We’re halfway through the 2022 legislative session! Our work officially began on January 4, with legislators working remotely to protect public health as the Omicron surge peaked. On January 18, we returned to the statehouse in hybrid mode, a very welcome shift. We’ve passed some significant legislation in these first two months, and while I’ve been sending weekly updates to folks on my mailing lists, this midpoint reflection provides some summative highlights. Work on key priorities will continue, across the House and in collaboration with the Senate, as we debate bills and consider investments prior to our anticipated May adjournment. It is an honor to serve as your state representatives. Please reach out anytime with ideas, questions and concerns.
2022 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES
The legislature will tackle a wide range of issues in 2022. While none of these challenges can be solved in a single session, our priorities include: *Investing Vermont's federal stimulus funds to boost recovery and set the stage for a strong future.
*Tackling the complex and interconnected challenges of housing, workforce and childcare.
*Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change and transition to resilient and sustainable communities.
Sustaining and addressing our pension liability so our teachers and state employees can count on it in the future. This is far from a comprehensive list. With 150 members and 14 standing committees, the House can accomplish a lot during our five months in Montpelier!
Constitutional Amendments Coming to the Ballot
Racial Justice in Vermont’s Constitution Proposal 2 clarifies language in the anti-slavery clause of the Vermont Constitution. Although Vermont was the first state to ban slavery and indentured servitude, it did not prohibit those practices for individuals under 21 years old. Proposal 2 would amend Article 1 of the Constitution to provide that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” The proposal recognizes and respects the reality of descendants of enslaved Africans brought to this country, and this state, against their will. The amendment goes to the voters in November.
Proposal 5: Reproductive Liberty Amendment The decision of whether or when to become a parent is deeply personal and central to our lives. For many decades, Vermont has recognized reproductive choices as a fundamental right that should be free from government restrictions. Proposal 5 would enshrine reproductive autonomy and liberty into our state’s constitution, ensuring that this right is preserved for future generations.
Reproductive choices affect everyone— the decision to become a parent, to choose or refuse sterilization, or to receive contraceptive birth control. However, we have witnessed the Supreme Court threaten to overturn protections provided by Roe vs. Wade, as well as states across the country impose harsher laws restricting abortion. The passage of Proposal 5 is a historic opportunity at a critical time for our nation. This amendment will also be on the ballot in November.
Land and Climate: The Future of Our Forests Did you know that the two largest wood product processors in the state are in Brattleboro? This year, two bills tackle the future of the industry. One addresses the industry’s immediate needs (H.581); the other creates the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap (H.566). Vermont’s forests occupy 73% of our land base, so it’s important to use our forest resources wisely and in a sustainable way.
Land conservation of intact, connected ecosystems protects our communities from the worst effects of climate change and helps mitigate biodiversity loss. Vermont’s diverse geography places us at an important crossroads for species conservation as the climate changes. Additionally, old forests play a critical role in both climate mitigation and habitat protection, but occupy less than one percent of Vermont’s forestland. To help further these biodiversity and conservation goals, we expanded Vermont’s Current Use tax incentive program. H.697 would extend the Use Value (Current Use) program to include reserve forestland under certain conditions. This bill encourages the management of land for old forests and is a key component of the Climate Action Plan.
Tackling Toxins Plastics in compost create an increasing problem as communities contend with how to handle packaged food waste. “Depackaging” is an automated process to remove food waste, and can result in an unknown amount of plastic entering our compost. H.501 limits the amount of plastic entering our compost stream in any new depackaging facilities.
We’re also addressing the collection and proper disposal of household hazardous waste. Currently, taxpayers bear the costs for managing this waste, but H.115 would require the manufacturers of household products that contain hazardous substances to belong to a program that pays for collection and disposal. Similar programs already exist for paint, mercury containing batteries, and compact fluorescent lights.
