2018 End of Session House Committee Reports


 

 

2018 End of Session Reports

 

 

Thank you for your trust in David and I.  It’s an honor to serve as your representatives in Montpelier.  With the uncertainty and chaos coming from Washington, our primary focus is on protecting our families and helping our communities thrive. With bringing a voice of reason to the tumult tumbling down from DC.

 

We’re fighting for a Vermont where paid family leave is part of every job, where Vermonters can afford high-quality health care, attain a great education, and retire with security.  These goals are under assault at the federal level.  In Vermont, we’re trying to build a future based on fairness, transparency, and resilience.  Our government must work for all of us, not just the well-connected few.

-Mike Mrowicki

 

 

Agriculture and Forestry -

 

Agriculture Economic Development

In collaboration with our ever-changing agriculture sector, we’ve enabled farmers and value-added producers to grow their businesses, both on and off farm, with some groundbreaking legislation. In fact, our farmers have utilized their entrepreneurial skills to diversify their offerings, which can include providing storage, preparation, processing and/or sales of the products made by others, as well as “agri-tourism.” As this sector has grown, however, Vermont’s farmers are running up against inconsistencies in town zoning across the state, which makes it difficult for some farmers to set up farm-related businesses on site. The House and Senate both passed H.663, which makes it easier for farmers and municipalities to understand how a farm can grow their businesses. This consistency in zoning will allow farms across Vermont to stay viable.

 

 

Updating Land Use Laws

H. 663, a bill relating to municipal land-use regulation of accessory on-farm businesses. In addition to providing support for farmers to engage in accessory on-farm businesses, the bill also brings Vermont’s industrial hemp statute into compliance with federal law.  It also provides for medical marijuana dispensaries to be able to extract tetrahydrocannabinol from a hemp crop that has been determined to have excess levels per federal law, and then return the plants to the farmer for processing without penalty to the farmer.

 

 

Appropriations-

This budget supports a healthy economy, strong families and gives communities the resources they need to thrive, now and in the future.   We focus on smart budgeting.  Revenue we can count on receiving annually is used to pay for ongoing expenses; windfalls, like receipts from the tobacco settlement and federal tax changes are invested in paying down debt and building reserves.  We protect ourselves from the uncertainty in DC and the likelihood of a recession, so we can continue to make the kind of investments that give Vermont’s working families a fair shot.

 

This year’s budget supports vulnerable Vermonters.  This may be a family member, a co-worker, a friend or a fellow Vermonter. This budget restores cuts proposed by the Governor to those with disabilities and who receive developmental services. It provides a 2% increase to community service providers like the VNA and increases funding for meals on wheels. It directs federal dollars to reimbursement for infant and toddler care.  It makes strategic investments in our economy, like working lands.  It makes significant investments in the justice system, enabling families crippled by the opioid crisis to move on. It helps struggling dairy farmers.  It invests in supportive housing for people with mental illness and creates more hospital beds for those suffering from mental illness and divert them from hospital emergency rooms.

 

Provisions in the budget focus on Vermont’s fiscal health and moves the state into a stronger fiscal position. We hold the rate of budget growth to half of one percent.  Investments are made in the retired teachers’ pension fund that will save Vermont taxpayers over $100 million in interest payments.  All of our reserves are filled to the statutory amounts.  Our fiscal management protects our bond ratings and assures schools, municipalities and others can borrow at low interest rates.

 

This budget was passed with tri-partisan support on a vote of 117-14. The budget assists vulnerable Vermonters, builds our workforce, invests in economic development initiatives, keeps an eye on affordability and improves our fiscal health for a strong future for our state.

 

Commerce and Economic Development -

S. 269 - An act relating to blockchain, cryptocurrency, and financial technology

The bill creates two new company structures (Personal Information Protection Companies (PIPC) and Blockchain Based LLCs) to better position Vermont as a haven for software companies using Blockchain technology.  This is not about cryptocurrency mining operations in which an endless number of computers are linked together to solve complex mathematical problems to mine for bitcoin.  Instead, it is about creating corporate structures that are favorable to companies using blockchain technology.  The bill also establishes a study committee to explore ways in which state government and municipalities can utilize blockchain technology for storing records.  Ways and Means reviewed the bill and the fees attached to PIPCs which will be regulated by the Department of Financial Regulation.

 

S. 206 - An act relating to business consumer protection for point-of-sale equipment leases

The bill requires companies to fully disclose the terms of any equipment lease in connection with credit card processing equipment.  There are an endless number of players in the credit card processing world, and it is often confusing for small business owners as to who is the sales organization, who is the equipment leasing company, who is the merchant service provider, etc.…  This bill also gives businesses the ability to cancel a lease within 45 days for a reasonable cancellation fee.

 

H. 143 - An act relating to automobile insurance requirements and transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft

This bill does four basic things:

  1. It codifies the existing insurance regime in which TNCs provide insurance for drivers to cover them when they (a) are available to pick up a rider, (b) are on their way to pick up a rider, and (c) have a rider in the vehicle.  The new insurance requirements double existing Vermont minimums for (a) and go up to $1 million for (b) and (c).
  2. Requires TNCs to vet their drivers for criminal history, previous DUIs, proper maintenance of a vehicle, qualifications to operate a motor vehicle.  TNCs have to perform background checks and also open their records to the DMV to inspect driver records for compliance with the vetting requirement.
  3. Establishes a study committee to review to what extent all vehicles for hire (including taxi cabs, limousines, etc.…) should be regulated at the state level.  Currently municipalities have jurisdiction over these services.
  4. Establishes a review of accident history for TNCs to determine if the insurance requirements for the “gap period” are sufficient.

