The legislature is scheduled to recess next month and we’re narrowing our focus to bills that will cross the finish line.
The budget bill is being finished up in the Senate, and then will return to the House-- the significant federal funds (ARPA) that I’ve described previously are being integrated into allocations from our general fund for a total budget that is twice what we would see in a normal year. What strikes me first as we work through this process is that it still isn’t enough-- to house everyone who needs a bed, to feed kids in schools, to expand health services-- but it brings us closer. We’re searching for opportunities to make transformative change, or even to just catch up for once.
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
Changes in federal policy allowed us to separate the individual and group markets and lower health care premium costs.
We voted to expand the bottle bill to include water, wine, and juice bottles. This landmark environmental bill hadn’t been updated since it was established in the 70s and there are many many more bottles since then. Bottles recycled via the state’s redemption system are cleaner, and thus have a higher “use value” than those in curbside mixed-stream systems.
S53 began as a bill to exclude menstrual products from sales tax, and as happens near the end of the session, expanded to include significant changes to our corporate tax code. These changes hold corporations accountable to pay their fair share of taxes by bringing subsidiaries into a combined reporting, shifting the accounting to sales figures, significantly raising the tax of our top bracket, and lowering the bottom one. You can watch me reporting the bill on the house floor here.
The child protection system is traumatic for everyone: families, children, and social workers. Vermont has one of the highest rates of children in the custody of the state, and often Windham County has the highest rates in the state. Various internal reform efforts over the last decade have failed. H.265 creates an independent, impartial Office of the Child Advocate, composed of an Advocate and Deputy Advocate whose job it is to provide oversight of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and to promote effective reforms that prioritize the best interests of children and youth. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) holds massive responsibility to provide compassionate care, services and interventions for hundreds of children and youth in their custody, including those participating in therapeutic programs that span eight states. At this point Vermont has been the only state in New England without an office of this kind. I want a government that we can trust, and I think, after years of hard work, that the Office of Child Advocate is a powerful step towards that vision.
The Vermont House voted out H449 this week. The “Pensions Bill” restructures the pension investment committee (VPIC) to make it more accountable to folks vested in the system, to be efficient and effective with investments, and to ensure that assumptions track reality. Given the scale of our unfunded liability, the bill also creates a Pension Task Force to recommend changes to the overall benefit system so we can ensure the system is there for future retirees. The task force is made up of equal representation from the administration, the legislature, and the affected unions. This piece from the Chair of Government Operations summarizes the issue well. Please be in touch if you want to run through the numbers or the ethical complexity of the issue.
S.114 (an act relating to improving preK through grade 12 literacy within the State) passed the House on April 23 and is on the Senate notice calendar. The bill taps into $3.45 million in federal stimulus funds to strengthen literacy instruction and address pandemic-related learning loss. I’m concerned that the language of learning loss denigrates the profound lessons that students and their communities have learned this year-- the opportunities to build resiliency, compassion, and self-reflection. However, this is the language handed to us by federal legislation and so you will see many programs tied to this concept in the months to come.
This week: We expect to take up a bill that limits the use of PFOAs in Vermont. This issue came to the legislature’s attention when toxic levels were discovered in Bennington’s water supply. You can read more about the issue here.
We’re also expecting two education bills (S115 and S16) that make schools safer and more welcoming places: the bills create a task force on school exclusionary discipline reform (expulsions and suspensions), expand and support the ethnic and social standards taskforce, provide free and available menstrual products to youth, develop model wellness programs, create cultural liaison positions, and create a working group to study Vermont’s libraries.
In the Ways and Means Committee:
When Act 60 (our landmark equitable public education finance statute) became law, our system of weighting student needs changed from a method of allocating funding under a foundation formula to a system of equalizing tax rates. Essentially we started using the same calculation system to meet a completely different purpose. Over the last 20 years, the cracks in the system have slowly shown themselves and challenges with the weights (among other issues) have magnified. Last session, a team of researchers from UVM delivered a study to the legislature on what appropriate weights would look like relative to the cost of educating Vermont’s children. You can read the full study, or a summary. We’re now exploring the best ways to implement those recommendations.
The study found that the weight for poverty was dramatically low, but the way that we measure poverty also needs improvement. It costs more to educate a kid in a rural community than an urban one, and the cost of english language learners is often conflated with the cost of poverty. Further complicating the issue is the basic premise of Act 60– that money doesn’t follow kids, fractions of tax rates for communities follow kids. As we seek to lay out the questions that the implementation task force will need to answer this summer, I’m struck again by the difficult triangle of simplicity, equity, and local control.
This conversation is squarely at the heart of two passionate issues: our kids and taxes. Each piece of the tax/funding puzzle brings up other questions about the source of funding, the size of districts, the pieces of our system that are included (pre-k and early college). It’s a fascinating and poignant conversation and I’m feeling confident that we’re going to create a strong task force that can open the Pandora’s box and bring us towards a vision of a more equitable future for our kids.
Funding for E911 and Public Access TV happen through a complex system of deferred profits from cable companies, fees on telecom, and outdated tax policy. These revenue streams are all based on declining technologies and industries, and we’re largely barred by federal statute from updates. Over the next year, we’ll look at ways we can modernize telecom fees and taxes without hindering the rapid statewide roll-out of broadband.
Vermont’s relationship to federal tax policy is described as “static conformity;” this means that we need to determine our relationship to federal tax changes every year. This policy protected us from some of the impact of Bush era tax cuts, and this year it means that we have many decisions to make. This has caused confusion around the taxation of PPP grants, and we have decisions looming regarding the significant (and thrilling!) expansion of the Earned Income, and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credits. I’m trying to understand how these tax policies can be used to smooth the curve of the benefits cliff (or benefits trough) so folks can stand on a sturdier economic foundation.
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! ALL Vermonters 16+ are now invited to register for COVID vaccines! In Brattleboro there are appointments available this week.
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 discussed federal funding, and corporate tax policy, as well as legislative machinations;
- My newsletters and social media feeds (Facebook, twitter, insta). 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,