Due to exposure from pesticides, climate change, habitat loss, and increased vulnerability to pests and pathogens, honeybees are literally being stressed to death. Vermont’s beekeepers currently lose 30 to 50 percent of their colonies on average every winter. Last biennium we banned neonicotinoids for household use, and this year the legislature is taking the next steps to address the pollinator crisis with H.626-- banning seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides
Addressing Climate Change in Our Transportation Sector As a rural state, Vermonters drive a lot, resulting in 40% of Vermont's carbon emissions. Changing this situation has proved difficult. The Climate Action Plan released in December 2021 laid out climate goals and a number of pathways for the transportation sector to reach those goals. The Transportation Committees of the House and Senate are in the process of finalizing the Transportation bill to include a number of these goals and pathways. Some of the proposals include allocating funds to help electrify our transportation system through incentives for electric vehicle and electric bicycle purchases. There is also funding allocated for deploying a network of charging stations in various locations across the state so that people can feel confident driving an electric vehicle.
Efforts to electrify transportation also have the added benefit of reducing transportation costs for low and moderate income Vermonters. This is an important consideration given the inherent volatility of gas prices and the current increases.
Other elements in the Transportation bill include the continuation of state-wide fare-free transit service and more funding for Mobility Transportation and Innovation Grants that help communities design flexible uber-like transit systems to increase ridership and better meet the needs of current riders. The bill also includes a pilot program to support the continued development and buildout of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
We have much work to do to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. It is critical that we do so. This bill adds significant funding to continue that process.
Helping Vermonters Switch to Clean Heat More than one-third of Vermont’s climate pollution comes from fossil fuels used to heat our buildings and water. Dependence on fossil fuels — especially propane and fuel oil — is expensive, with unpredictable price swings for Vermonters.
The Clean Heat Standard (CHS) is a performance standard that obligates companies selling heating fuel in Vermont to lower greenhouse gas emissions over time. It’s similar to our Renewable Energy Standard, which directs Vermont’s electric utilities to annually increase the amount of renewable energy in their electricity mix. The CHS requirements could be met by delivering a range of clean heat alternatives — heat pumps, weatherization, advanced wood heating — that reduce fossil fuel consumption or replace some fossil fuel delivery with biofuels. The CHS prioritizes the lowest-cost, highest emissions-reducing options.
Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act requires a 40 percent reduction in emissions by the end of the decade. The Clean Heat Standard is the most significant emissions reduction policy recommended by Vermont’s Climate Council in the Climate Action Plan. Pairing the standard with investments in weatherization and resilience planning for our municipalities, homes, and state buildings puts Vermont on a predictable, sustainable pathway to achieve those goals.
Investing in Clean Infrastructure The Capital bill is a two-year allocation that funds long-term investments, primarily in Vermont’s infrastructure. In this second year of the 2021–2022 legislative biennium, our work focuses on mid-term budget adjustments. The extraordinary inflow of federal pandemic relief money offers opportunities for a more extensive Capital budget adjustment than usual. Capital bill investments include: Building Community Grants covering a variety of areas, from recreation and cultural facilities to historic barn restoration and economic development initiatives; Agricultural Water Quality Grants; Drinking Water State Revolving Fund; Municipal Pollution Control Grants; Land Conservation and Water Quality Projects.
Budgeting our Values
Building the FY23 Budget House Appropriations is working on the FY 2023 budget, which covers the programs of state government and its community partner organizations from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023. The committee is on target to present its proposed budget to the House in mid-March. As is our Vermont tradition, it will be a balanced budget.
In 2021, Vermont was allocated $1.049 billion through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Of that amount, over $600 million was allocated for FY 2022 investments, leaving more than $400 million available. These funds must be obligated by December 31, 2024 and expended by December 31, 2026.
This infusion of federal dollars will not be sustained over time. Nor will state revenue levels which, for now, continue to outpace economic forecasting. In developing the FY23 budget, our challenge is to make strategic use of one-time money to address extraordinary ongoing needs. In two virtual public hearings, held in February, more than 80 Vermonters gave eloquent testimony. highlighting issues relating to childcare, housing, recruiting and retaining employees, and food insecurity.
