The Federal landscape continues to bring home the bacon with our powerful Senate duo.
The latest COVID-19 federal relief package, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), provides $1.9 trillion in nationwide funding, programs and tax policies aimed at mitigating the continuing effects of the pandemic. Passed by the U.S. Congress in early January, the sweeping legislation provides funding for state and local government, education, broadband, infrastructure, childcare, agriculture, energy … and the list goes on.
The personal impacts are huge and exciting, especially for those of us with dependent children. I really appreciated this graphic from the NYTimes to understand what would be coming into my pocket.
In total, Vermont is slated to receive approximately $2.7 billion in new federal stimulus funds through ARPA. More than half of these funds will flow directly to Vermont's federal agencies, individuals, local governments, education institutions and others, leaving approximately $1 billion for the state to strategically allocate and spend. On a state level, we’ve allocated some of the federal relief dollars on housing, childcare, broadband, and mental health, while leaving significant dollars on the table to be included in our budget for next year. The money going directly to towns and schools is an unusual opportunity and we’re doing our best to create technical assistance and coordination opportunities to ensure that we make the best of this bounty.
Below you'll find:
- Updates From the Floor
- In Committee
- Bills I'm Working On
- Covid Connections
- Opportunities to Participate
Feel free to hop around!
Updates From the Floor
On Thursday, the House voted to decriminalize possession of “therapeutic” quantities of buprenorphine. H. 225 took years of advocacy to get passed, and is one piece of a broader set of “harm-reduction” strategies. Olga and I talked to the co-directors of COSU about these strategies earlier in the session, link here. This life saving drug is used by Vermonters as an alternative to heroin, either as part of a path to recovery or for maintenance use. The debate on this bill was one of the most striking and compassionate conversations I’ve witnessed to date. Members from across the political spectrum expressed curiosity, consideration, and ultimately a deep certainty to put their own judgements aside and focus on saving lives. I was proud of the work we did, awash with grief for the neighbors who have already died, and hopeful that democracy can move a little bit faster sometimes. I gratefully voted yes to put personal decisions in the hands of my neighbors and save lives.
It is clearly the season of reflection and humility as the Vermont House also offered a formal apology for our role in the Eugenics. I encourage you to watch the reading and learn the history here. As I said in my floor speech: I come from a family that was, and is deeply impacted by genocide. While the Holocaust that left many of my family dead and many more displaced was two generations ago, the legacy of it was very present in my childhood and shaped who I am today. Specifically relevant to this moment is the distrust of government and neighbors, and the belief that those who seemed friendly could turn on us at any moment. My family, in coming to America, was able to retain some aspects of their ethnic identity. And by my generation, we were able to rebuild a trust in government, enough for me to devote myself towards the idea that government can be a force for good. What I’ve intimately learned in the last decade, working within Vermont’s social work system, is that the eugenics movement that started here and spread to Nazi Germany robbed many families of both culture and identity for those who survived but also of their trust in government. This deep distrust that I saw explicitly in our social work system but I know goes deeper, carries through to today. I’m hopeful that this apology, deeply felt by so many of our members, can be a starting point in healing and working together to reclaim the idea of government as a force for good.
There were other good votes this week as well:
H.157: An act relating to registration of construction contractors is seen by many green builders as an opportunity to bring more education and opportunity to the field, and is a great step for consumer protections.
H.227: An act relating to approval of amendments to the charter of the City of Winooski, expands voting rights in local elections to non-citizens. Winooski is the second town in Vermont to pass this charter, and Burlington’s is expected to pass later this year. Brattleboro’s own charter change for 16 and 17yo voting will be picked up by the Government Operations committee later this year.
H.315: A 98 million dollar COVID relief bill was passed by both bodies and is sitting on the governor’s desk.
- $15 million to help schools improve indoor air quality;
- $5.5 million for summer meals for families; $4 million for after-school and summer programs;
- $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, primarily for businesses impacted by COVID-19 that have not received any prior state or federal COVID-related aid;
- $10 million to support community initiatives to strengthen the outdoor recreation economy, and to improve access to public outdoor recreation areas such as trail heads, boat launches and state parks;
- $10 million to provide safe shelter and housing for low-income and at-risk Vermonters;
- $5 million to stabilize low- and moderate-income homeowners and prevent foreclosures;
- $8.2 million to the Vermont State Colleges, UVM and VSAC to provide up to two free classes to adult Vermonters looking to boost job skills or change careers, to provide up to two free classes to all 2020 and 2021 high-school grads, and to train more LPNs;
- $4 million to make mental health services more accessible;
- and $1.3 million to support ReachUp families. Plus allocations for working lands, broadband, environmental clean-up, and New Americans and immigrants.
