3-17 Town Meeting/ Mid Session Report
Preparing for Federal Cuts -
Rarely before has a new administration in Washington DC left Vermont with such uncertainty. Between President Trump's campaign pledges to cut program funding and his new agency secretaries who are promising sweeping regulatory changes, your citizen legislators in Montpelier are very concerned. Some of the changes we hear about could impact special education money, free lunch for Vermont school children, housing vouchers and environmental protection funds. House Leadership has assigned a point person to keep tabs on changes being signaled from Washington DC. This leadership appointee is collaborating with Vermont House committee chairs, advocates and staff of our Congressional delegation to watch what is coming ahead. When a new Executive Order or guidance on funding changes comes out, your Vermont House leadership will be ready to bring the right people around the table to minimize negative impacts on Vermonters. About 35% of Vermont's budget, including money for Dr Dynasaur, food stamps, safe drinking water investments and transportation funding, are reliant on federal grants. We know a strong healthy Vermont will require us to act quickly in the event of major changes to these programs. The House will be prepared to protect our strong economy and our Vermont future by responding quickly to changes.
Agriculture and Forest Products
Now in its tenth year, Farm-to-School focuses on increasing student access to healthy food, increasing students’ farm/food “literacy” and establishes schools as local markets for Vermont farms. So far, every dollar spent by schools on locally produced food and food products has contributed an additional $0.60 to the local economy, which is beneficial for everybody involved. Farm-to-School administrators have been working toward the goal of having 50% of food in schools come from local sources by 2025.
Farm-to-School has a program that gives grants of up to $15,000 to Vermont schools so they can develop working relationships with local farmers and producers as well as enrich the educational experience of students. Farm-to-School also works to improve the health of Vermont children and enhance Vermont’s agricultural economy. The legislature is reviewing legislation (S.33) to update the requirements and goals of the Farm to School program, for example it proposes to add registered or licensed child care providers to the list of organizations who can apply for the grants. Bringing Farm-to-School into child care centers will provide Vermont kids with knowledge about healthy food and farms at a younger age.
S. 33 also updates the role of Food Systems Administrator in the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Their role is to work with farmers to develop and strengthen relationships with Vermont institutions to broaden business opportunities for Vermont’s farming community, while also getting nutritious Vermont-grown food onto the tables of more Vermont families.
Humane and Proper Treatment of Animals
We love our pets, but we know some are not cared for as adequately as they deserve. H.218 proposes to align Vermont law with federal law, so owners of dogs and cats will know how much room, and the quality of shelter needed, to provide adequate welfare for our pets. Based on the federal Animal Welfare Act, H.218 will suggest a workable matrix to determine if the shelter we’re providing for our pets is enough. House Agriculture and Forestry is working to determine the best and most humane conditions we can provide for dogs and cats.
Commerce and Economic Development
The Commerce and Economic Development Committee is charged with initiating and reviewing proposed legislation to ensure the economic well-being and quality of life for Vermonters. We deal with complex legal structures and regulations, economic development initiatives and workforce development.
Updating banking, Insurance and Corporate Laws
The House Commerce Committee has been working to update existing Vermont Statutes to make them consistent with the laws of other states, and to reflect the current legal and economic environment. Under review are laws dealing with regulations for Captive Insurance Companies, insurance requirements for Transportation Network Companies (like Uber), sharing regulatory audits of financial institutions with other regulatory and industry agencies and updating the Uniform Voidable Transactions Act. The committee is also updating the requirements of various lending entities including consumer litigation funding companies, mortgage loan originators, loan solicitation companies and money servicers (like Western Union).
Analyzing worker classifications, wages, benefits, flexible education opportunities lead our current goals in the House Commerce Committee. Other constructs that go into the process of successful economic development are also top priorities.
The lack of an available labor and talent pool is the largest impediment to economic growth in Vermont. Many mature adults over 50 are underemployed or are unable to find jobs that utilize their experience. At the same time, Vermont high school graduates who chose not to pursue postsecondary education or training typically do not have the skill set or aptitude to fill job openings that provide them with a livable wage and meaningful career path. The Commerce Committee is always analyzing all the available data to gain a greater perspective of this dilemma, and to find solutions, from more affordable college to better postsecondary options that fit nontraditional students. We are working on legislation to address these issues, focusing on building the workforce and meeting the needs of employers.
Growing the entrepreneurial spirit and support system in Vermont
We know it is not always easy to start a business and we continue to work to improve the path for entrepreneurs as they grow their businesses. We are hearing from small business owners who are sharing their experiences with us so we can identify ways the state can adjust the traditional supports and scale them to a new and contemporary level. These supports include the need for better opportunities to collaborate and network, as well as access to broadband and other technical requirements. While Vermont has a plethora of support systems and professional services already in place, we are working to increase access to consulting services to provide advice and support for business owners to meet their financial obligations and objectives as their businesses expand.
Focusing on Vermont Infrastructure -
The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions has started work on its two-year budget. The committee is responsible for funding, through bonding, any number of state projects, including those related to state-owned buildings, land and other property. The Capital Bill funds these, and we are sifting through the Governor’s recommended budget and those that are a priority for us. For instance, there is a proposal to give the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board up to $8.5 million over two years to supplement funds from the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund. VHCB will be able to use these funds to save presently affordable housing from being lost, helping organizations plan and develop housing that will ease the housing crunch, and to help with the Clean Water Act. This is just one of the many purposes of the Capital Bill, and all of it is used for projects that benefit Vermonters in every corner of the state.
Also, the committee is researching the best policy for creating or preserving prison space. Using the recently released Corrections Facilities Study Report, we are looking at options that include the status quo, building a new in-state facility, or finding an out-of-state option. Our current contract with an out-of-state prison expires soon and we are looking to solve that problem.
Clean Water Initiative
The Governor proposed a significant amount of bonded funding be allocated to various Clean Water Initiatives, so the Corrections and Institutions Committee has organized a Clean Water Working Group (CWWG). The CWWG will coordinate information and procedures relating to our obligations under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Vermont Total Maximum Daily Load. The group currently consists of Representatives from the following committees: Agriculture & Forestry, Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife and Appropriations. The Dept. of Natural Resources, the Agency of Agriculture and the Agency of Transportation are also helping to better understand how Clean Water funding is sourced, allocated and monitored. These efforts will assure implementation of projects throughout the state in an efficient and cost effective manner that help grow a healthy economy in Vermont.
Boosting Career and Technical Education for Vermonters
To ensure Vermont has a strong and prosperous future, Vermonters need access to classroom experiences that allow them to develop hands-on skills. Vermont’s career and technical centers (CTE) provide courses tailored for in-demand, high paying jobs like computer hardware and application development, website design, plumbing and electrical work, welding, automotive technology, and healthcare. We are working to ensure Vermont students and adults have access to a wide range of educational opportunities, including technical education.
Employers in key fields tell us they have difficulty filling open positions due to a lack of qualified applicants. Quality CTE programs can help spur student interest, capitalize on Vermonters’ specialized skills, and often result in graduating students entering lucrative careers. A bill is being developed to promote more middle school students’ engagement in technical and high-tech fields, allowing exploration of CTE programs at an earlier age. We are also examining how we fund CTE programs and are working with the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee to explore ways to align CTE programs with workforce development. These actions will give Vermonters more opportunities to acquire the technical skills needed to achieve personal and professional success, as well as strengthen Vermont’s economy.
Achieving the Goals of Universal Prekindergarten
Since 2014, Vermont has offered universal prekindergarten to all of Vermont’s 3, 4 and 5-year-olds who are not enrolled in kindergarten, allowing access to high quality, affordable learning. We know children are more likely to lead productive adolescent and adult lives when, in the critical years from birth to 5, they learn in safe, nurturing environments that promote proper child development. All age-eligible Vermont children can now receive up to 10 hours of pre-K education for 35 weeks a year.
