Posted By on March 6, 2014

Lyme Disease:  Lyme disease is on the rise in Vermont.  Many Vermonters who have contracted Lyme have experienced frustrating and lingering symptoms. The Health Care committee has heard extensive testimony from Vermonters whose lives have been significantly impacted by this disease. There is disagreement in the medical community about the best way to treat people whose Lyme symptoms don’t clear up with the standard course of treatment. The committee is working on a bill that is modeled after what New York did in 2005 to assure physicians that treatment guidelines from International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Infectious Disease Society of America are all acceptable guidelines for physicians to reference when treating patients with Lyme. There is hope this bill will pass the House in April and be considered by the Senate before adjournment in May.

Adverse Childhood Experience   (ACE) : The ACE Questionnaire contains questions for adults pertaining to 10 areas of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction during one’s childhood. It is used to measure childhood exposure to traumatic stressors. Based on a respondent’s answers an ACE Score is calculated, which is the total number of ACE categories reported as experienced by a respondent.  The greater the ACE Score, the greater the lifelong negative effects on health.

An individual with an ACE score of two has a 100% percent increased risk of auto-immune disease. An individual with  an ACE score of four has a three to four times higher risk of depression; is five times more likely to become an alcoholic; is eight times more likely to be a  victim of rape; and is up to ten times more likely to attempt suicide. An  individual with an ACE score of six or higher is 2.6 times more likely to  experience chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; is three times more likely to  experience lung cancer; and is 4,600 % more likely to abuse intravenous  drugs. With a score of 7 or more an individual is 3100% more likely to attempt suicide. ACEs are common in Vermont. In 2011, the Vermont Department of Health reported that 58 percent of Vermont adults experienced at least one adverse event during their childhood, and that 14 percent of Vermont adults have experienced four or more adverse events during their childhood.  Seventeen percent of Vermont women have four or more ACEs.

House Health Care Committee is working on H.762 which sets up Pilot Programs in the Blueprint for Health and in Elementary Schools to work on primary and secondary prevention, working with evidence-based programs in our communities to interrupt the multigenerational nature of ACE.  We also asked the Department of Health to develop a strategy to more widely employ ACE in medical practices and to evaluate what resources exist in each area of the state to provide interventions and how to expand or supplement  those programs where needed.   H.762 asks the Vermont Medical Society to educate physicians about ACE and UVM College of Medicine and School of Nursing to consider expanding curriculum in the area of ACE.

It is the belief of the Health Care Committee that controlling health care  costs requires consideration of population health, particularly Adverse  Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Vermont Health Connect:  The Health Care committee continues to keep close watch on the enrollment updates and the technical challenges with Vermont Health Connect. The good news in Vermont is that our insurance carriers, our navigators and our health care providers are working very closely together to be sure that Vermonters do not see a lapse in coverage because of the technical glitches. The value of this cooperation really cannot be overlooked. Although there are still technical problems with the VHC web site, the insurers are working very hard to do what is right by Vermonters.

As we come to the end of the open enrollment period, it is very important for Vermonters who are uninsured or were on VHAP or Catamount need to get on the Vermont Health Connect website and enroll by March 15 for coverage beginning on April 1. If you have insurance now that renews later in the year, you will still be able to enroll on your enrollment anniversary. If you need help resolving an application that has been submitted, or if you need to enroll, the nearest navigator is Joann Erenhouse, Bennington Chamber Director at 447-3311.

Small Business & Health Care Update:  In January it became clear to the Health Care committee that the Vermont Health Connect website would not be working in time to allow Vermont small businesses to enroll employees for April 1 coverage. The legislature was pleased to hear Gov. Shumlin make a clear statement that businesses would be able to enroll directly with the insurance carriers, bypassing the website that is not functioning. This provided clarity to businesses, which has been a relief. If your business renews its insurance coverage later this year, you may still go directly to the carriers until such time as the website is up and working properly. The Health Care committee is getting weekly updates from VHC and the insurers to hear of any lingering challenges. Both Blue Cross and MVP have staff on call to help businesses enroll their employees.

