How has it been just a few short weeks since the Inauguration? The relief is palpable in the virtual statehouse while we continue to grapple with accountability, urgency, and progress.
Among other glorious things that come with a new administration, we’re anticipating significant federal spending in policy areas that align with our Vermont legislative priorities: child care, family leave, food access, housing, and broadband. Direct payments to Vermont families through unemployment assistance and federal stimulus/survival checks have resulted in unanticipated state revenues from consumption and transfer taxes. This means that we have opportunities to do work that felt unavailable when we closed out the last biennium in October.
The legislative process is slow, at its best it is thoughtful, deliberative, and inclusive. At its worst, we put off decisions to a far off future hoping that we’ll have more courage next time. The work requires patience and discernment and an almost naive level of optimism. I’ve been thinking about the particular flavor of hope that our work demands when supporting the amazing new group of legislators that joined us this biennium. They’re doing their work without the social context that the building provides, in the middle of a pandemic, amidst all the pressures of home life and legislative life simultaneously. I gave the following devotional on the house floor for them.
Below you’ll find: updates from the floor, committee, issue caucuses, bills, and opportunities to participate (in that order so feel free to hop around.)
The biennium begins slowly as bills are slowly sent to committees and begin hearings. However a few, more timely bills have come to the floor for a vote:
- An extension of a COVID specific provision for Workers Compensation assumes that employees with COVID got it at work unless the place of business is following all safety protocols.
- Budget Adjustment Act: the Vermont House approved a mid-year technical adjustment to keep the state’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget in balance. H.138 passed with strong support and also included investments to support the Legislature’s continuing response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Some funding highlights include: Coronavirus Relief Funds for emergency food, hotel-housing for the homeless, and rental assistance; continuation of the Everyone Eats program through June 2021; funding for technical assistance to implement the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020; and completion of broadband extension projects
- On Friday we declined the Governor’s Executive Order to restructure the Dept of Public Safety. The issue of our patch work of dispatch, policing, and wardens is a complex puzzle that will take the Gov Ops committee some time to unpack and hear testimony. We thought it best to preserve the power of the legislative branch to do so, and hear from all impacted parties before proceeding.
On the Ways and Means Committee two pieces of our work stand out:
- The Yield Bill: Every year the legislature sets the education property tax rate for the year 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 Ed 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 Dept sent in December pointed to significantly increased tax rates. Fortunately, tax revenues from sales tax, and meals and rooms tax were much higher than expected and thus the gap in the fund was smaller than anticipated. The yield bill that we passed last week will likely keep property taxes close to flat across the state.
- Approximately every ten years, the Vermont Legislature commissions an independent Tax Commission to look across our system of taxation and make recommendations for the future. We just received a draft of their report. The report 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 will help guide our work over the next few biennium.
I’m a member of five different issue caucuses in the legislature. We meet weekly to work across committees and chambers to move legislation forward.
- Since the biennium began, the Climate Caucus has heard policy ideas, including an increase in weatherization infrastructure across the state, a transportation modernization bill, and a few others. The caucus has heard from speakers on the importance of racial justice and how it is connected to environmental justice, along with discussing the ways to expand environmental practices to low/moderate income Vermonters. We track the work of the newly appointed, Vermont Climate Council. The council created working committees to focus on rural resilience and adaptation, cross sector mitigation, just transitions, agricultural and ecosystems, and science and data, and more information can be found here. The Caucus meets every other week, and is open to the public on the VT Climate Caucus YouTube page. The next meeting will be February 18th.
- The Social Equity Caucus meets weekly to discuss current issues disproportionately affecting BIPOC communities. Topics have included new legislation, links between racism and child protection, and the impact of COVID-19. The Caucus has stressed the importance of new legislation concerning shifting funds for BIPOC businesses, introducing data-tracking to ensure more funds are allocated to BIPOC communities, and a new Land Access Bill that concentrates on land conservation and affordable housing. The Caucus meets every Wednesday morning and will discuss vaccination issues facing Vermonters at its next meeting.
- As a member of the Vermont Women's Caucus I have been meeting weekly with other legislators and interest groups to discuss issues surrounding women, childcare, and correctional facilities. The caucus has heard from affiliated interest groups such as Let's Grow Kids, Vermont Works for Women. and Women's Justice Freedom Initiative. We have heard from our colleagues on policy ideas and the caucus continued to look at systemic issues Vermont is faced with. The Caucus meets Fridays at noon and will next meet on February 12th.
- The Rural Economic Development Working Group has heard from the Vermont Council on Rural Development regarding the Working Lands Enterprise Fund. The Fish and Wildlife Commissioner presented on the recommendations around Act 250 and Governor Scott’s executive order to modify the Act. The Working Group also discussed the proposed Better Places program, a place-based economic effort to revitalize and improve public spaces. The working group meets on Thursdays at 8am, and will next meet on February 11th.