Universal pre-K was landmark legislation developed to ensure equitable access to high quality early childhood education. While enrollments have increased, and more children are receiving the care they need to learn and grow into successful students, to ensure the continued success of universal pre-K, several changes need to be made to strengthen the program. The House is looking at ways to increase the number of Vermont families who utilize the State’s universal pre-K system and is developing legislation to ensure that caregivers and educators are efficiently screened and vetted prior to taking on their roles to educate and care for children. Additionally, whereas the original law created a system of joint oversight by two State Agencies, we are evaluating this structure to determine whether efficiencies and reduced bureaucracy can be achieved. The goal is to focus on improvements that support universal access and increase quality to the highest possible standards. By doing so, we will build the best system of support for our children and families into the future.
New focus on Energy and Technology
The Energy and Technology committee is new to our legislative portfolio this biennium. It was created by Speaker Mitzi Johnson in order to create a new home for our legislative energy policies and to give greater focus to our technological needs in state government and statewide. Much of our work will be technical in nature -- parsing regulations, permit reform and siting of the necessary technology. Understanding and improving the way to bring our state up to par technologically is the mission of this new committee. We know that successful work from this committee will give Vermonters important keys to success as they grow their businesses here, and will help move state government closer to an IT infrastructure that will support our work in the 21st Century.
Increasing Access to Cell Coverage
The House Energy and Technology Committee is reviewing H.50, an economic development bill aimed at increasing access to cell coverage across Vermont. This bill relates only to telecommunication facilities (section 248a). This means that the bill will not relate to wind, solar or any other type of energy facility. In 2007, the legislature created a process for permitting towers and equipment updates for cell and Wi-Fi service (SEC. 248a). Since then, we have been in a cycle of approving the expediting permitting process every three years, determining whether to let sunset continue or not.
In 2015, the legislature addressed some of the concerns brought forward about the process. The legislature responded by making modifications to 248a which requires the Public Service Board to give "substantial deference" to local plans, regulations and recommendations unless there is "good cause" to find otherwise. These modifications to 248a took effect in July of 2016 and the legislature will continue to review these changes to ensure they are working. This year, the committee recommends keeping the expedited permitting process for three years with the goal of increasing cell coverage in Vermont.
Accommodations for Pregnant Employees
A healthy pregnant worker may have little difficulty performing her job right up until delivery of her child. However, there are times accommodations are needed for her health and the safety of the baby. These accommodations may include frequent or longer breaks, special seating, temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, job restructuring, light duty, assistance with manual labor, or a modified work schedule. We are working on H.136, a bill that will require that employers provide reasonable accommodation to these needs unless doing so would create an undue hardship - significant difficulty or expense. This protection is similar to a bill passed several years ago that requires accommodations for nursing mothers in the workplace. This legislation would join other policies enacted by Democrats to help working women over the last decade: equal pay, paid sick days, minimum wage increases and flexible work schedules.
Portable Employment Benefits for Contingent Workers
As employers and employees seek new ways to make the employment relationship more flexible, they have increasingly relied on a variety of arrangements popularly known as “contingent work.” Workers may be considered contingent if they are not considered permanent employees, including temporary employees, leased employees, home workers, freelance workers, consultants, or individuals classified as independent contractors. Contingent workers are the base of the “gig economy.”
Seasonal and cyclical labor demands for employers and balancing work/family time for workers create opportunities for contingent work. On the other hand, contingent workers often receive less pay and benefits than traditional full-time or “permanent” workers, and they are less likely to benefit from the protections of labor and employment laws. The Commerce Committee and the General Committee have long sought, separately and together, a way to balance existing worker protections with the emergence of the contemporary gig economy.
We are framing a significant study that would lead to a plan for benefits to move with employees throughout their work life in Vermont. The proposed committee would be made up from the relevant agencies, and would review and recommend inclusion of insurance, retirement, and other types of employment benefits that are portable and easily accessible to contingent workers. Making a gig economy work fairly for everyone would be a huge step forward for a stronger and healthier economy in Vermont.
Strengthening Vermont Families
Despite our growing economy, families are still struggling to get ahead. The House is currently exploring different policies, for example, raising the minimum wage and paid family insurance that would help create economic security for all Vermonters.
Raising wages enables Vermonters to better participate in our local economy, which will contribute to the health of our small businesses. It also helps in areas where people are struggling, like with the cost of childcare and housing.
It’s important to recognize the workforce has changed significantly over the past 50 years. Working families must make do with workplace policies that were implemented with the expectation that a woman would stay home to provide care for children or elderly family members. More than 70 percent of Vermont children under age six have all parents in the labor force, and the share of adult children providing care to aging parents has tripled over the past 15 years. A Family and Medical Leave Insurance program would allow Vermonters to have access to paid leave to take time to bond with or care for a new child, recover from a serious long-term illness or injury or care for a family member with a serious long-term illness or injury. A paid family insurance program could ensure that working families can balance work and family needs while maintaining economic security.
One governmental function that is important to virtually every society worldwide is the creation and retention of "vital records". It is a basic function of civilization to keep track of who is born, who has died, and who has gotten married or divorced. Vermont takes vital records very seriously and we are in the process of updating the way records are created, stored and accessed by the public.
House Government Operations committee is currently studying H. 111, a vital records bill. It creates a statewide registration system for all birth, death, adoption, marriage, civil union and divorce certificates that can be accessed from anywhere in the State, not just the issuing town. The Committee has toured the State Archives in Middlesex, and were amazed at the different types of documents stored there. The records “document the rights of citizens, the decisions of government, and the history of the state from its establishment in 1777 to the present".
Having a central location for all records statewide makes them much easier to search, rather than having to go town by town to trace family names, etc. Of course, towns will still keep their own records as well, and marriage licenses will still be issued by Town Clerks.
Regulating Law Enforcement Officers
H. 22 is an act relating to the professional regulation of law enforcement officers by the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.
While the bill deals with several issues, the main one addresses the hiring and firing of law enforcement officers. One identified problem is when a law enforcement officer is fired for just cause, it is difficult, if not impossible, for another agency or police department to discover why (or even if) that officer was fired. This has led to poor quality officers moving from agency to agency or department. This bill will require that any person seeking employment from a law enforcement agency must allow the potential new agency to contact their former employer to learn the circumstances under which they left the former employer. It also requires that former employer to disclose the reasons.
Another important aspect of H. 22 is the creation of formal definitions of Unprofessional Conduct. The bill also requires every law enforcement agency to adopt an effective internal affairs program which would investigate complaints against a law enforcement officer.
Status of the Affordable Care Act
The Health Care committee is in an interesting place this session -- we’re trying to anticipate the potentially negative legislation from Congress as it applies to the Affordable Care Act. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, certain items are protected under Vermont law and would continue to apply to health insurance plans in Vermont, such as coverage for mammograms and colonoscopies with no cost-sharing.
Certain provisions would not continue to apply to health insurance plans or to employers' self-funded plans in Vermont if the Affordable Care Act is repealed:
- Annual out-of-pocket maximum;
- Ban on preexisting condition exclusions;
- Ban on annual and lifetime limits for essential health benefits;
- Ban on cost-sharing for preventive services;
- Coverage for young adult children up to 26 years of age on their parents' plan.
We will continue to monitor the situation in Washington and prepare to respond the best we can to ensure we keep our uninsured rates low and we keep our communities healthy.
Strengthening our Mental Health System
Integrating mental health care into our care system -- parity -- is of utmost importance to the Health Care committee. We are focussing our research on the pressures related to our mental health care system, from inappropriate wait times for patients awaiting psychiatric care in our emergency rooms to lowering the barrier to access to psychiatric in-patient beds. We also took moving testimony from police officers and mental health workers who encouraged us to strengthen our crisis response services. To add to the complexity of this crisis, there is a high turnover of mental health workers due to stress, long hours and non-competitive salaries.
Creating Healthy Communities
In his budget address, Governor Scott said he wanted to create opportunities for all Vermonters and to protect vulnerable Vermonters. The values that underpin the work of the House Human Services Committee supports this vision: 1. Ensuring that vulnerable Vermonters are safe and protected; 2. Ensuring systems are maintained to assist Vermonters in moving out of poverty 3. Ensuring that we address problems and remove barriers that can lead to even greater costs to the State and 4. Ensuring that all Vermonters have access to services and supports that will enable them to attain their highest level of independence and realize their potential.