 

S. 180 - An act relating to the Vermont Fair Repair Act

The bill creates a task force to review the ability of consumers to repair consumer electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets and computers, and to recommend legislation, if appropriate, for the 2019 legislative session.

 

H. 719 An act relating to Insurance and Trust Companies

The bill updates regulations for the Captive Insurance industry, but also establishes a minimum interest rate of 6% an insurer has to pay on delayed benefit payments.  The bill also creates a new regulatory regime for REINSURANCE companies looking to relocate to the US from foreign locations to avoid the 10% penalty put in place by the December federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

 

S. 85 - An act relating to simplifying government for small businesses  

This bill aims to make it simpler for businesses to interact with state government by expanding the information on the Secretary of State website and links to relevant parts of other State websites (like DOL, ANR, Agriculture, Taxes).  The goal is to have a project scope, design, budget and timeline by December of 2018 that will act as a roadmap for website enhancements and services for the next 10 years.

 

H. 482 – Consumer Protection – Debt Collection Bill  

This bill revises the statutes governing the collection of personal credit card debt to clarify the procedures for consumers, creditors, courts and trustees, and to provide consumers relief from high interest rates on defaulted credit card debt.  The bill gives a judge discretion to determine how much a consumer can repay and at what interest rate when a creditor seeks a default judgment on credit card debt.  It is estimated that 20% of Vermonters have experience with debts in collection.

 

H. 919 – An act relating to Workforce Development  

This bill incorporates the recommendations of a 2017 summer working group to develop the workforce to meet the current and anticipated needs of employers and employees.  The bill does many things:  

  1. Strengthens the role of the State Workforce Development Board – the board has 60 members, ½ of which must come from the private sector.
  2. Extends the use of Career Pathways in workforce development, engaging students as early as 7th grade.
  3. Establishes 4 pilot projects in Career Technical Education (CTE) settings to model a unified funding and governance structure to streamline and improve delivery of services.
  4. Strengthens apprenticeship programs in the state, including the establishment of “returnships” to re-engage workers who are currently not in the workforce.
  5. Establishes a system that reviews and elevates the rigor of industry recognized credentials and certificates to create better value and relevance of them to both the recipient and employees.
  6. Expands the role of the Department of Labor and the Commissioner to recruit workers, including from in-state post-secondary institutions, as well as train workers.
  7. Authorizes the use of Workforce Education Training (WET) Funds to assist small businesses recruit, relocate and retain workers.
  8. Develops metrics to measure the relative success of these different efforts to guide decision making in the future.

 

H. 620 An act relating to State-owned airports and economic development

This bill charges ACCD with developing an economic development plan for state-owned airports, arguably under-utilized assets of the state.  This dovetails with the current effort of the Agency of Transportation to update its 10-year airport systems plan.

 

H. 764 An act relating to data brokers and consumer protection

This bill incorporates the recommendations of a 2017 summer study committee to provide consumers with greater protection over their personal information.  The bill seeks to regulate data brokers, those who buy and sell the personal information of individuals with whom they have no other business relationship.  It requires that data brokers register with the state and provide the Attorney General with information about how the nature of the information they collect and how they collect it.  It also requires data brokers to disclose when they experience a breach of personal information.

 

Corrections and Institutions -

 

Capital Bill Investment in Clean Water

The second year of the Capital budget allocates roughly 24 million capital dollars to the state’s Clean Water efforts. Corrections and Institutions made adjustments to that amount by adding $1.4 million targeted for the Lake Carmi area. Adjustments also support the purchase of equipment to extract phosphorus from dairy manure.

 

In addition, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), was expanded to allow the pairing of natural resources projects with municipal clean water projects and also to allow Federal Funds to be used to make private loans for clean water projects via the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA).

 

Capital Bill Investment in Human Services

Corrections and Institutions supported the agency of human services in addressed the backlog of individuals in emergency rooms awaiting psychiatric evaluation or care. The capital bill will fund the renovation and repurposing of three beds in the Chittenden Corrections Facility for women and at least ten beds at the Northwest Corrections Facility. These beds will be used by offenders in a mental health crisis that does not require a hospital level of care. C & I furthered the administration’s plan to improve the flow of patients through the state’s mental health facilities by making funds available to the Brattleboro Retreat for possible renovation and repurposing of units. Corrections and Institutions also began the process of developing a long-term plan for the states human services facilities in response to the loss of Medicaid waivers and the needs of aging facilities.

 

Capital Bill Investment in School Safety

The state’s capital budget was also adjusted to include $4 million for school safety grants. The grants are for up to $25,000 (with a 25% local match) and can used for the planning, delivery and upgrades to school security equipment.

 

Capital Bill Investment in Corrections

On the Corrections side, Corrections and Institution’s work facilitates a significant change in the use of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for offenders suffering from opioid use disorder in a Corrections setting. S.166 enables and encourages the continuation of MAT when an offender enters the corrections system. Treatment will continue as long as it is medically necessary rather than to an arbitrary number if days. An inmate can also begin MAT if it proves medically necessary.