Our goal? To craft a fiscally responsible budget that supports and strengthens Vermont communities and families now and into the future; To protect and lift up vulnerable Vermonters; And to move us beyond surviving COVID to transformational recovery across all 14 counties, leaving no Vermonter behind.
Balancing the FY22 Budget The annual Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) is the “true-up” of the current year’s budget. It’s the mid-year adjustment of existing programs; new ideas wait until the next year’s budget. It’s also the opportunity to attend to urgent needs that cannot wait, including COVID response and recovery.
The FY 2022 BAA is H.679, as worked out by the House and Senate. Highlights include significant investments in workforce retention, housing, and childcare. H.679 also funds services to support Vermonters deeply impacted by COVID-19— for example, those experiencing food insecurity or homelessness or both.
When all is said and done, not all available dollars are allocated. Left on the bottom line are more than $80 million in General Fund dollars and more than $400 million in federal COVID recovery dollars.
The General Fund dollars are tucked away in a reserve account. As an example, this money could be used to access federal dollars from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for climate response, water, broadband and other initiatives. Access to federal funds often entails a “state match.”
The COVID dollars are set aside for future budgets, such as the FY 2023 budget currently under consideration. These federal dollars must be obligated by December 31, 2024 and expended by December 31, 2026.
Creating a Vermont Child Tax Credit The federal child tax credit puts money directly into the wallets and checkbooks of families with children. It’s credited with helping people pay rent and buy food, reducing food insecurity by 25 percent. For parents with more income, the credit has helped with mortgage payments and credit card, student loan, and car debt.
H.510, which passed the House in February, would create a Vermont version of the child tax credit. This payment — $100 a month for every child age six and under — will lift families with young children out of poverty. It will also encourage young families to move to Vermont, or to stay in Vermont and thrive. Our laser focus on young families addresses two important goals: reducing poverty for young children and meeting our demographic challenges.
H.510 also included an increase in the Social Security tax exemption to improve on changes we made three years ago. Anyone living exclusively on Social Security already receives these benefits tax free, but this bill will allow moderate-income seniors to use their payments for food and other living expenses. As of early March, this bill is being considered by the Senate.
An Economy that Works for All of Us
Developing a Vibrant Workforce With 25,000 job openings in Vermont and an unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent, we’re trying to identify and remove barriers that are preventing people from working or returning to work (we’re trying to make work, work). We’re committed to providing better opportunities for Vermonters to gain postsecondary credentials and degrees of value, which increase earning potential in rewarding careers. We’re committed to supporting and expanding scholarships and grants that make these opportunities affordable. Through our CTEs and State College system we have the infrastructure we need to realize a thriving workforce; this year, we’re redesigning systems to make that possible.
Consumer and Worker Protection Committee bills passed this session by the full House have focused on consumer and worker protections. H. 157 created a “light-touch” registry for construction contractors, along with requiring a contract for work over $3,500. The governor vetoed this bill, and we hope to find a compromise. Worker protection bills included S.78, streamlining the arbitration process for employees of the Vermont Judiciary; H.320, prohibiting agreements that prevent an employee from working for an employer following the settlement of a discrimination case; and H.477, enabling employees to take crime victim leave and expands to family members who also qualify.
Ensuring the Stability of State Employee Pensions In the past year, the legislature has focused on putting Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. Last summer and fall, a group that included legislators, government officials, and union representatives worked together to address the issue. They reached compromises that balance our commitments to state employees and teachers with the interests of Vermont taxpayers. The Senate is taking the first pass at turning those compromises into legislation, which the House will take up after town meeting week.
A Home for every Vermonter Vermont is facing a statewide housing crisis. Part of the problem lies in a significant drop in new housing construction over the past four decades. In 1980, housing stock grew at an annual rate of 1.8%. By 2019, the rate had dropped by 87%, to 0.2% per year. This translates into a reduction in housing units from 3,200 units per year to about 400.
