By STEPHANIE ZAK JEROME
It’s been an honor to serve you in the Vermont House. This session, we passed bills to build a strong Vermont economy, invest in our communities, protect the needs of vulnerable Vermonters and to prepare for our future.
During that session, I focused my work on building a Vermont that works for all of us, not just a select few. Even though the session has ended, my work for our communities continues. Please be in touch if you have any questions. I look forward to talking with you about the issues, and requests for new legislation for the upcoming 2020 session.
Below, I’ve recapped the essential work of the past session.
The balanced budget went into effect on July 1, 2019 — totaling $6.1 billion, a 2.6 percent increase over the FY 2019 budget. The budget includes investments in the health of our natural environment, the development of our workforce and economy and the needs of vulnerable Vermonters. It also pays for long-term liabilities and the state’s full annual contributions for the state pension and retiree health care and medical benefits funds.
• Additional $2.3 million for weatherization (for a total of $17 million);
• $2.9 million for electric vehicles and charging stations;
• $500,000 for acquisition and conservation of legacy hardwoods;
• $2.7 million for Park & Rides and $14.7 million for Bike and Pedestrian facilities projects;
• $2.8 million in tax credits for Designated Downtowns and Village Centers;
• $1.3 million for Regional Development Corporation block grants;
• $1.2 million for training incumbent workers to gain additional skills;
• $1.5 million for community placements for persons with mental health challenges;
• $2.5 million to provide a benefit increase in the Reach-Up Program;
• Additional $5.2 million to support developmental services and mental health system;
• Additional $2.1 million for home and community service providers in Choices for Care;
• Additional $445,000 for court diversion; $243,000 for a rate increase to local EMS service providers; $375,000 for emergency room security in small hospitals; and a 5 percent increase for court security services.
Vermont is expected to need 10,000 new workers each year — especially in the areas of health care, construction, hospitality, transportation, and advanced manufacturing. The employment gap creates opportunities for Vermonters, and those considering moving to Vermont.
The economic development bill promotes training opportunities for small companies, creates weatherization training programs, creates a program for robotics arm training, decreases workforce barriers for new Americans, and provides grants for adult training and education. The bill also provides assistance for employers to hire workers with barriers to employment, funds marketing campaigns, and provide relocation support.
We want more Vermonters employed in skilled jobs by completing apprenticeships, earning certificates and graduating from associate degree programs.
S.40 requires all schools and childcare facilities to test their drinking water for lead contamination, and then replace the taps if the water tests at or above 4 parts/billion. Every school and child care facility will collect and submit water samples to the Department of Health for testing, and then work to develop a remediation plan.
The bill provides funding to cover testing, re-testing and a portion of fixture replacement costs. While no level of lead is safe, the action level is far below the EPA-mandated threshold of 15 parts/billion for municipal water supplies. Vermont is leading the nation by setting one of the strictest standards for getting the lead out of our kids’ drinking water.
The House passed the boldest, most innovative policy yet to get high-speed Internet service to the farthest corners of our state. H.513 empowers local municipalities to determine the connectivity solutions most appropriate for their communities, and provides financing programs to get initiatives started. It funds a technical specialist to support local groups.
It also explores alternatives, such as allowing electric utilities to provide Internet service using existing infrastructure. It streamlines procedures so providers can build broadband access more quickly and cost-effectively to our rural communities. High-speed Internet access is a must for economic development, education and future growth.
YOUTH VAPING AND TOBACCO USE
S.86 raises the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. This bill is part of a three-pronged strategy to make it more difficult for youth to obtain and afford tobacco products.
Legislators approved H.26, ending Internet sales of e-cigarettes, and H.47, placing a 92 percent excise tax on them. In 2017–2018, e-cigarette/tobacco use among high school and middle school students was the biggest one-year spike of any substance in nearly 50 years and prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to declare a public health crisis.
The House received testimony from administrators and educators about students’ nicotine withdrawal, parents unaware of their child’s dependency, violence related to vaping sales, disruptions to the learning environment, and hours spent dealing with the disciplinary implications. Tobacco-21 will become effective Sept. 1, 2019.
For over 40 years, Vermonters have relied on protections offered by Supreme Court to support the value of personal autonomy in reproductive health decisions. Vermonters have long recognized that decisions related to reproductive health care and abortion are personal and private, and are best left to a woman and her doctor. The House passed H.57 to ensure that access to abortion continues to remain unconstrained by law with a strong vote of 106-37, and in the Senate by a vote of 24-6.
CHILD CARE ASSISTANCE
The Child Care and Early Learning Bill is a $7.5 million investment that aims to make childcare more accessible and affordable, and supports the retention and professional development of its workers.
The bill adjusts the benefits for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program according to a sliding scale so that families whose income is up to 100 percent of federal poverty guidelines receive 100 percent assistance and expands financial subsidies to a wider swath of middle-income families.