 

 

Education -

 

Creating Flexibility in Special Education

The House Education Committee's major work culminated with the passage of H. 897, the special education bill. The bill will allow schools to use their allocated state aid for special education dollars in more flexible ways with a goal of educating students who require additional support more effectively and efficiently. Schools will be unshackled from the intensive bookkeeping that goes along with today's special education reimbursement system. Ultimately, after five years, all schools in Vermont will be allocated a block grant of special education money based on their total population of students. The bill also emphasizes Vermont's obligation to students on Individual Education Programs, and each student's right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education.

 

Energy and Technology -

 

Energy

      H.616 authorizes the Burlington Electric Department to pipe the waste heat from the McNeil biomass electric generation facility to UVM, the UVM Medical Center and downtown for heating. 

      H.410 extends the industry-accepted appliance efficiency standards to an array of commercial and domestic appliances sold in Vermont.

      H.676 removes the mandatory 100-foot setback requirement for solar arrays on parking lot canopies and sets a standard for ground-mounted solar arrays to qualify for pollinator-friendly certification.

      H.739 allows certain Vermont businesses to conduct their own energy efficiency programs with the assistance of Efficiency Vermont to increase their return on investment, improve job retention and reduce greenhouse gases.

 

Telecommunications

      H.581 and H.582 address the Connectivity Fund supported by the USF charges on our phone bills by restricting grants from the fund to broadband installation (as opposed to maintenance) and increasing the USF charge from 2% to 2.5% to improve broadband in rural areas of Vermont.

       H.429 establishes a study committee to assess the need for assisting deaf-blind individuals with their communication capabilities.

 

Information Technology

H.378 creates a task force to study the implications of Artificial Intelligence

for Vermont. We also amended S.289 which would require internet service providers (ISPs) in Vermont to adhere to net neutrality standards.

 

General, Housing and Military Affairs -

 

 

Salary History –

When a woman is asked to reveal her salary during a job interview, which is likely lower than her male counterparts, she is asked to perpetuate an income gap job after job, because her salary may be based on her already lower pay. This adds up over time, and it is discriminatory. H.294 will start changing the culture by prohibiting the practice of allowing an employer to ask for a person’s salary history prior to offering them a job. Employers may still post a salary range, and an applicant may still post salary requirements, but asking for a salary history is now off-limits.

 

 

Minimum Wage & Paid Family Leave –

Study after study has shown that solutions to improve life for low and middle income Vermonters include higher salaries, better health care, less stress, excellent child care and education, and the ability to make ends meet without stress. S.40 and H.196 work hand in hand in providing more tools for Vermonters to seek a better life. S.40 will raise the minimum wage to $15/hour over six years, and H.196 will create a new Paid Family Leave insurance program, that will provide Vermonter families with infants up to 12 weeks of bonding leave, and Vermonters taking care of their families with up to six weeks of leave for care. This benefit will cost employees less than two cents an hour for every $10 an hour they make — more than affordable for every employee in Vermont. These two bills complement each other and will provide Vermonters with more economic flexibility than they have ever had.

 

Government Operations -

 

Voter Checklist Protection

H.624 increases the protection for Vermonter’s personal data contained in the statewide voter checklist. When the President Advisory Commission on Election Integrity asked for voters’ personal information, the outpouring from Vermonters contacting the Secretary of State’s Office was by far the greatest for any issue seen since Secretary Jim Condos took office. Virtually every person asked that their individual data be protected. Some individuals even requested that they be completely removed from the voter checklist. Vermonters should not have to choose between protecting their privacy and their freedom to vote.

 

While our Secretary of State chose not to turn over voter checklist data to the commission, H.624 now expressly prohibits public agencies from knowingly disclosing the statewide voter checklist to any foreign government or federal agency or commission for the purpose of:

 

      Registering voters based on their information contained in the checklist

      Publicly disclosing the information or

      Comparing that information to personally identifying information contained in other federal or state databases

 

This puts us on a stronger footing to deny foreign or federal intrusions into state election data now and into the future.

 

Mitigating Systemic Racism in State Government

The phrase "systemic racism" is used to talk about all of the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions that harm certain racial groups and help others. "Systemic" distinguishes between individual racism or overt discrimination and refers to the way racism operates in major parts of US society: the economy, criminal justice, housing, education, and more. There are a number of racial disparities in Vermont state systems that are troubling:

 

      Vermont African American state employees have a voluntary separation rate that is two times that of White employees (14.9% vs. 6.5%) and even more troubling, employees of color are three times more likely than White employees to be terminated (3.1% vs. 1%).

      Vermont leads the nation in the rate of incarcerated African Americans with one out of 14 African Americans adult males incarcerated.

      Recent data from traffic stops shows that after being stopped African American drivers are four times more likely to be searched than white drivers even though white drivers are more likely to be found with illicit drugs.

 

In order to address these and other racial disparities in state systems, S.281 creates a five-member Racial Equity Panel and Executive Director position. The panel will work with the executive director to implement reforms identified after a comprehensive review and advise the executive director and Governor on strategies to remediate systemic racial disparities. The executive director will serve as liaison with the Governor’s Workforce Equity and Diversity Council, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, and the Governor’s Cabinet; implement a program of continuing coordination and improvement of activities in State government in order to combat systemic racial disparities and measure progress toward fair and impartial governance; implement and manage a centralized race-based data collection; develop a model of fairness and diversity policy and review and make recommendations regarding the fairness diversity policies held by all State government systems; and conduct trainings for state agencies about the institutionalized nature of race-based bias.