This week I’m hopeful that the Office of Child, Youth, and Family Advocate will come to the house floor, as well as a bill that takes advantage of some federal tax changes to lower health care premium costs. You can check out our work anytime on the legislative website here.
In the Ways and Means Committee:
We’ve begun conversations on a broadening of the sales tax base and a lowering of the rate, in order to get more money directly to municipalities. This is an idea we will continue into the next session. We are realigning how corporations who operate in multiple states calculate their Vermont tax liability by moving to a “single sales factor.” This means that the responsibility of taxation falls more heavily on businesses that aren’t investing in people or property here in Vermont. This same bill will recalibrate our corporate minimum tax to lower rates for corporations making less that 100,000 per year and add new brackets at the top for 250 million and 500 million.
Included in this same corporate reform bill is a sales tax exemption for menstrual products. We’re also working with the education committee to ensure menstrual products are freely available in schools and prisons.
I’m sorry that the pension conversation reached such a fevered pitch. This is an incredibly difficult year for all of us, and a difficult time to heap on more calls for change. What public service workers need right now is deep appreciation and more resources. However, if we aren’t able to look deeply and make reforms to our pension system, I’m concerned that those resources won’t be there in the future.
We have an unfunded public pension liability, which has risen exponentially to $5.6 billion. We cannot ignore this situation any longer; we must act. We must stabilize our pension system, so that our hard-working state employees and teachers can retire with peace of mind. Over the past few weeks, we as legislators, along with the House Government Operations Committee, have been taking a deep dive into the seriousness of the problem, how we got here over multiple decades, and examining ideas and solutions that will move us forward on a productive path for the future.
Many circumstances beyond the legislature’s control have led to this crisis situation, including an aging population with increasing retirements; lower than anticipated investment returns, in part, due to the Great Recession; and changes in actuarial assumptions, including a reduced rate of return. I know that those of you in public service jobs have so much to focus on, and such hard work to do every day, but I hope you can stay engaged on this issue. We want to save our public pension systems and give teachers and state employees confidence that the money won't run out.
I’m really hopeful that by focusing on governance and assembling a task force, we can find a path forward that maximizes the leadership of our union members, corrects historic investment decisions, fixes our actuarial assumptions, and charts a course forward that will enable us to continue investing in our schools and communities and save the pension system so that it's there for you when you're ready. Next steps include changing the way we make our investment decisions with our governance structure. The legislature doesn’t make investment decisions, but we can change the board structure to make it more transparent, independent, and get more expertise at the table. I’ll stop there, in the hopes of not piling too much into one email, but I have more details and thoughts on my website and on my weekly radio show (link) if you're interested.
Bills I'm Working On
In the last newsletter I ran through the nine bills I’m lead sponsor on this biennium. You can find hyperlinks to all of them, as well as bills I cosponsored here.
More Vaccines are here! Starting Today, April 12th, Vermonters that are 30 years or older will be invited to register for COVID vaccines! Currently, Vermonters 30+ are eligible for the vaccine, as well as people 16 years or older with high-risk health conditions, school staff and child care workers, public safety personnel, and BIPOC Vermonters as well as anyone living in their households. Beginning next week, April 19th, all Vermonters 16+ will be eligible!
Register for a vaccine appointment here (preferred), or call 855-722-7878. You will be asked to provide your name, date of birth, address, email (if available), phone number, and health insurance information (if available, but not required). If you have any challenges with sign up please reach out to me or Senior Solutions at (802) 885-2669.
We recently were able to reinstate both rental assistance and utility assistance programs. You can learn more about both locally through SEVCA or by going to the Vermont State Housing Authority and the Vermont Public Service Department websites.
Unemployment assistance continues to be problematic— extended benefits should be available and tax documentation should be straightened out— if you need any help, please be in touch.
Opportunities to Participate
As always, please connect with me through:
- My weekly virtual coffee hour every Sunday at 11am, registration link here;
- The Montpelier Happy Hour where I unpack legislation with Olga Peters each Friday. We’re on ITUNES now, you can subscribe here. These last couple weeks we tackled broadband and pensions. Next up, we plan to discuss federal funding, and prison reform;
- My newsletters and social media feeds (Facebook, twitter, insta). You can find past newsletters on the “blog” tab of my website. I’ve been a little lax on my social media lately, sorry.
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,