The pandemic exacerbated the shortage. With federal relief funding, the General Assembly has responded with initiatives to address the needs of houseless Vermonters, renters, landlords, and to speed the production of new or rehabilitated housing. A few statistics:
Federal relief funds totaling more than $57 million have helped Vermont renters stay in their homes and helped make landlords whole. For information on your county, go to this link.
Federal relief and General Fund dollars have enabled the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to develop 475 new units of rental housing and to bring a number of projects online that will result in over 1,100 new rental units by 2023.
Federal dollars allowed 1,300 households to exit homelessness in 2021, with continued work to be appropriated in the months ahead.
This year in its annual budget adjustment, the House included $50 million to support more mixed-income units, multi-family rentals, and to increase shelter capacity, with priority given to populations who may be displaced from the hotel/motel voucher program or without housing. Between now and the end of the session, we expect to allocate up to $25 million to rehabilitate 400 existing units that are offline because of code violations.
Our Schools The legislature passed several significant education bills last year, including Act 28 (to improve literacy outcomes in grades preK–12), Act 35 (creating equitable and inclusive school environments), Act 67 (equitable access to a high-quality education through community schools) and Act 72 (addressing the needs and conditions of school facilities across the state). Between these new actions and the ongoing pandemic, we agree with Vermont’s educational leaders that this is not the time to undertake new initiatives. This year, we’re focused on following up — to see how things are going — and to support our schools in COVID recovery.
Updating Education Finance and Governance
Act 173, passed in 2018 setting the wheels in motion for significant changes to our school funding systems. First, it overhauled our special education funding, moving from a fee for service model to an early intervention based census model. The first round of special ed funding changes will begin in July. Second, 173 commissioned a study to examine our current pupil weighting system.
In exploring our current weighting system and an income based education funding system, we are exploring how to best balance and allocate resources equitably. While Act 60 equalizes our tax capacity between towns, it didn’t take the step of equalizing our costs. In exploring how to further reform our education finance system, our goal is to balance local control, allocating costs where they can most fairly be carried, while ensuring students have access to equitable opportunities and critical services.
Committing to the Future of Universal School Meals During the pandemic, the ability of students and families to reliably access free food at school has been critical to preventing food insecurity. Since March 2020, USDA waivers have allowed all schools to provide meals to all students at no charge using federal funding. Our schools report that throughout the pandemic, free meals have resulted in increased participation in school food programs, and problems caused by hunger — like attention and readiness to learn — have decreased. Multiple studies confirm that a universal school meals model is one specific, feasible intervention that greatly improves multiple student, school and community outcomes, and we’ll be following up to find a sustainable path forward.
Increasing Access to Care
Potential Health Insurance Savings for Vermonters Vermonters have an opportunity to see significant savings on their health insurance costs because of extended subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Those directly enrolled in the individual market can roll over to Vermont Health Connect with no change in benefits and gain the advantage of federal subsidies. Between $58–$76 million is available to Vermonters in subsidies for plan year 2023. Check out the Vermont Health Connect page to learn more about potential savings.
Furthering the Federal No Surprises Act The House passed a bill ensuring state compliance and enforcement of the federal No Surprises Act. That law addresses situations in which patients receive an unexpected medical bill, also known as a “balance bill,” when they unknowingly receive care from providers that do not participate in their health plan and therefore are out-of-network. If you have concerns about a “surprise“ bill, you should contact the Office of the Health Care Advocate at this link or DFR at this link, or call DFR consumer service representatives at (802) 828-3301.
Regulatory System for Out-of-State Providers to Provide Care Via Telehealth H.655 creates a regulatory system that would allow out-of-state healthcare professionals to become licensed or registered to deliver services to Vermont residents using telehealth. This will expand the number of qualified, regulated providers in areas such as mental health and child psychology and should also enable more BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Vermonters to find therapists suited to their specific needs.
Meeting the Needs of Providers After enduring the stress of the pandemic, we know many community-based human-services providers need more support. This means ensuring that compensation keeps pace with a liveable wage and reflects the value of the essential services they provide to Vermont’s most vulnerable. In both budget adjustment and the FY23 budget we’ve both increased funding to our community agencies and delivered retention and hiring incentives to direct service providers.
