Y’all, these are wild times we are living in. Wild times to be governing in, parenting in, loving in, and working in. As our case rates rise, I’m grateful for vaccines and tests and masks and new therapies. I’m scared and angry that we can’t always rise to the challenge— make our supply chains work for the people, protect employees, care for children. I’m hyper aware that I’m living through history, and overwhelmed by how monotonous and sad it often feels. I’ve been thinking about how we bring more joy and grief and rest into our lives in the midst of all this capitalism and disease. I’m trying to remember all the promise that so many of us felt at the beginning of the pandemic when we collectively paused and prioritized for a time.
We’re here together for that hope— for the promise of committing to community and the promise of a new legislative session. Together we can learn from our experiences and share them with each other to build a government that works for each of us. So let’s jump in.
My summer committee work wrapped up in December and the new legislative session starts on January 4th. We’ll be meeting in person, vote to be virtual for two weeks, and then ideally be back in person again. I’m fitting a few newsletters into one, so please feel free to jump around here as I’ll be covering a lot of ground.
Below you'll find:
- Updates From The Summer Studies
- The Session Ahead
- Political Tidewaters
- Covid Connections
- Opportunities to Participate
Feel free to hop around!
Updates From the Summer Studies
This summer didn’t slow the roll that a legislative recess usually brings but I did have the incredible opportunity to chair two summer committees and stay engaged in the work of a few others.
The Taskforce on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report. As cochair this summer of the Taskforce on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report, we began our work this summer with a broad mandate and a clear goal of ensuring that all Vermont students, no matter where they live, have equal access to educational opportunities.
At the outset, one step seemed obvious: to implement new, empirically derived weights. But as we took additional testimony — learning more from experts about how the weights interact with each other and within our complex statewide school funding system — several drawbacks to this approach became clear.
The current weights are a carryover from before Act 60. They were designed for a different funding model and developed at a time when we didn’t have the statistical computing capability we have today. As a result, our existing weights are modest and fairly limited. We also know that they’re insufficient and inaccurate — particularly in quantifying the additional cost of educating students in poverty.
In Act 173 of 2018, the legislature commissioned a study of the weights by a UVM-led team of researchers. Delivered to the legislature in December 2019, the peer-reviewed study concluded that the current weights do not “reflect contemporary educational circumstances and costs” and “have weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs for educating students with disparate needs or operating schools in different contexts.”
For 25 years, school districts with higher numbers of students living in poverty, or a higher concentration of English language learners — or districts that by necessity are operating small, rural schools — have been asked to build budgets with system-wide weights that don’t accurately reflect the true cost of educating their students. The deck was stacked against them, because the weights didn’t deliver the tax capacity they needed. Depending on the district, this translated to higher tax rates — or lower budgets — and made it harder to get resources to our kids.
The pandemic has exacerbated many equity gaps in our society and in our schools. While updating our education finance system is not an easy task, we cannot wait to take action. And going forward, it will be critical to regularly calibrate the weights — or their actual cost equivalents — by using the most accurate statistical methods. This way, we can ensure our education finance system is continually and accurately reflecting the true cost of educating all of our kids, across all of our districts, so that cost can be accurately reflected in school budgets and tax bills.
As a task force, we were unanimously committed to creating a more fair and equitable system for students, school districts and taxpayers. But we didn’t want to set new inequities in motion, with unintended consequences we were just beginning to understand. As a result, our final report sets out two possible paths to greater equity. Each path has many details, changes, and policy choices for the legislature to consider and resolve. Please be in touch if you would like to learn more about our series of recommendations and how we came to them; I’m hoping to present our work to the school board later this year.
To learn how our education finance system works, click here and here. To learn more about its history and evolution, click here. To read the UVM study, that led to the creation of the Taskforce click here. To read the final report, click here.