 

Law Enforcement Officer Decertification

Decertification is the process by which a state authority determines that an individual should not be allowed to continue to exercise the duties and privileges of a law enforcement officer. Prior to the passage of H.22 last session, Vermont law enforcement officers could only be decertified if they were convicted of a felony or did not comply with in-service training requirements. Under H.22, the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council will have the authority beginning in July to warn, suspend or revoke an officer’s certification for a range of unprofessional conduct, including certain misdemeanors (for example, domestic assault and the distribution or possession of a regulated substance) and gross professional misconduct (for example, excessive use of force and biased enforcement). S.192 completes our work on decertification by creating a detailed hearing process for decertification and creating a new crime of sex exploitation of a person in the custody of a law enforcement officer. Vermont was one of only six states and the District of Columbia that did not decertify officers for sexual misconduct. With this new crime, we now will be off this list.

 

Health Care-

 

Vermont Seeks Federal Approval to Import Drugs from Canada

S. 175 is an act relating to the wholesale importation of prescription drugs into Vermont. This bill shall have the Agency of Human Services, in consultation with interested stakeholders and appropriate federal officials, design a wholesale prescription drug importation program, including requirements of safety and cost. The program would designate a state agency to become, or contract with, a licensed drug wholesaler to import prescription drugs at a significant cost savings to Vermonters. The state shall submit the proposed design for the program to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2019.

 

The bill would direct the state to seek the appropriate federal waivers. And, it asks the state Attorney General to identify the potential, and to monitor, for anticompetitive behavior in industries that would be affected by a wholesale drug importation program.

 

The state of Utah is also exploring importing prescription drugs from Canada.

 

 

 

Prescription Drug Transparency

S.92 contains a section on Prescription Drug Cost Transparency, which strengthens a 2016 statute. The bill would require the Department of Health Access to identify annually up to 10 prescription drugs on which the state spends significant health care dollars and where the wholesale cost has increased by 50 percent or more over the past five years or more than 15 percent over the past year. Each health insurer with more than 5,000 covered lives in VT for major medical health insurance shall also create a list annually of prescription drugs on which its insurance plans spend significant amounts of their premium dollars, net of rebates and price concessions. The lists will be given to the state Attorney General’s office, which will which winnow the lists to the 15 costliest drugs and require the manufacturer to provide a justification for each drug’s increase. The lists will be posted on the Green Mountain Care Board and AG’s website.

 

Universal Publicly Funded Primary Health Care

S.53 is an act relating to recommendations for achieving universal coverage for primary care in Vermont.

 

The intent of the law is to create and implement a program of universal, publicly financed primary care for all Vermont residents without cost-sharing. The Universal Primary Care Bill would be used as a platform for a tiered approach to achieving universal health care coverage.

 

The bill directs the Green Mountain Care Board to convene, facilitate and supervise the participation of Accountable Care Organizations, Bi-State Primary Care and other interested stakeholders to develop a draft operational model for a universal primary care program.

 

By July 1, 2019, the Administration will provide to the Senate and House Health committees its assessment of the draft model plan. The cost of the study would range from $740,000 to $830,000. The bill ended its journey in the House Appropriations Committee where the committee did not have time to take testimony before the end of the session.

 

Breast imaging without cost sharing

H. 639 covers mammograms and 3D mammograms without cost sharing, and when there is dense breast tissue, it will cover the follow-up ultrasound with no cost sharing as well.

 

 

Individual Mandate

A working group composed of various state departments and called by the Green Mountain Care Board will determine such things as a financial penalty, enforcement, exemptions, and types of insurance considered minimum. A penalty will be enacted by the General Assembly during the 2019 legislative session, which will be effective in January 2020. This will provide notice of the penalty to all Vermont residents prior to the open enrollment period for coverage for the 2020 plan year.

 

Human Services -

 

HS Summary:

The Human Services Committee continued its focus this session on ensuring that vulnerable Vermonters are safe and protected.  We make certain that systems are in place to move Vermonters out of poverty by removing barriers and addressing systemic problems. To this end, the committee undertook a number of legislative initiatives that will improve the lives of children, families, persons with disabilities and Older Vermonters. 

         

We took up bills that work to reduce the occurrence of Adverse Childhood Experiences by identifying and streamlining how agencies work together across agencies (s.261) We made sure our agencies work to reduce exposed to lead paint in childcare centers. (H.736) The committee improved the lives children in foster care by giving foster parents the permissions they need to provide normalcy in their lives. (H.589) Families who receiving Reach Up can save for the education of their children and keep their retirement without a reduction in benefits. (H.673) We rasterized the Advisory Council for Strengthening families, Commission on Alzheimer’s and established an Older Vermonter Act working group (S.280, H.199, H.608) Making sure nursing homes and residential care facilities that provide older Vermonter with services are stable and financially viable. (H.921)

         

A majority of these initiatives passed on 11-0-0 votes.