Opioids and Harm Reduction At the intersection of justice and healthcare is the impact of opioids in our community. The House passed a series of bills that expand opportunities for treatment, lowers criminal penalties for use, and sets in motion further harm reduction strategies in the future. These bills include the sealing of criminal records, the designation of an opioid settlement fund to be spent on harm reduction, adjustments to sentencing guidelines to be sensitive to parenting and trauma, mobile treatment units for rural communities, expanding access to needle exchange, prohibiting prior authorizations for MAT treatment, the creation of a working group led by opioid users, and more.
Addressing Firearm Violence The legislature made strides towards improving public safety by passing S.30, which closes the Charleston Loophole. Currently in Vermont, someone can purchase a firearm if their background check has not been completed in three days. This resulted in 28 firearms being sold over the last two years to people who were ineligible to own guns. Under S.30 this dangerous loophole will be eliminated, and Vermonters can rest assured that everyone purchasing a gun in our state has passed a background check. This bill also prohibits guns in hospitals, a request made by doctors and nurses throughout our state.
Advancing Racial Equity in the Criminal Justice System In order to craft good laws and to best understand the realities of life in Vermont, we need good data. H.546 creates a Division of Racial Justice Statistics, which will collect and analyze data relating to racial bias and disparities in Vermont’s criminal and juvenile justice systems.
Ensuring Uniformity in Vermont’s Criminal Code Unlike most states, Vermont does not have uniform criminal penalties. Penalties are attached to individual criminal infractions throughout Vermont law. Unfortunately, this creates inconsistency, with some criminal penalties being more severe than those for comparable crimes. H.475 continues the work of the legislature to create a uniform and fair classification system in our state. This bill addresses sex crimes and crimes against persons, placing each offense into a classification system established in a bill (H.87) passed last year. This work is slow and detailed, but when the process is complete, Vermont will have a more uniform and fair criminal justice system.
Artificial Intelligence: Maximize Benefit, Reduce Risk Artificial intelligence (AI) technology presents tremendous opportunities for economic growth and improved quality of life. But it also presents substantial risks, including the loss of jobs, invasions of privacy, and other impacts to civil liberties. Vermont can take steps to maximize opportunities and reduce risk, but we need to act now. H.410 addresses the use and oversight of artificial intelligence in state government. The bill establishes a commission to create an inventory of all AI systems being developed, used or procured by the state. It’s an important step, allowing us to confirm that AI is not infringing on a Vermonter’s constitutional rights or being used in a discriminatory fashion. The Commission will also develop data-management and ethics policies related to the use of AI in state government.
Children Impacted by Incarcerated Caregivers The House has just passed out H. 399, a bill that requires consideration in sentencing when a defendant is a parent or primary caregiver of children. Much research has been done on the negative downstream effects of children whose parents are incarcerated. This bill hopes to mitigate that. It has been a key priority of our Legislative Womens’ Caucus, a group of representatives who advocate for legislation that impacts the economic and social well-being of women. The Vermont Commission on Women is a key partner in the work of the Caucus.
Vermont Welcomes Refugees Vermont continues to welcome refugees fleeing violence in other nations. We want to ensure that our tax system supports Vermonters who step up to host refugees in their homes. H.461 would exclude the income of new refugees from the calculation of household income for the purpose of property tax relief.
Respect for the Abenaki Vermont lands are the historic and current territories of the Western Abenaki people. H. 556 recognizes the historic wrong committed when the land was taken. It provides a statewide and municipal property tax exemption for property that’s owned and controlled by Vermont-recognized Native American tribes, or by a nonprofit organized for the tribe’s benefit and controlled by the tribe.
Thank you! Even from the thick of the legislative session this work is a pleasure and an honor. While nothing is done until the bill becomes law, we’ve done some great work this year, and look forward to conversations with each of you about what has been completed and what is left undone.
Take care, Mollie, Tristan, and Emilie.