One tool to help Vermont kids in shelters was passed by the House last month. H.201 provides for an extension to the length of stay for minors from up to 7 days to up to 21 days. This change is consistent with federal regulations, has no budget impact, and would allow more intervention time with youth who are homeless, have run away or are otherwise disconnected.
In addition, the committee will be addressing how to bend the slope of benefits cliff and also preventing or mitigating the impact adverse childhood events. Addressing these issues can help move Vermonters out of poverty and create healthy communities.
Criminal Justice Reform
The House Judiciary Committee has focused on proposals to address problems in the State’s criminal justice system. While continuing to protect the rights of crime victims and public safety, the Committee will also seek to reduce negative impacts to individuals involved in the criminal justice system. The committee is vetting four different ideas around reform.
The first is looking at geographic justice, ensuring every Vermonter has equal access to court and treatment options. The second is to review options to address over-incarceration and injustice due to bail policy. Often individuals may not have the resources to post bail and are incarcerated at a substantial cost to the State. In addition, individuals who cannot post bail may decide to plead guilty to an offense rather than remain incarcerated pending a hearing. The system works a disservice to low income Vermonters and is a poor use of the State’s resources. Third, is a policy to increase access to public defenders for youth 25 or younger.
The fourth policy area being explored is regarding expungement. The collateral consequences of having a criminal record can prohibit someone from getting licenses, permits, or jobs. To reduce these collateral consequences, individuals who have fulfilled the terms of their sentence and have met other requirements may, after a waiting period, seek to have their criminal records erased.
Our goal with these reforms is to grow the State’s economy and assist in developing and maintaining a strong State workforce.
Strengthening Sexual Assault Laws
Despite significant progress in strengthening Vermont’s laws against sexual assault, too many victims of sexual violence are not ensured access to effective justice, health care, and social services. The House has passed three bills that aim to further reinforce the State’s sexual assault laws.
One bill, H.25, sets forth procedures and notification requirements related to medical forensic examinations of sexual assault victims. Each year, Vermont’s certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners perform approximately 250 sexual assault forensic exams. The forensic exam kits are, in turn, analyzed by the Vermont Forensic Laboratory. This law would establish the right of sexual assault victims to receive the examination without cost, set forth timelines for delivery of exam kits from law enforcement to the Lab, and require notifying victims of exam results and available services.
A second bill, H.27, would eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault-related crimes. Sexual assaults can be some of the most challenging cases to investigate, charge, and prosecute. For various reasons, many victims choose not to immediately report sexual assaults to law enforcement. Because it can take years for sexual assault victims to be ready to engage with the legal system, it is important to eliminate the barrier of the current six-year statute of limitations for such cases.
Finally, H.74 would establish a new misdemeanor crime of lewd conduct, including nonconsensual touching of another’s intimate body part or nonconsensual exposure of one’s own genitalia. This new crime is needed to address a recent Vermont Supreme Court Case, In re: KA, which limited misdemeanor lewdness charges brought under the existing crime of “prohibitive acts” to the context of prostitution. Prior to this case, prosecutors charged this crime in cases that did not involve prostitution, both in plea deals or to bring a misdemeanor charge when the evidence or the offender’s behavior did not support or justify a felony charge. The bill passed by the House would provide a way to resolve cases to ensure there is a record that a sex offense occurred without requiring a felony charge or placement of the offender on the Sex Offender Registry.
The Committee was informed of other factors that influence the effectiveness of the State’s efforts to address sexual violence. Law enforcement could use additional resources to address the large number of sexual assault cases. For example, one Special Investigation Unit in Lamoille County has only two officers who must deal with nearly 400 sexual assault cases annually. This unit suffers from high turnover. The Senate will now review this package of reforms.
Legalizing Marijuana Possession
Current Vermont law uses civil fines to penalize individuals who are cited by law enforcement for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This system means that law enforcement focuses resources on an area of drug use that has fewer individual and public harms than tobacco and alcohol. Accordingly, it is difficult to rationalize continuing to treat modest adult cannabis use as the greater public risk.
H.170 takes an incremental step towards addressing this situation, by focusing on changes to the law for adult possession and cultivation. The bill:
- removes all civil and criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana
- keeps penalties in place for possession by individuals under 21 years of age
- imposes penalties on those who enable minors to consume marijuana
- allows for the limited growing of two mature and four immature marijuana plants
- limits the cultivation of plants by linking the allowed plants to a single property, rather than to an individual.
Youth prevention efforts continue to improve. We spend $3.7 million on prevention; data supports the strategies we are choosing and validates the early impact of our redirected efforts. The choice to focus on legalization of limited adult personal possession, with the ability to grow your own modest supply, shifts the emphasis of our policy approach to marijuana. This bill will allow law enforcement to focus on higher priorities and support community policing by removing a point of friction between the community and law enforcement that produces very little, if any, public benefit.
The changes H.170 makes to law are not as vulnerable to federal changes as the retail models being implemented in other states, as Vermont law enforcement enforces our state laws. Recently, the Trump administration announced that it would be less open to retail systems than the Obama administration, but also signaled that they would not “federalize” Vermont law enforcement in that process. This reinforces the likelihood that this approach, while modest, is achievable now and protected from interference by the Trump administration.
Lastly, given that Massachusetts and Maine passed ballot initiatives to legalize and Canada will implement legalization later this year, this may be the most common sense approach to keep Vermont in step with our neighbors.
Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife
Unsafe dams are causing more and more concern around the state. Some of these dams were built many years ago, when water power was important for mills and other industry. These dams have long lost their purpose but still collect or impound a lot of water, often creating ponds that are enjoyed by the property owners. While it seems the dams have “always” been there, the truth is that that they are an unnatural manipulation of the land, their safety is unknown and many are not inspected.
H.92 would require that all dams in the state be registered with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). DEC is naturally concerned about the added work required, which would include inspecting the dams once they are registered, but many engineers and citizens around the state are concerned about their safety. A dam breach would be catastrophic for downstream properties and life. The bill addresses these public safety issues and has received support from many stakeholders.
Water Clean-Up Funding
Most Vermonters have heard that our impaired waters must be cleaned and we have agreed to work with the federal government to do so. The Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL), which represents the amount of pollutants allowed to pass through our waterways and into our lakes, have been established for the Lake Champlain Watershed, the Memphramagog Watershed and the Connecticut River Watershed. Almost the entire state is under a TMDL requirement.
While the funding for clean-up is high, the cost of doing nothing is much higher. Much time has been spent putting together suggestions on how best to fund the necessary water clean-up work required by our agreement with the EPA. The Clean Water Report, issued by the State Treasurer’s office on Jan. 15, is the document that guides our work. We are hearing from many witnesses saying they agree with the “all in” concept and expect a well-coordinated approach. Draft proposals continue to be updated in committee, which upon completion, will be presented to the House Ways and Means Committee for their consideration. Because the information necessary to properly implement a per-parcel fee based on acreage and/or impervious surfaces on the parcel will not be ready for a few years, we are looking at creating a working group to report back to the legislature on or before Jan. 15, 2018, on the best way to implement such a fee. Once established, other funding sources that are used in the interim will sunset. The latest iteration of the draft has deleted the sunset on the property transfer tax, allowing this funding to continue.
The Committee is also actively working on tactical basin planning, where some projects have been prioritized and are ready to go, as well as the importance of having a Clean Water Fund Board that prioritizes projects based on available science.
Road Safety -
New to Vermont this spring is the Automated Vehicle Inspection Program. Paper forms are being eliminated, with all inspection data now being collected and transmitted electronically. This requires a $1650 capital investment by your inspection station, so the price of inspection may go up somewhat. Some pilot shops have increased fees within the $10 range, but don’t be afraid to shop around for a reasonable price.
The inspection rules (points of inspection) have not changed, simply moved from paper to computer tablet. Pass/fail criteria remain exactly the same. A March 20th go live date has been established. Vehicles that fail the On-Board Detection (Emissions) Inspection will have a one-time conditional pass during the first year to allow completion of emission repairs.