 

More Specifics:

Strengthening children and family resilience can mitigate trauma and toxic stress during childhood. S.261 looks to reduce human suffering and the financial costs associated with childhood trauma and toxic stress by addressing poverty, addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. The purpose of this act is to develop and ensure a consistent family and societal support system. While significant efforts to provide preventative services are already well under way in many parts of the State, better coordination is necessary to ensure that gaps in services are addressed and redundancies do not occur. By supporting a public health approach to address childhood adversity where interventions pertaining to the social determinants of health are employed will significantly reduce healthcare costs. 

In H.921 we addressed a concern about continuity of quality services when a nursing home changes ownership.  The bill also addresses the misfit of the Certificate of Need process when a nursing home is sold.  Undue stress on residents of nursing homes and their families occurs when a facility closes abruptly.  The aim of this bill is to more efficiently and effectively evaluate the transfer of ownership to insure sufficient capital, staffing, etc. to maintain a nursing home by the new owners.

We also passed. H.608 which establishes an Older Vermonters Act Working Group that brings together interested individuals and organizations to make recommendations to the legislature for an Older Vermonters Act.  As the State ages and the lack of available workforce continues, it’s important to have legislation that sets out expectations for Vermonters and how older Vermont citizens can continue to contribute to our communities.  It is also imperative to identify specific parameters for long term care services as health care reform continues to evolve. 

 

Judiciary -

Gun Violence Prevention in Vermont –

Many Vermonters cherish the traditions of hunting, sport shooting, and collecting guns. Many value the security and protection that guns can provide. At the same time, many Vermonters have suffered grievous injuries and lost friends and family members in incidents involving firearms.

 

The General Assembly passed three laws to address gun violence. Act 97 (S.221) will allow law enforcement to show a judge that an individual presents an extreme risk of harm to himself, herself or others in order to obtain an Extreme Risk Protection Order, requiring the person to relinquish any dangerous weapons. Act 92 (H.422) allows law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of a domestic violence incident. Act 94 (S.55) expands the requirement for background checks to include private sales, places restrictions on the sale of firearms to those under age 21, limits the transfer and possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and bans the transfer and possession of bump-fire stocks. Together, these policies will make it more difficult for individuals who intend harm to themselves or others to obtain firearms and will reduce the lethality of firearms that may be misused.

 

Improving Public Safety –

Recent events both locally and across the nation have challenged Vermonter’s sense of security. The times we live in when students are fearful about attending school and public spaces seem less safe than in the past have called out for legislative action. In response, the Senate and House have developed additional tools for law enforcement to improve public safety.

 

H.25 creates an additional crime of domestic terrorism. To show that a person has committed a domestic terrorism felony, the prosecution must prove that the defendant took a substantial step toward violating a criminal law of the State with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to multiple persons or the intent to threaten any civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings or kidnapping.

 

H.25 also increases the penalty when a person knowingly possesses a firearm or a dangerous or deadly weapon on school property with the intent to injure another person.

 

Strengthening Families Through Expanded Parentage –

Strong families have stable and loving parent-child relationships. The House and Senate have passed a bill, H.562, that will eliminate barriers to maintaining such relationships. This bill modernizes Vermont parentage laws by providing guidance to courts answering the question “Who is a child’s parent?”

 

Current state law has simply not kept pace with the many ways that Vermonters become parents. The Vermont Supreme Court has had to grapple with how to address who should be deemed a parent and has encouraged the legislature to fulfill its policy role in defining who should be considered as legal parents.

 

The bill recognizes that biology and marriage are not the only pathways to form a family or for people to take on the role of parents. The General Assembly also acknowledges that an increasing number of Vermonters use assisted reproduction such as in vitro fertilization to help them have a child. The bill thus addresses legal issues such as the rights of the intended parents and the donor in such situations.

 

H.562 does not address parental rights and responsibilities, such as who gets custody or visitation.  It gives the courts guidelines to determine who gets to walk through the courthouse door as a legal parent to then sort out those parental rights and responsibilities. By providing additional appropriate pathways to establishing parent-child relationships that are in the best interest of children, the legislature is strengthening Vermont families.

 

Protecting Children and Families –

A number of bills seek to improve the protection of children and families from harm and

trauma.

 

Human Trafficking: Vermonters are not immune from the menace of human trafficking,

through which victims are coerced or unwittingly led into providing sex for money, basic

necessities like housing, or even survival. A victim may conceive a child with a perpetrator and, due to the coercive nature of the relationship, may be reluctant to seek to terminate the relationship and the perpetrator’s parentage. H.603 addresses this situation. It provides that, in custody disputes, a parent convicted of human trafficking of the other parent will be denied parent-child contact. Even if the parent isn’t convicted, a court can deny parent-child contact if it is shown by clear and convincing evidence that the parent trafficked the other parent and if the court finds that denying such contact is in the best interests of the child. The bill recognizes that victims of human trafficking should be afforded the same rights as victims of sexual assault. H.603 also provides that a person’s parental rights can be terminated if the person committed a sexual assault that resulted in the conception of the child.

 

Relief From Abuse Orders: When an individual seeks relief from domestic abuse after

regular court hours, the person may call an abuse-prevention hotline. An advocate or

court staff will arrange to meet with the individual to obtain an affidavit in support of a

relief from abuse order. These meetings have often occurred at the offices of a law

enforcement agency. As the number of such agencies open after hours continues to decline, the court staff, victims, and victims’ advocates have had to meet in unprotected and often remote locations. Act 110 (H.836) would ensure a secure, safe way for the victim to obtain a relief from abuse order. It would allow a victim to file a complaint and affidavit electronically if no secure setting is available and to swear or affirm the affidavit over the telephone. The process allowed in Act 110 should expand a victim’s ability to obtain relief from abuse orders when courts are closed, while enhancing the safety of all parties involved.

