We just completed the third week of the session and the first week of hybrid legislating. Committees met in person and the “floor” was on zoom, though many people sat in the chamber with their computers. It was a surreal combination of velvet and the squeal of audio feedback loops, but I’m glad we’re taking steps towards working in person again. It was also the first time that my committee has ever met together in person. I was appointed to Ways and Means at the start of the pandemic during my first biennium, and then appointed vice-chair at the start of my second biennium, a year ago. It will be interesting to see how dynamics shift now that we’re in three dimensions.
Reflections on Scott's Budget Address
The Governor shared his budget address early in the week. Our process begins with the governor’s proposal that is taken up and modified in the House, and then passed over to the Senate, before eventually returning to the governor for signature. The budget is a complex and multi-billion dollar document that I can not adequately summarize here, so I’ll share some noteworthy highlights of the speech. The governor did not mention the word COVID once. He referenced the pandemic with regard to healthcare and difficult situations with regard to our schools but the speech focused on themes of workforce (with regard to employer need) and infrastructure (the tangible kind like roads and broadband.) There are also proposals to reduce debt and lower taxes in a range of areas. Most of the governor’s proposed investments are in areas that I agree need funding but I continue to feel that this is a time to go big, to not nibble around the edges of change, but choose a systemic strategy— to be persistent and creative in our thinking of what is possible. To invest in our communities and families to create lasting generational change and stability— I’m hopeful that we can come out the other end with a budget that does that.
Below you'll find: *Homeless Awareness Day *In Committee *On the Floor *Bill Introductions *Covid Connections *Opportunities to Participate
Feel free to hop around!
Homelessness Awareness Day
Homelessness Awareness Day was marked on Thursday with vigils and press conferences throughout the state. Advocates testified in relevant committees about the power of housing and the challenges communities face to provide it. I was honored to speak at a memorial vigil with Groundworks in the evening. Last year I took a moment to apologize on behalf of the State— for every life lost, for the unnecessary suffering and stress— for the lack of dignity. But this year, I asked everyone to embrace and remember the possible. This pandemic has proven to each of us, that we are capable of great change, of transformative investment, that we can take care of each other and that government can be a powerful force to enable that caring.
In the Committee on Ways and Means
Vermont legalized personal consumption of cannabis a few years ago and then created a legal structure for retail cannabis in 2020. Over the last year, the newly formed Cannabis Control board has hired staff, conducted extensive analysis, and drafted rules, towards the opening of retail cannabis markets in the spring of this year. In committee we’ve been working on their fee proposals. Setting appropriate fees is a complex undertaking as they need to be low enough to allow market access, but high enough to fund the budget of the regulatory body. Vermont’s cannabis laws prioritize access to markets for small scale farmers and Vermonters who have experienced harm from historic drug laws. This means that the regulatory framework has a low barrier at the entry level but scaffolds up in price and complexity. We’re hearing from Windham County farmers and entrepreneurs in committee this week as we finalize some numbers.
Every week we take a few hours on Thursday mornings to discuss restructuring our system of education finance to make it more equitable— this will include changes to both how we raise revenue and how we guarantee resources to communities and schools. We’re slowly working our way towards the findings of the [Taskforce on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report]( that I co-chaired this summer. Last week we explored why some districts might make different spending decisions than others and how that isn’t necessarily correlated to need or capacity. I’ll try to keep you updated as these conversations move forward— legislation is starting in the Senate so we’re spending the first half of the session to prepare for when it crosses over.
On the Floor this Week
We passed legislation to expand and clarify collective bargaining rights for judiciary employees, two consumer protection bills and an economic development bill, preliminary reapportionment legislation, and the budget adjustment bill. You can find links to all of them here.
Legislative Reapportionment happens every ten years, following the decennial census. The LAB (or legislative apportionment board) makes recommendations to the legislature with the goal of equalizing representation among districts and then the legislature engages in a two step process of releasing a draft proposal (that’s what we just did) for comment by the boards of civil authority, taking that input into account, and then drafting a final proposal for action by the legislature. Brattleboro’s total population hasn’t changed significantly, however the population in the three separate districts has shifted somewhat and there will likely be some tweaks to accommodate— however due to a likely impact on Representative Town Meeting members, the committee will try to minimize disruption whenever possible. Vermont tends towards a minimum of gerrymandering due to the sanctity of our community boundaries, town meeting structures, and single congressional seat. There will be significant public testimony on the issue through the end of January and early February. I recommend reaching out to our town clerk or members of the BCA if you want to learn more about scenarios in Brattleboro.
Budget Adjustment: In a normal year (though I’m not sure what that means anymore) budget adjustment is a somewhat sleepy affair of truing up some line items in the current year budget. However, this year revenues came in higher than anticipated (and we’re in a dynamic crisis) so the budget adjustment bill included significant new spending in workforce retention, housing, childcare, and providing services to Vermonters who have been, and continue to be, deeply impacted by COVID-19. ● $66 million for workforce retention-related payments to partners that provide critical support in our communities, including assisted living residences, nursing homes, residential care homes, home health agencies, designated and specialized service agencies, substance use treatment providers, and recovery centers, and child care staff. ● $75 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for housing and increased shelter capacity and to the Vermont Housing Incentive Program to support the creation of affordable apartments and accessory dwelling units in existing properties. ● $9.7 million to Vermont State Colleges for the second round of the new Critical Occupations scholarship program, and to fully fund the first round ● $6 million to the Vermont Foodbank to help Vermonters experiencing food insecurity This is just some highlights of H.679, you can click through to see more detail. From here, the bill moves to the Senate for further consideration.
On the 49th anniversary of Roe vs Wade, as the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn this basic right, and anti-abortion groups are marching in Washington, I’m focusing all my grief and fear on that what which I can control. Two years ago we passed H.57, encoding a right to abortion in our state laws. This year, we will take the final step in amending our constitution to include Reproductive Liberty. Proposition 5 passed the senate and house last biennium and then passed the senate again last year. Once the house affirms our vote this year, the measure will be on the ballot for all Vermont voters this November. There is a public hearing on the Reproductive Liberty amendment this Wednesday. Please sign up to testify here. The stories of people’s reproductive lives both before and after Roe give me new energy and respect for this work, and for each of us. I enjoyed reading this and participating in this. And we can donate for reproductive access.
More opportunities to participate:
*Weekly office hours are restarting, Sundays at 4pm. You can register here.
*The next Community Conversation will focus on our collective sense of safety— we will talk about criminal justice, mental health supports, economic realities, and how the three interact in our town. You can register here.
*The Montpelier Happy Hour continues in 2022. You can listen to WDEV at 2pm on Fridays, subscribe wherever you find podcasts or catch back episodes on our website. This last week we talked to Steph Yu from the Public Assets Institute about the State of Working Vermont report
*Testing: the federal govt launched mail order tests last week. You can sign up here.
*There is still significant funding to help pay the bills: housing, rent, utilities, internet, and heat. Even if you don’t have back bills yet, please be in touch with SEVCA to learn if you’re eligible.
*Boosters are now approved for ages 12+! Did you get your booster yet? Vaccine access is super confusing, difficult to navigate, yet widely available. 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.
*Want to find all the Covid resources in one spot. Check it out? What’s missing, what should we add?
Take good care, stay warm, and be in touch.