It’s hard to believe, but driverless cars are in our future. They are being piloted in many places nationwide. Numerous benefits are projected. These include 94% crash reduction due to elimination of human driving error, including 39% of fatalities due to driver impairment. Fewer cars will be needed by families. There will be less demand for parking, less traffic congestion, less emissions, and very different transportation fund impacts. This is said to be the greatest advance in transportation since the auto replaced the horse and buggy.
The House and Senate Transportation Committees are tasked with building an Automated Vehicle Technology Committee to study and recommend policy and legal changes in anticipation of driverless vehicle technology hitting Vermont roads. From 2018 thru 2022 this committee shall report its thinking to the House and Senate yearly for statutory, behavioral and technological update.
Ways and Means
Supporting our Investments
The first half of the session has been a bit unusual for Ways and Means. Generally, by Town Meeting break, we are heavy into testimony on the annual Fee Bill, the Miscellaneous Tax Bill, and working hard in preparation for setting the statewide education property tax rates. However, Governor Scott pledged not to raise any new taxes or fees. He presented the committee with a "Fee Report" that essentially flatlined all the fees subject to review this session, proposed only modest technical tax code changes, including a few new tax credits, and proposed radically restructuring how the Education Fund would be organized and paid for.
Taking the Education Fund first, it is clear that the legislature will not adopt Scott's education funding proposals, either the new spending or how he proposes to pay for it. Hence, we are left with statutory requirements to set the statewide property tax rates to raise the money that schools tell us they will spend in FY'18. Many Vermonters don't realize that statewide tax rates are essentially set by local taxpayers when they vote their school budgets. Ways and Means proposes a tax rate to balance that spending. That said, it appears that statewide school spending will be up about 1.5%, but statewide tax rates may drop slightly due to increases in the Grand List.
Regarding the Fee Bill, while the Governor has not proposed raising any fees, it is clear that the Watershed Cleanup Bill will require substantial new funding. Some of that may come from bonding as the State Treasurer has proposed, but much of the rest will have to come from fees on parties that contribute to pollution. Ways and Means will take a great deal of testimony before making any decisions about this funding.
Finally, the Miscellaneous Tax Bill. It is unclear what revenue we will need to balance the budget. Appropriations is working very hard to find savings and to provide room in the budget for increased spending that is beyond state control, health care costs for example. The big question we are focused on is: How do we meet the many challenges of building a strong healthy future, in a way we can afford? Ways and Means will fulfill its responsibility to help balance the budget, once we know what the budget gap is.
The Legislature's -and Vermont’s- Long and Winding Roads
-Rep. Mike Mrowicki
With another Legislature adjourned, we finally have the breathing room to look back- and look ahead. Trying to squeeze a year of work into 4 months, your part time citizen Legislature has moved ahead with supports for protecting children, the elderly, the environment and growing the economy with Green jobs that also address Global Warming.
A top priority is how much we value our children in Vermont, and because of the Opioid problem, more children need our protection from unfortunate, dangerous circumstances. We addressed that and, similarly, the workers assigned to help keep them safe and help families in crisis. After the murder last summer of a state social worker, we realized that threats against state workers are increasing and they deserve our support in seeing their workplace is safe.
As much as our children depend on us, our elders likewise need our help, especially in protecting their finances. This year, we passed legislation that speeds up the investigations when financial predators are suspected of misusing access to the accounts of those, they were supposed to be looking out for.
Democracy works when people vote. While other states were looking for ways to limit voting and participating in democracy, Vermont made it easier, with automatic voter registration.
Women deserve easy access to Health Care and Family Planning options.That’s why we voted to make sure women- and men have access to birth control-in stark contrast to those Red states that are trying to limit this access-even as the numbers of unplanned pregnancies, and abortions in those states rise.
In other states, laws were passed that tried to continue prejudicial actions on our fellow citizens who identify as LGBTQ. Vermont stood up and said , Not Here! Banning conversion therapy on minors sends the message that Hate has no Home here, and we all deserve being accepted,as we are.
And, with climate change still the issue clouding our future, Vermont took steps to address our warming atmosphere and do it in a way that promotes our Green Economy and creates jobs. Alongside our diverse, long range Energy Plan, we brought more balance and deliberation to how and where ,large renewable energy installations are located. .
Now with the ink still drying on bills signed by our Governor, the narratives are starting to rise up out of the experience of this legislative session.
Getting back home , I was reminded of a conversation after Tropical Storm Irene devastated Vermont. A constituent asked why we were focused on repairing all the roads, rather than just the main roads, that were most commonly used.
2016 End of Session Legislative Report-
Windham 4 District :
Putney, Dummerston, Westminster
Rep. David Deen- Fish, Wildlife and Water Quality Committee
Rep. Mike Mrowicki- Human Services Committee
With the 2016 Legislative Session concluded for this year, we are pleased to report highlights of the work accomplished in our 16 week session.
Once again, your part t-time citizen legislature worked hard to address as much as possible of the increasingly complex concerns facing Vermonters.
Common sense solutions to everything from keeping our economy growing while protecting our most vulnerable Vermonters, and our increasingly vulnerable environment helped guide our hands.
Social and economic justice also were guiding principles to bring fairness and equality to the world we live in , and the state we call home.
These highlights are not all the work accomplished . For more comprehensive information on all the House and Senate Committees in your Vermont Legislature , please visit the Legislative website; www.legislature,vermont.gov
WATER QUALITY, FISH and WILDLIFE
Dams on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers
TransCanada recently announced that the hydroelectric facilities on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers are for sale as part of a total sale of 13,000 MW of power producing facilities... The dams under consideration have a plate capacity of 560 Megawatts, compared to Vermont’s daily demand of about 1000 MW. While litigation over the appraisal value of these dams has been unceasing, the most recent (Sansoucy 2012) estimate of the dams’ value is $800M.
Vermont would need to consider numerous aspects of any purchase before we could move forward to acquire the hydro assets. The Governor has appointed a well-qualified seven-person working group to start that process. Some of the most significant considerations include the relationship of state owned facilities and local property taxes, the physical condition of all the facilities, the cost of repairs/maintenance, FERC relicensing and any costs associated with that process, renewable energy credits, multi-state ownership by a public entity, impacts on water quality and aquatic biota and fish, and all the risks/benefits associated with a predictable renewable energy future.
Vermont Waters: Our State Treasure
Unlike many communities around the country, Vermont has plenty of water, be it groundwater or the surface waters of our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands. These waters are part of the public trust and the Agency of Natural Resources as agent for the State or the Federal Government is charged with their protection.
Like many communities, however, Vermont struggles to keep pollution and toxics out of our waterways. Whether it is phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain or PFOA in Bennington’s groundwater, the Legislature continued in its efforts to address gaps in our prevention and response system and allocate resources to protect these invaluable resources.
2015 brought forth Act 64, the landmark Vermont Clean Water Act designed to bring all land use sectors to the table to reduce stormwater pollution. A new Clean Water Fund is a significant part of making this happen. Farmers, particularly small farms, are finding greater access to technical resources. Accepted Agricultural Practices are morphing to Required Agricultural Practices to help keep nutrients in the soil and out of our water. Municipalities are beginning to inventory their road and culverts to assess which ones need to be targeted to better manage stormwater. Added this year, wastewater treatment operators will be required to notify the public within 1-4 hours of an overflow, and the Vermont Health Department will maintain an Internet site and public outreach when toxic algae blooms are present in our lakes and ponds.
To address groundwater contamination, the Legislature created workgroups to evaluate how we identify and regulate toxic chemicals that find their way into our environment. The State will now have clearer authority in gaining information as well as financial impact in the presences of a real or threatened toxic release. Homeowners wanting to use lakes and ponds for drinking water will see a new set of rules to make sure the source is safe. Expect to see further work on toxic pollution in 2017.