 

Testimony and Hearsay of Children in Human Services Board Appeals:  After a report of child maltreatment is made to the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”), the case is reviewed and may result in DCF recommending “substantiation.” That means the accused’s name is placed on the Child Protection Registry, which can preclude the person from obtaining a job working with children or vulnerable adults. The accused can appeal the substantiation decision, first to the Commissioner’s Registry Review Unit and then to the Human Services Board (“HSB”). Under current law, in the appeal to the HSB, the child may have to testify against the alleged abuser, who is often a caretaker or parent. Requiring such testimony can result in compounding the original trauma that the child experienced. H.727 would take into account the potential impact on the victims of requiring them to testify at HSB appeals. Children under 12 years of age would not be required to testify at HSB hearings and their reliable previous statements could be admitted despite being hearsay. Children aged 13 to 16 would have the same protections if a hearing officer determines that requiring the child to testify would present a substantial risk of trauma to the child or if the child is unavailable and DCF through diligent efforts cannot locate the child.  The new standards would protect the due process rights of the accused by requiring the hearing officer to determine that the statements made by the child are admissible only if the time, content, and circumstances of those statements demonstrate that they are trustworthy.

 

Relief From Abuse Orders:  Act 110 (H.836) will ensure a secure, safe way for the victim to obtain a relief from abuse order. It would allow a victim to file a complaint and affidavit electronically if no secure setting is available and to swear or affirm the affidavit over the telephone. The process allowed in Act 110 should expand a victim’s ability to obtain relief from abuse orders when courts are closed, while enhancing the safety of all parties involved.

 

Testimony and Hearsay of Children in Human Services Board Appeals:  Currently, in cases of child maltreatment, a child may have to testify against the alleged abuser, who is often a caretaker or a parent. This can compound the original trauma the child has experienced. H.727 would take into account the potential impact on the victims of requiring them to testify at Human Services Board (HSB) appeals and would require the hearing officer to determine that the statements made by the child aged 16 or under are admissible only if the time, content, and circumstances of those statements demonstrate that they are trustworthy.

 

Medical Monitoring -

Under existing law, it is not clear whether Vermonters exposed to toxic chemicals wrongfully released by another have a legal right to sue those responsible for the release for the costs of a medical monitoring program. S.197 addresses this uncertainty by creating what is called “a cause of action” for medical monitoring, which allows Vermonters who have been exposed to toxic chemicals released by another’s wrongful conduct to seek compensation in court for medical testing before the person actually develops the disease. Such medical monitoring allows for the earliest detection of the signs or symptoms of diseases known to be associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, which in turn allows for the earliest possible treatment, ensuring the best medical outcomes at the lowest cost. It is fair to require the company that caused the toxic release, and thereby increased the risk of those exposed of developing the disease, to pay for the monitoring, rather than forcing those costs on the unfortunately exposed Vermont citizen or the general public.

 

Legalizing Marijuana Possession

Currently, Vermont law penalizes individuals who possess marijuana and, as a result, has arguably created more harm through criminalization of this behavior than the

consumption of the plant itself has caused. Cannabis use ranks below alcohol and

tobacco use as far as individual and public harms. Accordingly, it is difficult to

rationalize legal alcohol and tobacco use, while criminalizing marijuana consumption.

The legislature passed and the Governor signed a law that takes an incremental step in

addressing this situation. The law, Act 86, would remove all civil and criminal penalties

for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and for the growing of two mature and

four immature marijuana plants, so long as certain conditions related to growing those

plants are met. The law takes an appropriate next step, building on the legislature’s

previous decriminalization of possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. It continues

to impose penalties on the possession of marijuana by individuals under 21 years of age

and imposes penalties on those who enable minors to consume marijuana. Act 86 recognizes the rights to privacy and autonomy of Vermonters, who should be entitled to make decisions related to marijuana use free from government intrusion so long as no harm is being visited on others by those individual choices.

 

 

 

 

Criminal Justice Reform

Bail Reform:  On any given day, Vermont’s prisons hold between 350 and 400 people awaiting trial.  Some have been arrested for felonies involving violent crimes and are held without bail.  Others, arrested on misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges, are held for a short period of time between arrest and their initial appearance before a judge when they may be released or have bail set.  Some of those individuals are held after their initial court appearance because they are unable to post bail.  The system can disserve the impoverished and can be a poor use of the State’s resources. To reduce the impact of money bail on the poor, H.728 caps the allowable bail amount at $200.00 for defendants charged with expungable misdemeanors.

 

Sentencing Reform:  Vermont’s current criminal law could be defined as a hodgepodge.  It is made up of common law that has been put into statute, and new offenses created by the legislature over the years.  Our criminal laws have evolved in a manner that has led to inconsistency between offense levels – similar conduct leads to different punishments. H.660 charges the existing, although in recent years inactive, Sentencing Commission with a mandate to propose a rational criminal code that would provide more consistent interpretations of our criminal offenses, better notice to citizens and police as to what conduct is prohibited, and greater proportionality between offenses and punishment. The end goal is to create a more consistent and understandable code to improve our criminal justice system.