The bill seeks to retain childcare providers, many of whom struggle to earn livable wages. It provides internship and scholarship assistance to support current workers and to attract new workers. Accessible, high-quality childcare and early learning are critical investments in the healthy development of children ages 0-5, as well as a long-term strategy for putting parents to work and growing the state’s economy.
PROTECTING FIRST RESPONDERS
The danger of being met by an armed gunman who has set fire or caused an accident is always on the minds of first responders, as this scenario has played out in other states with tragic results. The killing of a police office under such circumstances draws the penalty of aggravated murder, but the same was not true for firefighters or EMTs.
H.321 makes killing a firefighter or EMT an aggravated murder, placing the penalty for this crime on the same level as the killing of a police office under the same circumstances.
BANNING SINGLE USE DISPOSABLE
S.113 bans single-use carryout plastic bags at the point of sale, single-use plastic straws, plastic stirrers, and expanded polystyrene food service products. The bill aims to help businesses by creating one consistent statewide program, rather than having numerous, municipal-based initiatives across the state. It will mitigate the harmful effects of these single-use products on the environment and recycling facilities, while relieving pressure on our sole landfill.
S.96 creates a new way for clean water funding to be allocated. Prioritizing investment in clean water infrastructure incorporates climate change resilience in bridges, roads, and riparian barriers along our rivers and streams.
Increasingly severe storms harm homes, farms, businesses and buildings. Storm waters scour unprotected top-soils, sending sediment down rivers and streams and into our lakes, which feed algae blooms, lower water quality, threaten the survival of fish and wildlife that depend on clean water and impact access to clean water and recreation. These projects mean Vermont can make progress to meet its agreement with the EPA to reduce phosphorus runoff into all of Lake Champlain basin’s waters.
Building clean water infrastructure means Vermont’s Watershed Groups and Conservation Districts can continue to prevent phosphorous from denigrating our lakes, and prevent nitrogen from harming the Connecticut River and its tributaries.
The Transportation bill represents a $595 million investment in paving, road maintenance, rail work, bridge construction, aviation and public transit. Highlights include:
• $67M in support for Town highway aid, structures and municipal road programs;
• $100M in state paving programs;
• $34M in public transit funding;
• $9.4M investment in western corridor rail programs;
• $17.2M for airport improvements;
• $8M investment in protecting Lake Champlain and other waterways;
• $1.4M salt cost increase – based on 3-year average usage and 15% cost increase;
• $200K for opioid treatment transportation;
• Pilot Program – $2,500 incentive toward the purchase or lease of a new or used electric vehicle for low to moderate income households.
FARMING AND LOGGING
$1.6M targets our rural economy by providing funding for the successful Working Lands Program. $500K is directed to support Vermont’s dairy industry to help shore up farming ventures, for transitioning efforts for those farms moving away from dairy and for critical diversification activities.
Important funding has been directed to loggers, which will be used to develop curriculum and training materials for accident prevention and safety education, as well as for financial assistance to loggers to reduce the costs of instruction and to help with the certification of contractors in the Master Logger program. Grant dollars have also been made available to help with costs for citing, permits, applications, and engineering for those engaged in adding value to forest products.
BURN PIT REGISTRY
S.111 encourages Vermont’s 10,000 veterans who were deployed in operations since 1990 to sign up to the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Pit Registry for exposure to toxic waste. The Burn Pit Registry is the first step in determining if cancers and respiratory illnesses are associated or caused by exposure to these airborne hazards.
2019 BILL HIGHLIGHTS
Among the many bills passes this past session, here are 26 bills that are of community interest:
H.47: Taxation of E-Cigarettes
S.86: Raising Tobacco Age to 21
H.26: Prohibition on Internet Sales of E-Cigs
S.49: Regulating PFAS Substances in Water
S.55: Regulating Toxic Substances in Children’s Toys
S.40: Lead Testing & Remediation in Schools/Childcare Facilities
S.146: Comprehensive Substance Abuse Prevention Bill
H.57: Codifying Access to Abortion
H.330: Repeal of the Statute of Limitations on Childhood Sexual Abuse
H.19: Sexual Exploitation of People in Law Enforcement Custody
H.3: Ethnic Studies in School Curriculums
S.68: Indigenous People’s Day
H.518: Fair & Impartial Policing Policy
H.523: Changes to State Employee Retirement System
H.321: Firefighter/EMT Killing Increased to Aggravated Murder
H.16: Binding Arbitration for Public Employees and Municipal First Responders
H.63: Home Weatherization Assistance
H.542: Weatherization, Electric Vehicle Incentives, EV State Fleet, Park & Ride (Budget Bill)
S.96: Clean Water Funding
S.113: Plastic Bag Ban
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT/INCOME INEQUALITY:
H.533: Workforce Development Package
H.513: Broadband Deployment; Innovation Grant Fund
H.542: Child Care Financial Assistance & Scholarships for Providers (Budget Bill)
H.542: Increases to Reach Up Participants (Budget Bill)
S.111: Open Burn Pit Registry
H.394: Internment of Unclaimed Veteran Remains