Clean Water Fund Board
This bill adds four public members to the Clean Water Fund board. Of the four public members, two have to represent municipalities and all four have to be from different major watersheds. Currently the board is made up of five Secretaries (ANR, Transportation, Agricultural, Administration and Economic Development) appointed by the administration, and all subject to the change of any administration. This new membership will give more stability and public outreach to the board, and will prevent wholesale loss of the institutional memory associated with its operation.
Protection of Critical Habitat
A species listed as threatened or endangered is at risk of being lost to Vermonters. Existing law is focused on preventing the destruction of threatened and endangered species but it does not protect critical habitat. Critical habitat is defined as identifiable, concentrated and decisive areas deemed to be essential for the survival of a species that is at risk of extirpation or extinction in Vermont (think bat caves, peregrine falcon cliffs and spiny turtle nest sites). It is
different from ‘necessary habitat’ that is regulated under Act 250. Thirty-nine other states already have the ability to designate critical habitat.
This year, the legislature updated the underlying threatened and endangered species statute. We created the authority for the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources to establish critical habitat for state listed threatened or endangered species.
We regulated the ‘incidental takings’ of threatened and endangered species, including the permitted taking of critical habitat, and created a general permit for incidental takings that meet the certain criteria. We also required that a general permit be issued for activity in utility corridors because some threatened and endangered species exist only in utility right-of-ways, which require regular maintenance. Vermonter’s value wildlife and protecting species diversity is integral to maintaining the web of life upon which we all depend.
Regulating the Sale of Ivory
We will never see an African Black Rhino in the wild again. Never. Elephants are on a similar path. Without change, African elephants will be extinct in 10 years. Deaths are brutal –poachers poisoning wells with cyanide, paralyzing and harvesting the animals while they’re still alive, and destroying families and leaving orphans. Advocates argue that as world citizens, we have an obligation to do everything in our power to save one of the icons of the animal world from extinction. Devaluing ivory, so easily lauded as “antique” is the best way to do this. Additionally, it would remove a major funding source for criminals and terrorists operating in Africa. So what can we in Vermont do?
A new federal Endangered Species Act rule limits the sale of ivory between states; however, loopholes continue to exist within state boundaries. Individual states are now stepping up to restrict the sale of ivory within their borders. The Vermont House and Senate passed different solutions to this problem and in the end, the two sides ran out of time to reconcile those differences. Expect to see this issue come forward again next year.
Expanding Access to Marijuana for Symptom Relief
Cannabis can be an effective treatment for symptom relief for a number of medical conditions. A few years ago, the legislature adopted laws to regulate the use of marijuana for this limited purpose. This year, a number of changes to the underlying law were approved to make medical cannabis more accessible to those in need, while maintaining the integrity of the program.
Vermont's medical cannabis program is recognized as the best-run program in the country – and our Department of Public Safety intends to keep it that way. Currently, a person must have a six-month relationship with a doctor who has identified that the patient has a disease or condition causing chronic debilitating pain. The doctor must also be willing to satisfy the conditions of the application process. This year, the legislature reduced the length of the required patient-doctor relationship from 6 months to 3 months. Other changes included: adding glaucoma to the list of qualifying conditions, reducing pain classification from “severe” to “chronic,” and permitting the transport of cannabis to Vermont postsecondary academic institutions for the purpose of research. All Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or New York licensed naturopaths will be considered a “health care professional.” Any marijuana-infused product must be in a child-resistant package (as defined by the liquid nicotine statute) each single-dose marijuana-infused and potable products must be labeled with the amount of THC in the product.
Keeping Kids Safe
Vermonters are still reeling from the recent, tragic deaths of two young children caused by members of their own families. In addition, the tragic death of a DCF social worker allegedly by a parent this past summer has continued to place our states child protection system in crisis. The mounting stress on various agencies and departments has continued to grow and spill to the judiciary, public education, law enforcement, and hospitals.
Child protection is a community responsibility. It requires close collaboration between public and private agencies. We made several crucial policy changes that will improve the Department’s ability to protect children. One of the most impactful changes will be how the Department maintains the Child Protection Registry Unit. This is a confidential database that includes the names of persons who have been substantiated for child abuse and neglect (dating back to 1992). Now, there is an improved process for managing the registry. It will ensure that adults still on the sexual offender registry cannot petition to be removed from the Child Protection Registry, protect a child victim or other witness from being compelled by a grievant to testify at the registry review conference, and ensure that persons with especially egregious offense – like the murder of a child, or a large number of past substantiations t– will not be taken off the Child Protection Registry.
Prohibiting Conversion Therapy
This bill prohibits attempts to “cure” youth, under age 18, who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, queer or questioning. “Conversion Therapy” is a practice that is not supported by credible evidence and has been disavowed by behavioral health experts and their associations. The lack of acceptance from parents, family and community can do irreparable harm to youth. As many other states continue their assaults on the rights of their fellow Americans, merely because they identify as LGBTQ+, Vermonters can be proud that we support and value all our fellow Vermonters with the passage of this bill.
Protecting Children from E-Cigarette Use
Did you know that in Vermont, 30% of high school students have tried e-cigarettes and of that number, 15% have used them in the past 30 days? Teenagers are now using e-cigarettes more than regular cigarettes and the trend is growing at an alarming rate. More people are using e-cigarettes, raising questions about unknown public health risks.
We are tackling this in two ways. We want to make sure we are preventing kids from having easy access to e-cigarettes by requiring that sellers move them behind the counter or have them in a locked container. There is mounting evidence that there are second- and third-hand dangers from the vapors of e-cigarettes. In order to protect public health, we are including e-cigarettes in our clean indoor air laws. Not only will this bill prevent kids from starting to smoke or “vape,” it will protect public health and save the state potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs.
Protecting Vermonters from Financial Fraud
Vermont’s elderly and disabled are increasingly at-risk of financial exploitation. Caregivers are sometimes using their client’s credit card for unauthorized use and the family members responsible for paying bills are sometimes putting those funds to their own use.
We want to promote and protect a high quality of life for vulnerable Vermonters. To do this, we are giving law enforcement and Adult Protection Services (APS) better access to financial records of the alleged victim when investigating alleged financial abuse. This legislation will strike an important balance between the investigator’s need for information in the financial records and the vulnerable adult’s right to privacy. By giving law enforcement and APS these tools, they can move more quickly to protect Vermonters.
Expanding Access to Oral Health Care
Many areas of the state are seriously underserved in access to dental care. Medicaid patients, especially children, are particularly vulnerable because access is further curbed by affordability. Medicaid caps dental service reimbursement at $510 per year, a rate too low for most dentists to serve many Medicaid patients. Some dentists testified that new Medicaid patients (who have not seen a dentist for many years) often present with numerous dental health issues and the reimbursement amount allows them to do little more than stabilize the patient for that year.
By authorizing the practice of mid-level dental practitioners (“dental therapists”), dentists will be able to expand their practices and serve more low-income patients. Vermont Tech plans to develop a fully accredited dental therapist program to train dental therapists. Dental therapists will be required to first have a degree in Dental Hygiene and then a degree in Dental Therapy. A dental therapist will work under the direct supervision of a dentist for at least 1,000 hours before entering into a collaborative agreement with a dentist. The collaborative agreement will specify exactly what procedures the dental therapist may perform. A dental therapist will always be required to practice under a collaborative agreement with a dentist. Because good dental health is a critical part of overall health and wellbeing, we are proud to taken a major step to in ensuring that many Vermonters will have greater access to high-quality, affordable oral health care.
Combating Opioid Abuse
Opioid misuse and addiction is still a public health crisis in Vermont. There were 76 opioid related deaths in 2015. Prescription drugs were a factor in at least 32 of those deaths. Legislation passed this year takes a multifaceted approach that includes treatment, education, prevention, and increased market-constraints. These include:
- Approving the funds to provide Naloxone across the state to those family and friends who are struggling with addiction, and to Emergency Medical Services that treat those who have overdosed;
- Expand the Hub and Spoke treatment network to serve over 400 Vermonters;
- Permitting a qualified nurse practitioner to see a patient for addiction-related treatment (other than the prescription of buprenorphine);
- Mandating continuing education for all professionals, including naturopathic physicians and advanced practice registered nurses;
- Funding (1) unused prescription drug disposal initiatives, (2) prevention of abuse and diversion of controlled substances campaigns, (3) overdose reversal kits and additional treatment, and (4) academic, bias-free information concerning these powerful drugs to physicians;
- Expanding the coverage of telemedicine services and other treatment efforts;
- Requiring health care providers and dispensers (pharmacists) to register with the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) and to query the system upon prescribing or dispensing a controlled substance; and
- Directing the Department of Health to adopt rules governing the prescription of opioids for acute pain.