 

Expungement:  S.173 modifies the process for expunging and sealing criminal records. The bill establishes an expedited procedure for expunging a criminal history record related to a citation or arrest if the court does not find probable cause or dismisses the charge at the time of arraignment. The bill also provides for a process for expedited expungement of a criminal record for individuals who are acquitted of their charges or have their charges dismissed with prejudice before trial. Finally, the bill would require a report from the Department of State’s Attorneys as to the expansion of the list of qualifying crimes eligible for expungement.

 

Juvenile Justice:  Recent advancements in understanding brain development have shown that juveniles and young adult offenders have reduced impulse control and long-term decision making capacity. Accordingly, they may be apt to make poor decisions and, when they make mistakes leading to their involvement in the criminal justice system, their conduct can lead to criminal records and associated life-long negative consequences. To address this issue, the General Assembly passed S.234 to improve Vermont’s juvenile justice system. The bill will protect public safety while also connecting youths and young adults to age-appropriate services that reduce risk of reoffense, and, when appropriate, shield youths from the adverse impact of a criminal record. Among other changes, the bill provides a process for automatic expungement of criminal records for qualifying crimes committed by 18- to 21-year-olds; modifies the process for preliminary hearings and risk assessments to ensure that low to moderate risk juvenile offenders are referred to court diversion; starting in 2020, raises the age from 18 to 19 for individuals’ cases to originate in the Family rather than the Criminal Division of the Superior Court; and, starting in 2021, raises the age to 20 for individuals’ cases to originate in the Family division. Cases heard in the Family Division are confidential and allow youthful offenders to avoid a public criminal record and its collateral consequences.

 

Consumer Protection from Unconscionable Terms

In the modern economy, companies usually have a distinct advantage over consumers when it comes to contracts and terms of agreement. For instance, when a consumer enters a cell phone contract or buys an insurance policy, he or she must agree to terms that are set forth in standard form contracts. Such contracts employ standardized, non-negotiated provisions, usually in preprinted, boilerplate form with fixed terms and conditions, offered almost always on a 'take it or leave it' basis.

 

To shift the balance of power between companies using such contracts and consumers, the General Assembly passed S.105. This bill would create a statutory rebuttable presumption that the following terms in standard-form contracts are unconscionable and thus unenforceable: a term requiring resolution of a claim to take place in an inconvenient forum, the consumer to waive his or her rights to seek certain remedies under state or federal law, the consumer to waive the right to seek punitive damages, time-limits shorter than applicable statutes of limitations, or the payment of exorbitant fees or costs to bring a legal claim. If a company seeking to enforce such terms is not able to prove that the terms are reasonable, a court could strike such terms from the contract or decide not to enforce a contract containing them, can impose a fine of $1,000 and order the company to pay applicable lawyer's fees awarded to the plaintiff if a clause is found to be unconscionable.

 

Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife -

 

S.260, water cleanup funding bill will raise almost $7 million in general fund money by recapturing bottle deposit money and raising Rooms and Meals tax rate from 9% to 9.25 percent with 1/4 percent going to Clean Water Fund.

 

S.285 (universal recycling) adjusts some dates and obligations as we get closer to full implementation in 2020. Haulers no longer must offer pick up of food scraps and leaf and yard waste.

 

H.554 (regulation of dams). This bill requires dam registration so that the state is aware of how many dams there are and their condition.

 

H560-a bill to create an “Extended Producer Responsibility” program for the safe disposal of Household Hazardous Waste, unfortunately will die in Senate Natural Resources Committee.

 

H.559 (misc. Natural Resources Bill) became the Christmas tree bill that added the Petroleum Clean Up Fund extension bill, and several bills from other committees.

 

 H.576 pushes the agency to get the three-acre permit issued that requires old construction that did not receive any type of a stormwater permit or did so before the stormwater manual was issued in 2002. The bill also reduces from one acre to 1/2 acre the size of new construction that would need such a permit.

 

The Natural Resources Committee takes joy in the fact that $120,000 is included in the budget for a study on the economic impacts of decarbonizing our economy as passed by our committee in H 763.

 

H 636 (misc. Fish and Wildlife issues) prohibited coyote killing contests and tightened up VT nuisance animal trapping laws.

 

Transportation -

 

Primary Seatbelts

A traffic safety bill that included primary seatbelt legislation passed out of the House on a 133-7 vote. House Transportation drafted the bill understanding that in the last four years VT highway fatalities have risen steadily from 44 to 69. Amazingly, 52 % of last year’s inside the auto fatalities were unbelted. Current VT seatbelt use hovers around 85%. Yet the 35 states that have primary seatbelt laws averaged 92.1 % use in 2016.

 

The American Automobile Association says VT can expect an 8% increase in seatbelt use with passage of primary seatbelt legislation. Since there are 600,000 licensed drivers in VT, an 8% seat belt increase would translate to an additional 48,000 VT drivers being buckled up. This in turn, could be expected to save 3 to 4 additional lives and 15 serious injuries each year moving forward. Millions of dollars in medical costs, life insurance premiums, disability payments, and lost wages would be avoided.