- I’m proud to be co-chair of the Working Vermonters’ Caucus. Over the last month we’ve appointed members in each policy committee to focus their attention on how legislation will impact low and middle income Vermonters and their ability to make it work. In addition to tracking bills, we’ve formed three work groups to focus on education/workforce development, finance, and workers protections. We meet every Wednesday at 5pm and you’re welcome to join.
I’ve introduced nine bills as lead sponsor this biennium and signed on as a cosponsor to many others. You can find hyperlinks to all of them here.
- VEGI transparency: the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive program is one of the State’s economic incentive programs. This bill seeks to clarify both the intent of the program (to create good jobs in Vermont) and to hold the program accountable to that intent by increasing reporting requirements.
- Non-Competes: this bill which passed the House last year, but wasn’t able to make it through the Senate, places strict limits on employer’s ability to use non-compete clauses in standard employment contracts.
- UI fix: our Unemployment Insurance System assumes fraud on the part of Vermonters. This bill contains a number of technical fixes to ease access to benefits, remove punishments for clerical errors, and enable the Dept. to better meet Vermonter’s needs.
- Early Care and Ed: I was glad to see more than 90 of my colleagues join me as cosponsors on this bill. This bill begins a five year strategy to make child-care affordable for families, and expand the workforce by significantly raising wages and educational opportunities for early care and education providers. By pulling both of these policy levers simultaneously, we hope to create a high quality, affordable, and accessible system for Vermont families. You can watch the press conference here.
- Right to Repair Agricultural Equipment requires manufacturers of electronics-enabled equipment used in agriculture to make available to farmers, ranchers, and independent repair providers, the documentation, parts, and tools used to diagnose, maintain, and repair such equipment.
- The good jobs bill proposes to require that employers receiving State funds through grants or contracts comply with certain governance, operations, hiring, and employment practices. Those include: good cause, reliable schedules, fair hiring, fair worker pay ratios, and respect for union organizing efforts. With all that we know about this pandemic— that it expanded existing divides between rich and poor, blue and white collar workers, the secure and the precarious— we want to ensure that any dollars that we’re able to leverage as a state don’t further exacerbate that divide.
- We also know that COVID has magnified the tenuous economic position of front line low wage workers who are predominantly women and BIPOC. UI claims and job loss in the final quarter of 2020 was almost entirely attributable to these populations. Service and other low wage workers experience specific structural challenges to stability including less job protections in their contracts, and less control over their schedules. We want to ensure that in this time of precariousness we are doing all we can to support stable employment. Here’s a great article about the issue. The stable jobs bill seeks to do three things:
Requires just cause for termination
Requires employers to communicate schedules far enough in advance for workers to plan their lives (especially childcare!)
Requires employers to compensate employees for certain work from home expenses.
- Family Medical Leave Insurance: my colleague, Rep Scheu and I introduced a bill that took the best pieces of the bill that was negotiated last session and ultimately vetoed and reintroduced with 70 cosponsors. This bill for universal family medical leave insurance is publicly administered and guarantees leave for family bonding, caretaking, as well as personal medical leave. The pandemic has placed the need for more comprehensive leave programs in stark relief. We’re hopeful that we can take up this bill if the Biden administration steps up to their promises on this issue.
- Short Term Rental Regulation limits the use of short term rentals to properties where someone lives full time. Non-resident rental properties can still be operated but will need to be licensed as B&Bs or long term rentals or hotels.
A few updates:
- Based on the commissioned recommendations of the State Treasurer, the legislature will likely make changes to the state administered pension plans this year. This will be a slow and careful process, with significant time and space for collaboration with the unions. The significant unfunded liability is not the fault of the current legislature nor the workers who are captive to it, but we will all suffer if a remedy isn’t found. If you or someone you know would like more details on this, please reach out, I’m happy to discuss details.
- Vaccines are here! Vermont has almost finished vaccinating healthcare workers and is currently vaccinating Vermonters who are 75 and over. The next band will be 70+, and then 65+. You can learn more and sign up (or help someone else sign up) at the Health Dept’s website. Vaccine choices were made by the administration based on risk of fatality rather than risk of infection or spread.
- Vermonters are invited to weigh in on the Governor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget about the state programs and services they care about. The House and Senate Committees on Appropriations will be hosting hearings to receive public input on Mon., Feb. 8, from 1-2 pm and 6-7 pm via videoconference. To testify, please register in advance (no later than Feb. 5) through the online form. You can view the Governor’s FY 2022 recommended state budget here.
As always, please connect with me through:
- My weekly virtual coffee hour every Saturday at 10am, registration link here;
- The Montpelier Happy Hour where I unpack legislation with Olga Peters each Friday; and
- My newsletters and social media feeds (facebook, twitter, insta links below.) You can find past newsletters on the “blog” tab of my website.
And please keep in mind, I’m still available for help navigating any services (or lack thereof) with you: unemployment insurance, housing challenges, health care. Now more than ever, I’m honored to do this work with all of you. Thank you, and please be in touch.
Yours in solidarity,