None of these measures will prevent a doctor from prescribing a patient what the patient needs to be out of pain. Although we still have a ways to go in getting Vermont’s opiate epidemic under control, these policy changes will help us take significant steps in prevention and recovery.
Task Force for Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing
When the Austine School for the Deaf closed, it left a void in specialized services for deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing Vermonters. Advocates asked the legislature to create a task force to examine the services and resources available, especially the areas of communication access, education, and employment. The legislature agreed and created a task force to provide a clearinghouse of information and advice for individuals who are deaf, deaf blind, hard of hearing and for their families. It will also provide advice and counsel for government agencies and administration. This work will help to make Vermont a more inclusive and supportive place for people who are deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing.
Vermonters expect us to be good stewards of our state and their money. By responsibly investing in our future, and anticipating future needs, we are keeping our promise to them. This budget reflects Vermont values, namely supporting working families, our vulnerable neighbors, economic development, public safety, and fiscal responsibility. This budget also acknowledges our challenges, and addresses them in a fiscally and morally responsible way – the Vermont way.
The FY17 budget does not create headline-grabbing new initiative or make promises it can’t keep. Instead, we responsibly allocated resources to stabilize existing programs and meet the obligations and needs of our state. We took steps to insure efficient use of funds by establishing legislative oversight of state agency audit findings and reducing overtime expenditures. While we have heard numerous political talking points about spending problems, the upward pressures on the state budget cannot just be brushed aside without impacting our neighbors, or creating additional problems. It is much easier to criticize than it is to govern. The realities of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, are that 1/3 of Vermonters are now eligible under federal law. Some fall within the federally defined expanded "new adult" population, 90% of whose costs are borne by the Federal Government. We also shifted money from hospital rates to primary care, to stabilize the foundation of a good health care system. Further budgetary pressures were from increased caseloads in vulnerable children, seniors, and people with developmental disabilities. To limit the funds to the Department of Children and Families would only serve to put vulnerable Vermont children, in state custody, at risk. Our budget also honors the contract with our hard-working state workforce.
The budget we built this year acknowledges those challenges, and attempts to address them in the responsible Vermont way. It funds the programs to assure that 97% of Vermonters have health care. It expands child protection services and increases the ability of the judicial system to respond to the demands created by the opioid epidemic. It takes additional steps to reunite families through a proven program with the Defender General. It expands services to individuals struggling with addiction. We have tried to help working families avoid crisis by increasing the funding to the parent child centers and childcare subsidies for the first time in many years. We invested in future generations by increasing the appropriation to the Vermont State Colleges for scholarships. And beginning in September a 2% increase will go both to our local designated agencies doing mental health counseling, developmental disability assistance and substance abuse work as well as to our home health agencies and Area Agencies on Aging that help Seniors live at home.
Our infrastructure will continue to improve thanks to the robust transportation funding in the budget, and additional investment in police cars, which have fallen dangerously behind their replacement schedule. We maintained our commitment to water quality with funding for clean water programs. To further improve infrastructure, we dedicated $11.6 million for weatherization, and contingency state funding for LIHEAP.
This budget reaffirms our commitment to economic development in rural Vermont by increasing the working lands grant and providing for a unified Southern Vermont economic development, as well as job growth through the Vermont Creative Network. Our first responders will see a substantial increase in Medicaid reimbursements for ambulance services and local municipalities hosting state building will see an increase of over $800,000 in payments in lieu of taxes.
The FY17 budget also looks responsibly to the future by not using any one time funds for ongoing needs. It funds stabilization reserves at their full statutory levels, while continuing to save our rainy day funds. It fully funds the remainder of the FY16 53rd week of Medicaid payments and sets up a fund to save for the next 27th week of payroll and Medicaid obligation which will fall in FY23. Additionally, over a million dollars was set aside for future needs. Stability of teacher and state employee retirement funds are concerning, due to a long recession as well as underfunding in the 90s. To put them on a more sustainable track, we put $100 million into retirement funds (more than the necessary contribution) and put ourselves on a faster schedule of paying into them, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the future. This is akin to paying extra principal on a mortgage to pay it off sooner and save interest payments.
The total state budget can be sliced and diced in many ways, depending on the point being made. Vermonters, however, are smarter than soundbites and expect us to be good stewards of our state and their money. By responsibly investing in our future, and anticipating future needs, we are keeping our promise. This budget reflects Vermont values, namely supporting working families, our vulnerable neighbors, economic development, public safety, and fiscal responsibility.
We’ve met the obligations and needs of our state sensibly, understanding the deep trust that every taxpayer has placed in us to invest their money wisely. While you may hear quotes of spending increasing by 4.8%, that statistic reflects only a small percent, just one-quarter, of total spending ignoring the majority of the budget. When you look at the complete picture, we restrained growth to just 2.4%, half of the often-quoted figure.
House Agriculture moved important legislation forward that will help to protect our pollinators. First, we established a task force to investigate the causes of pollinator decline and to propose recommendations to the legislature in the form of a pollinator protection plan. Next, we empowered our pesticide regulators to act when the Pesticide Advisory Council determines that items treated with the pesticide most commonly implicated in pollinator decline is shown to have harmful effects on the environment. There is already ample evidence that neonicotinoid-treated seeds, telephone poles, pressure-treated lumber, etc., are partially to blame for the decline of bees nationwide, so we anticipate that the scientific evidence will compel the experts to make appropriate recommendations for mitigating the harm that results from the use of this pesticide.
Required Agricultural Practices - Act 64
Last spring, Vermont began a long process of improving the quality of our state’s waterways. Rethinking and revising our forestry and farming practices are an important part of this work. In October, the Agency of Agriculture released a draft of the new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), sparking thoughtful conversations about how best to improve the health and productivity of our soil and water. Small farmers, in particular, are engaged and working to ensure that the new rules recognize that regenerative agricultural practices are the most sustainable approach to striking this balance.
HOUSING , MILITARY AND GENERAL SERVICES
There are currently 60,000 Vermonters without access to paid sick time. These working Vermonters are too often forced to choose between taking care of themselves or a sick family member and taking home a paycheck. Low-income workers, including food service and childcare workers, are the least likely to have paid sick days. When employees are forced to go to work sick, everyone is put at risk. This issue touches so many Vermonters in so many ways as they struggle to stay healthy, support their families, and have economic security. Creating a minimum standard for paid sick days for all Vermonters is the right thing to do and makes Vermont a better place. This year, the legislature passed the healthy workplace bill, creating a minimum standard for paid sick days starting with the ability to earn up to three days off after one year of full-time employment. The Governor is signed this bill into law in early spring.
This year’s housing bill contains an extension of a down payment program approved last year from 3 to 7 years, and a pilot program that proposes a way to use existing programs to develop housing that can be made affordable to Vermonters who make between 80 and 120% of an area median income.The down payment assistance program for first time homebuyers, administered by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, has been a success in its first year of operation. As of late April, over 85 homebuyers have qualified for assistance, for homes that averaged $160,000 in purchase price. Helping first time buyers is an important way to help make Vermont affordable for young families. The money for this program comes from the sale of tax credits by VHFA, and will be repaid by the homeowners when they sell their home or refinance. The funds in this program are limited in use to homebuyer down payment assistance, and when the money is repaid, it will be given out again to other first time homebuyers. By extending this program, VHFA will be able to create a true revolving fund, and will be able to help young families into the future.