 

Transportation Funding

Each year the VT Agency of Transportation proposes, and the Legislature approves, a budget for statewide transportation. This includes funding for roads, bridges, paving, rail, aviation and public transit among others. The $612 million proposed budget provides us with 21st century infrastructure improvements that are vital to growing Vermont’s economy and creating new jobs. Since 2008, VT has moved from 45th in the nation to 13th for numbers of structurally deficient bridges.

 

Pavement has also improved. VT’s road surface now rated very poor has declined since 2008 from 36% to 11% in 2017. This budget continues repair or replacement of more than 100 bridges and culverts along with over 200 miles of new pavement. Large bridge expenditures stretching out over several years are being made in Middlebury for a rail tunnel and in North Hero for a drawbridge. Large roadway reconstruction projects totaling $52 million are proposed for Brandon Route 7, the Circumferential Highway Alternatives Project and Cabot/Danville Route 2.

 

Rail improvements total $29.6 million. This includes funds for continued track, bridge and crossing upgrades along the Western Corridor between Rutland and Burlington. Other rail structural improvements move the Vermont Rail System toward the national 286,000-pound freight industry standard.

 

DMV Inspection Process Revision

VT Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is considering revising its Vermont Vehicle Inspection Manual. A collaborative effort by a group of industry subject matter experts, inspection station owners/mechanics, and DMV personnel have attempted to identify items in the inspection process that are not directly related to safety. The manual itself would be shortened from approximately 600 pages to 200.

 

A new inspection format would create a third ADVISORY category added to the two old PASS/REJECT options. The new ADVISORY category would include those items no longer considered critical to safety that formerly caused a REJECTION. An example might include tinted windows, where the consumer would be advised there is a potential Title 23 violation, but their vehicle could pass inspection because operational safety was not directly compromised

 

The inspection emissions test currently being performed follows US EPA guidance, is not a Vermont developed test, and is exactly the same as performed in other states.  Collaboration with the Department of Environmental Conservation is ongoing to explore affordability waiver opportunities for 2019 and beyond.

 

 

Ways and Means –

Ways and Means worked diligently this session, but our days were not without frustration. Generally, we raise revenue very carefully to meet revenue targets and raise fees that fund agencies consistent with their needs. For the second year in a row, we had no Fee Bill. Fees are extremely important. Problems may arise next year when we again look at fees, because fees that were adopted 5 or 6 years ago will be way out of whack.

 

In addition, the legislature has several must-do responsibilities each year. Paramount is setting the yield amounts that set the residential and non-residential property tax rates. Without them, there is no way to set property tax rates.

 

This year we also undertook to revise the Vermont tax code in order to accommodate the Trump tax, address this obligation and changes that passed in December. Were we to do nothing, Vermonters would be paying approximately $30 million in increased income taxes.

 

H.911 – changes to the State’s income tax and education funding systems (from the fiscal note)

 

State income tax changes

Among the most noteworthy accomplishments, the bill makes our tax code simpler and easier to understand, makes it more fair for low income taxpayers and seniors. Further, it expands the Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which is one of the most effective poverty reduction programs. Also, despite all the rhetoric about not raising taxes, the bill sets yields that will only raise the homestead residential tax rates by 2.6 cents. Given the difficulties we face, that is a remarkable accomplishment. Further, it expands the Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which is one of the most effective poverty reduction programs. Also, despite all the rhetoric about not raising taxes, the bill sets yields that will only raise the homestead residential tax rates by 2.6 cents. Given the difficulties we face, that is a remarkable accomplishment. See the specifics on education property taxes below.

      Creates a new Vermont standard deduction equal to $6,000 for single filers, $12,000 for married couples and $9,000 for heads of household

      Creates a new Vermont personal exemption equal to $4,150 per exemption

      Lowers income tax rates

      Lowers rates for the first three income tax brackets by 0.2

      Collapses the top two brackets into one and sets the rate at 8.75% (was 8.95%)

      Expands the Vermont earned income tax credit from 32% of the Federal EITC to 36%

      Creates a 5% tax credit on the value of charitable contributions up to $20,000

      Exempts taxable social security benefits from State income taxes for single filers with less than $45,000 in adjusted gross income and married filers with less than $60,000 in adjusted gross income. It then phases out the exemption over the next $10,000 in income.

      Creates a Vermont Tax Structures Commission and a Staff-to-Student Ratios Task Force.

 

Education property taxes

      Sets equalized education tax rates as follows:

      Average homestead property tax rate for FY’19 @ $1.526

      Average tax rate on household income for FY’19 @ 2.53%

      Non-residential property tax rate @ $1.590

      Fully restores the education fund stabilization reserves (that were robbed last year)

      Repeals the General Fund Transfer to the Education Fund on a revenue-neutral basis dedicating 100% of the sales and use tax and 25% of the rooms and meals tax to the Ed Fund. Transfers Adult Ed and Literacy, Community High School of Vermont, the renter rebate program, and reappraisal and listing payments to the General Fund.

      Modifies the property tax adjustment (income sensitivity) by

      Reducing the maximum housesite value limit for full adjustment from $500,000 to $400,000

      Reducing the maximum housesite value limit for partial adjustment from $250,000 to $200,000

      Separates the homeowner rebate program into two parts, education and municipal

      Separates municipal and education property taxes on tax bills

 

 

As of this moment, we are awaiting word on H.922 which deals with miscellaneous changes to tax laws.