the Vermont Agriculture & Food System Strategic Plan 2021-2030 debuted in February with much fanfare and appreciation. A collaboration between the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Farm to Plate team (F2P) and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM), the work provides, as Secretary Tebbetts summarized, “a road map to the future.” “The Big Book,” all 200 spiral-bound pages of it, is made up of 54 product, market, and issue briefs. For the next decade, this go-to resource will be the dog-eared “Ag bible” for policymakers and stakeholders, not to mention a good read for select boards and planning commissions, and a must-have for town libraries. Let’s just say you want to know what the bottlenecks in hop production are. It’s there. Or you want to dig into Vermont food opportunities in major metropolitan markets. It’s there. Or you want to see what the experts recommend for food security, or farm succession, or racial equity in the Vermont food system. It’s all there. Not to mention strategic goals, priority strategies, and credits for the 52 lead authors and 111 expert contributors. Available online at: vtfarmtoplate.com/plan/ or, if you ask the F2Pers nicely, as a hard copy.