The Legislature aims to balance the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants in law. This year we worked to ensure access to emergency housing and permanently affordable housing. At the same time, we acted on concerns about individuals who may be living in an apartment unlawfully, or without permission from the landlord. Representatives of landlords and tenants worked with the housing committee to craft an expedited eviction process for this situation. Under the new statute, a landlord may or may not allow subleasing. If there is a written lease that prohibits subleasing, this process could be used to remove someone who is living in the apartment who is not on the lease. This could be someone who "took over" a lease without the landlord's permission, or a "roommate" who is not on the original lease and does not have permission from the primary leaseholder.
The law also allows a process for the alleged unlawful occupant to prove that s/he is a lawful occupant. We needed to maintain some protections for the occupant so that people are not evicted without cause or due process that may indeed have permission to be there. This law achieves a balance that will allow landlords to regain possession of the premises sooner than under conventional ejectment law, while not taking away an occupant's right to prove they belong there.
Supporting our Veterans, Military and National Guard
We honor our friends and neighbors who serve by providing basic protections, so they don’t have to worry about things like “will I or my family will lose our health insurance if called up for domestic duty?” Now, of member of the Guard are called for duty for more than 30 days, Vermont statute requires that access to their health insurance continue and provides that, if the employer refuses to pay their share, the state of Vermont will. We also extended this protection and benefit to Vermont residents who may be members of another state’s Guard and are called up under the same circumstances.
The legislature also provided funding for operational expenses of the Vermont Veteran’s Home and funded their transition to electronic medical records. With a diminishing number of veterans, the Home is retooling and becoming more entrepreurial in seeking new residents. They are in constant negotiations with Massachusetts and New York so they may provide their award-winning services to residents of the more rural portions of those states located near Bennington.
In this year’s budget, we made an investment in our local armories, providing grants to make ADA-accessible improvements. We, and the Guard, acknowledge that these public buildings are being used more frequently by Vermonters — by veterans and civilians — and need to be upgraded.
Open Meeting Law
Vermonters treasure our openness and transparency in government. In support of this value, and in an effort to establish a common expectation of public process across municipal borders, the legislature made several important and practical amendments to the Open Meeting Law of 2014. Responding to compliance concerns from local communities, particularly small municipalities that lacked the resources, personnel, and technical expertise to comply with the law, the legislature affirmed that:
- When a member of a public body is participating in a meeting by electronic or other means, a roll call vote is required only if the vote is not unanimous. Current law requires each vote be taken by roll call, even those that are not substantive and are purely procedural.
- An agenda must designate at least one physical location the public can attend if members are not physically present.
- All references to “days” and “business days” in the Open Meeting Law are amended to read “calendar days,” which is a definition that leaves no room for misinterpretation.
- For towns that have a website, minutes posted to it must remain there for a minimum of one year, removing the uncertainty towns currently have because the law doesn’t specify how long they should remain posted.
- A public body has 10 calendar days, rather than the previous 7 business days to respond to a written notice of alleged violation.
- In instances where a public body is curing a violation of the Open Meeting Law, the public body will no longer have to ratify or declare void any and all actions taken during the meeting, but rather those actions that are the most egregious. Specifically, ratification or declaring an action void must occur when: a meeting is noticed improperly; a person is wrongfully excluded from attending a meeting; or a public body utilizes executive session for unauthorized reasons.
Automatic Voter Registration
Over the past several years, many other states have made it more difficult for citizens to vote. Vermont, however, has passed a number of measures that support and increase eligibility of our citizens to their fundamental right to vote. This year, the legislature passed a bill that automatically registers eligible Vermonters to vote when they apply for a state driver’s license. Vermont is now the fourth state with such a law.
Passed with virtually unanimous support, the law will streamline voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) with a system that identifies eligible Vermonters and automatically sends their information to the town or city clerk for addition to the checklist, unless they opt out.
Vermont continues to pave the way for greater democratic participation, just last year becoming the 14th state to allow same-day voter registration. It is estimated that automatic voter registration could add between 30,000 and 50,000 new voters within the first four years, strengthening Vermont’s ranking as a state with among the highest registration rates in the country.
Emergency Dispatch and E911
Of critical importance, the Department of Public Safety will continue to provide 911 call-taking services unless otherwise directed by the Legislature. Beginning as soon as possible, a working group will convene to study and make recommendations regarding the most efficient, reliable, and cost-effective means for providing statewide call-taking operations for Vermont’s 911 system. The working group will take a hard look at the manner in which dispatch services are currently provided and funded, including funding disparity, and whether there should be any changes to this structure. The group’s recommendations will focus on achieving the best possible outcome in terms of ensuring the health and safety of Vermonters and Vermont communities.
Members of the working group will include a representative from: the Enhanced 911 Board; the Department of Public Safety; the Vermont State Employees’ Association; the Vermont League of Cities and Towns; the Vermont State Firefighters’ Association; the Vermont Ambulance Association; the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police; the Vermont Police Association; and the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association. Their report will be ready on or before January 15, 2017. The legislature will review the report and discuss any alterations to the current system of emergency dispatch and response.
All-Payer Model, Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs)
The Green Mountain Care Board is in the final stages of negotiating a waiver with the federal government to allow the formation an All-Payer Model in Vermont. If successful, a federal waiver would allow Medicare (a 100% federal program), Medicaid, and private insurers to better align and coordinate incentives to our medical providers. In Vermont’s all-payer model, Medicare beneficiaries would maintain the same protections, benefits, and doctors as required by federal law.
Background on All-Payer Model and ACO’s
In recent years, health care reform has focused on increasing access to insurance. Through the Affordable Care Act and VT’s expansion of Medicaid, 97% of Vermonters have health care insurance. The next frontier in health care reform is controlling costs and improving health outcomes/quality. That is what the All-Payer Model is meant to address.
Our current system pays health care providers on a fee-for-service basis. A fee-for-service system has led to a greater quantity of more expensive services (lots of tests, lots of pharmaceutical industry involvement), a fragmentation in care (shuttling between uncommunicative specialists), and a disconnect between cost and outcomes. An all-payer model aligns every insurer (Medicaid, Medicare, private insurers) under the same payment system; promotes greater flexibility for providers to coordinate patient care and invest in prevention; strives to reduce administrative burden; and incentivizes cost reduction through better health outcomes. Unfocused care provided in an uncoordinated fashion will be costly to providers in an all-payer model, while illness prevention and the promotion of healthy behavior will be rewarded.
Vermont has various all-payer model reforms unfolding already. We have three accountable care organizations (ACOs) functioning across the state. While each of these ACOs still operates under a fee-for-service model, they have shared savings programs that compensate providers for improving quality and containing costs.
Under an all-payer model, providers will not be required to join an ACO. The goals and rewards inherent in the model – high quality, lower cost, better health – will also serve as incentives for doctors and hospitals to join an ACO to share information and services, synchronize care, and coordinate community and preventative health programs.
Improving Access to Contraceptives
About half of all pregnancies in Vermont are unintended, in-line with national averages, but 1.6 times the rate of other developed nations. 74% of unintended pregnancies in Vermont result in state-funded care costing $30 million annually. Unintended pregnancies perpetuate the cycles of poverty and are associated with adverse maternal and child health outcomes and increased health care costs. This year, the legislature did four things to enhance access to birth control and promote family planning:
- Codify the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act ensuring that Vermont women have access to contraception regardless of the political environment at the federal level;
- Allow individuals on private and Medicaid insurance to obtain up to 12 months of oral contraceptives reducing trips to the pharmacy and increasing the likelihood of consistent use;
- Expand the birth control benefit to include vasectomies bringing gender parity to insurance support for family planning;
- Support an increase in Medicaid reimbursement for LARC (Long Acting Reversible Contraception – the most effective birth control, but also the most expensive) thereby increasing patient access to this method.
Prescription Drug Pricing Transparency
Prescription drug costs have increased significantly in recent years. A decade ago prescription drug inflation rates were around 5%-6% annually; in recent years that inflation rate has increased to 11%-12%. Four of the top-10 selling prescription drugs have more than doubled in price since 2011. The remaining six have seen their prices increase between 54% and 96%. The Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA) reported a 19% increase in spending on prescription drugs in FY’15.