I chaired a task-force to look at the benefits and solvency of the Unemployment Insurance system this summer. With only three meetings available to us, we set out to understand what a solvent and sufficient unemployment trust fund looks like, and how we can best structure benefits to Vermonters while they are unemployed. We focused on a few key issues: Supporting non-profit employees and employers. Extending UI to all employees of nonprofits, regardless of the size of the organization. Changes to liability calculations for reimbursable employers (some nonprofits.) Reducing and restructuring penalties for certain categories of fraud. Vermont’s UI system does not adequately differentiate between mistakes and fraud, and penalties do not expire. This limits the ability of the system to serve as a safety net in times of economic strife. Expanding the capacity of the UI system to calculate benefits based on past hourly wages, not just weekly income, and set a higher, and progressive payment system for claimants. As you might remember the legislature passed S.62 last year that added an additional $25 per week to UI benefits once the additional federal benefits expired. The increased benefit amount was part of a larger pandemic adjustment that included a reduction in liability for employers, by removing 2020 from the calculation. Unfortunately, the federal Dept of Labor thinks our increased benefit is out of compliance with UI rules (for reasons I’m happy to explain in an email if you’re interested) and Vermont’s DoL didn’t tell us about it until after the legislative session adjourned for the year. We spent a significant amount of time this summer negotiating with the administration to increase benefits to Vermonters and unfortunately, after pursuing multiple models and pathways, we were not able to find a strategy that worked with our current decrepit IT system’s programming. You can read more about our discovery process here, and rest assured that we are continuing to invest in a new system capable of serving the needs of Vermonters.
We did not explore the functioning (or lack thereof) of our benefits system as that was happening concurrently through a contract with the Auditor’s office. You can read that report here. The findings of both our committee’s work and the auditor’s report will inform legislation this session to improve the experience of UI benefits for Vermonters.
Vermont’s State Budget covers pension contributions and the pension fund for state teachers and state employees. Over the last twenty+ years these pensions have been underfunded by the legislature, mismanaged by their administrators, and actuarial information has shifted significantly– these issues together lead to a large (and growing) unfunded liability. In order to sustain our commitment to our dedicated public servants we need to rethink how we fund and structure the management of our pensions to ensure stability into the future. Created in Act 75, the Pension Benefits, Design and Funding Task Force has been meeting almost weekly since the beginning of July. The taskforce is composed of representatives from the legislature, unions, the administration, and the treasurer’s office. The committee began its work by creating a joint statement of the problem, including that despite the General Assembly fully funding – and in most years more than fully funding – these pensions since 2007, the unfunded liability for each pension system has continued to grow: the VSERS unfunded liability has increased from $87 million at the end of FY08 to $1.040 billion at the end of FY20. The VSTRS unfunded liability has increased from $379.5 million at the end of FY08 to $1.933 billion at the end of FY20.
They have taken testimony on the impact of one-time funds on our pension liabilities, dedicated funding options, prefunding retiree health benefits, the most recent budget outlook and possible pension benefit options. The taskforce is coming to final agreement on its work in the next few days, and I’m hopeful that we will find a solution that supports the hard work of our teachers and state employees, protects current and future retirees, and leaves our system stronger for the next generation of employees. You can visit the task force’s web page. It contains task force agendas, presentations, and links to the meetings on youtube. I’ll share legislation and a timeline once agreement has been reached.
There were also summer committees working on healthcare affordability, child protection, and justice oversight, as well as the joint fiscal committee that I serve on. I’m looking forward to learning more about the recommendations on these incredibly important topics.
The Session Ahead
The windfall of federal spending continues to provide so many exciting opportunities to invest in a Vermont that works for all of us! We still have more than half our ARPA dollars to appropriate this year, the federal infrastructure bill has been signed, and thanks to the direct cash payments to families (and resulting spending) state revenues are much higher than anticipated. The House Speaker and Senate ProTemp did a series of community conversations this summer to get input from Vermonters on priorities and spending. You can find the incredibly interesting results of those conversations here:
Our priorities in the upcoming session combine feedback from these listening session, legislators’ conversations with constituents (through our caucus process,) long standing priorities, and of course– covid response. In every policy area we can invest ARPA funds and build a budget that will boost recovery and set the stage for a strong future. We will continue our work to dismantle systemic and institutional racism and shift racial and social barriers across state systems and our communities. We have the opportunity to invest (both dollars and our attention) for transformation systems change and I hope we’ll take it! Some specific items on the agenda include:
*Making policy changes and investing dollars to tackle housing, childcare and workforce challenges.
*Moving our climate change and resilience work forward on the recommendation of the Climate Council. Learn more here. *Passing Prop 2, an amendment to the Vermont Constitution to clarify the prohibition of slavery and indentured servitude in Vermont, and Prop 5, an amendment to the Vermont Constitution that would guarantee personal reproductive liberty to all Vermonters (If passed by the legislature, they must then be approved by voters on the statewide ballot in November;) *COVID response: Protecting public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic through evidence-driven strategies. And many other important issues, including reapportionment; pensions, education finance; rural broadband buildout; increasing access to healthcare, mental health and substance use disorder treatment services; child protection and our social safety net; and. . . lists like this are hard to end once you start but future newsletters will have more detail on our legislative work this session.
When Senator Leahy announced last month that he won’t seek re-election it kicked off a chain reaction in Vermont political circles that will have significant impacts for years to come. Senator Leahy has served in congress longer than I have been alive, and I’m glad he was ready to step away when the time was right for him. In all those years, there is much good work to appreciate (and of course much to criticize as well) but what will likely change the most in his absence is the quantity of money he was able to bring home to Vermont. Senator Leahy’s work with small state minimums meant that we often received more federal dollars per-capita than any other state in the nation. This is huge (as Bernie would say.) While Peter Welch decided to leave his congressional seat and run for Senate, our own Becca Balint (pro-temp of the Vermont Senate) is running for Congress! Becca is the real deal— both a compassionate and curious leader and a fierce fighter for justice. She’s been an incredible friend and mentor to me and I just couldn’t be more proud that she’s taking this next step. You can watch her campaign kickoff video here and learn more about the campaign here. This also means that there is an opening for a Senate seat in Windham County. Do you (or someone you know) want to serve in this wild, fun, deeply meaningful, and always complicated position? Please let me know and I’ll try to help! At whatever level you want to get engaged, there are going to be incredible campaigns up and down the ballot this year. If you want to learn more about working on a campaign consider one of these great training options: EmergeVT; the Bright Leadership Institute, Catalyst Leadership with Rights and Democracy, and so many more!
*I’ve been working with some interns to get all the Covid resources in one spot. Check it out. * Did you get your booster yet? Vaccine access is super confusing, difficult to navigate, yet widely available. I met with AHS last week about streamlining communications for testing and vaccines, but until that happens– Vaccines and boosters are available from most primary care providers, through Walgreens, through the DoH portal, through pop-ups at the VFW and Rescue Inc., and the hospital vaccine clinics accept walk-ins (I know the website says otherwise.) * Healthcare Open Enrollment ends January 15, 2022! To sign up or change your plan, you must call 1-855-899-9600. Want to see plan options and costs? Check out the 2022 Plan Comparison Tool . Know someone who doesn't have health insurance? Invite them to a Town Hall on January 5! If you have problems, talk to the Office of the Health Care Advocate. *There is still significant funding to help pay the bills: housing, rent, utilities, heat. Even if you don’t have back bills yet, please be in touch You can learn more about both locally through SEVCA or by going to the Vermont State Housing Authority website.
Opportunities to Participate
As always, please connect with me through:
- Later this month I’m cohosting an event with 350 Vermont to learn more about the Climate Council’s recommendations and our opportunities for a just transition. I’m hoping to cohost a community forum like this each month, on Wednesday evenings, with February focused on Community Safety. Let me know if you would like to collaborate or help get the word out?
- Do you want to run for office? Petitions to get on the ballot for town meeting member, selectboard, and school board, are available from the town clerk. We need your voice and your energy right now!
- My weekly virtual coffee hour begins again on the 16th and then every Sunday at 4pm, registration link here.
- The Montpelier Happy Hour continues in 2022. Olga and I are about to begin our fourth year of weekly radio shows together and some weeks it feels that we’re just getting started! You can subscribe wherever you find podcasts or catch back episodes here.
And please keep in mind, I’m still available for help navigating any systems or services (or lack thereof) with you. 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,