The legislature passed a bill that shines a light on this issue by directing the Green Mountain Care Board, in consultation with DHVA, to annually identify up to 15 prescription drugs for which the price has increased by more than 50% in the last five years or 15% in the prior 12 months. The Attorney General’s office will then require the drug’s manufacturer to disclose all factors that contributed to the price increases, including the percentage each factor contributed to those price increases.
The information collected by the Attorney General’s office will be provided to the legislature and published on the AG’s website. The information will not be released in a manner that will allow for the identification of the individual drug or manufacturer or in a way that might compromise proprietary financial or competitive information. The Attorney General may bring civil action against any manufacturer that fails to provide information, with each failure to provide information constituting a separate violation subject to a fine of up to $10,000.
ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES:
Creating a Renewable Portfolio Standard
Last year, we established a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for Vermont so that renewable energy credits (RECs) may be retired and our energy policies would align with our New England neighbors. This law sets standards for three tiers of energy resources: (1) total renewable energy, (2) new renewable distributed generation, and (3) energy transformation projects. In the first category, the law requires that total renewable energy comprise 55% of each utility’s sales by 2017, increasing to 75% by 2032. This category could be met through the purchase or contracting of renewable energy with RECs attached, or purchasing RECs alone.
In the second category, the law requires that new distributed generation comprises 1% of each utility’s sales by 2017, increasing to 10% by 2032. If this tier were met by solar only, it would require 400 MW of solar capacity, or roughly 25 MW of new solar capacity every year starting in 2017. Like efficiency, distributed power minimizes the need for expensive transmission lines, promotes reliability, and reduces line losses lowering the cost of electricity for Vermont consumers. And through distributed renewable generation, Vermonters can become their own power suppliers, keeping some of the $830 million spent annually by Vermonters on electricity here at home.
The third tier is energy transformation projects, defined as energy-related goods and services other than the generation of electricity that result in a reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Examples include home weatherization, air source and geothermal heat pumps, electric vehicle charging stations, and energy storage. Energy transformation projects will provide more sales for utilities but, coupled with demand management to avoid peak consumption periods, can lower electricity rates by increasing revenues over the same fixed costs.
From a total energy perspective, consumers are expected to save $275 million in total energy spending over the 15 years as a result of this law. It also encourages the strategic electrification of the transportation and heating sectors, helping us cut 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and keeping us on track to achieve a quarter of our statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 75% by 2050.
Managing our Forests
Recognizing the value that healthy forests have in Vermont's working landscape – and their contribution to a healthy ecosystem – the legislature passed a series of bills to protect and maintain this precious resource.
Along with many other things, these bills encourage the collection of harvesting information - in concert with landowners and loggers, protects the right of landowners to conduct forestry operations in compliance with Accepted Management Practices, encourages succession planning by forestland owners to keep forestland intact from one generation to the next, creates a right of a person to bring a civil action for damages due to the unlawful cutting of trees, repeals the requirement that a timber harvester mark the boundaries of a harvest unit prior to harvest, and upgrade the crime of "timber trespass" from a civil misdemeanor to a prosecutable crime.
Making Roads Safer for Bicyclists
One preventable motor vehicle accident is one too many. We must foster a better “share the road” culture for both bicyclists and motor vehicles, especially as there is inherent inequality between a bicyclist and a motor vehicle. A bicyclist is truly vulnerable on the road and this session we took important steps to respond to the four cycling deaths in 2015.
After careful consideration, we took three actions. First, we updated rules of the road to acknowledge the way cyclists use the roadway and to better protect them. Cyclists and motor vehicle operators are both obligated to signal before turning and to make turns only when there is a safe distance between themselves and other road users. It is now recommended that vehicles allow four feet of roadway when passing a cyclist. Second, we created an enhanced penalty for negligent operation with death or serious bodily injury resulting. Third, we allocated $100k for education on the new law. Education, particularly on the “right hook” turns will be crucial to ensuring all road users are safe and protected.
WAYS and MEANS Report:
Raising Revenue to Invest in Vermonters
Fees to Fund Vermonters
The biggest single piece of revenue for the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget was an increase to the registration fee that Vermont charges to mutual funds selling products in the state. Currently, mutual funds pay a $600 registration fee – the lowest in New England. The fee was raised to an initial filing fee of $2000 and an annual fee of $1500 raising $20.8 million annually. Vermont’s fee is still lower than our New England neighbors. We also agreed with the Senate’s proposal to increase the filing fee for broker dealer agents from $60 to $90, raising an additional $3.47 million. These sources of revenue – the two largest in the bill – will have very little impact, if any, on Vermont families or businesses.
Other fees in the Agency of Agriculture, Department of Liquor Control, Department of Fish & Wildlife, and Public Safety were adjusted this year – per our three-year revue cycle. Changes to any individual fees were modest and reflected the total cost of regulating the program involved. In total, these changes equaled $3.12 million.While the legislature rejected the Governor’s proposal to impose a 2.35% provider tax on approximately 1,200 doctors and dentists throughout the state, we did agree to a manufacturers fee on pharmaceuticals. This will raise a little over $2 million to help us fund programs that combat opiate addiction.
Forging a More Equitable Tax System
A change from quarterly to monthly filing for both the bank franchise tax and the telephone property tax brings two additional months of revenue into our FY2017 collections, totaling $2.8 million. That this does not increase the tax paid by either the banks or telephone companies; it simply changes when it is paid and allows us to use the revenue for the FY2017 budget.
The fuel gross receipts tax was changed to $.02 per gallon for liquid fuels (e.g. heating oil, propane, etc.) rather than .5% on the value of the fuel sold. For fuels like coal and natural gas, the tax will still be assessed on the value sold and will increased slightly to .75%. These changes will raise $2.87 million. In FY2017 only, an additional $900,000 will be raised as fuel dealers move from quarterly to monthly filing schedule. This revenue will be used to fund the state’s low-income weatherization program, saving homeowners and the state from paying high heating bills for low-income, disabled, and elderly Vermonters.
After in-depth review of the rise in “AirBnB” use in Vermont, the tax department discovered inequities in tax payments between traditional accommodation establishments (e.g. hotels, bed & breakfasts, inns, etc.) and AirBnB and similar companies. To assure compliance with the state’s rooms tax requirements, AirBnB has agreed to pay the tax department directly. We expect this compliance will boost our rooms tax revenue by $1 million next year.
The Transportation Funding Bill increased DMV fees raised an additional $9.9M for our state match for Transportation projects throughout the state. These fees were comprehensively looked at and raised for inflation over the period of time since they had last been changed. This bill also had funding for our change to DLS policy this year to reduce the number of drivers with suspended licenses on our roads.
Changes were made to the estate tax that make it both simpler and fairer. Previously, an estate tax was assessed on Vermont estates that were greater than $2.75 million. If an estate crossed the $2.75 million threshold it was then taxed from the first dollar at a rate that varied between 1% and 16% and relied on a section of federal law that has since been repealed. Under the new law only the amount of the estate over $2.75 million would be taxed at a flat 16%. In order for the change to be revenue neutral the change will include gifts made 2 years prior to death as part of the estate. The changes to the estate tax were passed on a 142-0 vote.
Ambulance Provider Tax In order to provide MORE funding for local ambulance services, such as Resue, Inc.A provider tax of 3.3% will be assessed on ambulatory services. This will enable us to “invest” that money and draw down federal Medicaid funds of $1.2 million. When matched with the federal funds a total of $2.3 million will be redistributed back to the ambulance services in increased Medicaid reimbursement rates. This proposal was developed in conjunction with the Vermont Ambulance Association (VAA). The vast majority of ambulatory services will have increased revenue under this bill. The VAA voted to support the tax with only one member abstaining.
Totals The total raised by the conference reports of the fee, tax, and transportation bills raised $49 million with $3.7 million in one-time revenue and $1 million attributed to compliance with existing law putting the total of new revenue closer to $44.3 million. This means the majority of the money raised for FY2017 did not come from Vermonters – but rather from out of state mutual fund companies and brokers.