Next Steps in Health Care:  Affordable, accessible and quality health care is essential for the wellbeing of Vermonters.  Recognizing this fact, since 2006, Vermont has implemented a series of reforms to increase access to, improve the quality and contain the cost of health care for Vermonters. The Legislature passed Act 48 in 2011 and the law sets Vermont on a course to achieve universal health coverage for all Vermonters. The plan outlines a series of hurdles that must be crossed in order to enact universal coverage under Green Mountain Care.

The law recognizes that health care is a public good that everyone should have available to them, much like electricity. Vermont on a path toward an integrated health care delivery system with a budget regulated by the new Green Mountain Care Board, universally available health coverage that is not linked to employment and a single system for administration of claims and payments to providers.

The Health Care Committee will be working on the next steps in health reform to be sure that the new system is fair to patients and doctors, offers coverage to all Vermonters, is paid for in a way that is sustainable and will not negatively impact the economy.

Employer Group Waiver Plan with a Wrap (EGWP + Wrap): The Employer Group Waiver Plan (EGWP), which is often called “Eggwhip”, is a federal subsidy program for Medicare retirees that ensures that retirees receive benefits at least equal to those offered by the plan the employer currently offers. Medicare Part D plans are based on a Medicare Part D formulary. A formulary is a list of drugs available to the retiree. The “wrap” portion of the EGWP allows the State benefit plan to supplement the Medicare Part D formulary so that the total set of drugs available to these retirees mirrors the benefit plan for active employees in the types of drugs available.

What is the impact to Medicare eligible retirees?

  1. The same drugs are available under EGWP + wrap that are available under the benefit plan for active employees.
  2. The current plan deductible, coinsurance, and maximum out of pocket limits of the benefit plan can be mirrored in the EGWP + wrap and will be the same as under the plan for active state employees.
  3. Formulary changes can include changes in the amount of out of pocket money (called “coinsurance”) a retiree must spend on a particular drug, and this already happens from time to time under the current plan. Likewise there may be changes in the Medicare formulary. A recent comparison to the current benefit plan formulary by Express Scripts (ES!), the State’s pharmacy benefit manager, indicates approximately 1.5% of the scripts that are currently 20% co-insurance drugs would become 40% coinsurance drugs under the Medicare Part D formulary.  Conversely, approximately 1.7% of the scripts that are currently 40% coinsurance drugs would become 20% coinsurance drug. The State is currently exploring whether the federal government will allow it to wrap these drugs so that even this limited change in coinsurance would not occur.

Why implement it?  EGWP increases savings to the medical plan that will reduce premiums for Medicare eligible retirees and the State. The State estimates a 10 to 15% credit on the premium rate for these retirees. This reduction in premium can occur without eliminating any drugs or changing what a retiree experiences now. More importantly, it enhances the State’s ability to keep its promise to retirees to provide health benefits in the future by reducing the total costs that the State will have to pay in the future for those benefits because it saves the State a great deal of money. The federal government provides savings which are considerably greater for EGWP plans than the Retiree Drug Subsidy (RDS), from which the State is currently receiving a subsidy of $1.4 million annually.

With EGWP, the State could save an additional $700,000 to $1.2 million annually, for a total savings of somewhere between $2.1 million to $2.6 million. Even more importantly, federal and state law (3 VSA Section 479a) do not allow the RDS subsidy to directly reduce the State’s Other Post Employment Benefit (OPEB) future liabilities using standards set by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB). Rather, the RDS subsidy goes into an OPEB “Reserve” fund. While this helps the State meet is future OPEB liabilities, it does not reduce those future liabilities.

 

Under EGWP, federal law now allows the savings to reduce the OPEB future liabilities. Actuaries, who do financial analyses of retirement and health plans, indicate that this reduction in liability is orders of magnitude greater than the amount that would be deposited in the OPEB Reserve fund. For this reason, other states have already implemented EGWP plans.  With a minor change to State statute, the State can take advantage of this change in federal law as well. The medical plan could credit the $2.1 to $2.6 million in EGWP savings to premiums, thereby saving premium payers approximately 1.5% in overall premium, and at the same time reducing future OPEB liabilities by orders of magnitude due to the compounding of the initial savings over many years. For example, when the Teacher’s Retirement Plan implemented EGWP, it projected overall savings of $3.5 million, which is estimated to result in a reduction of the OPEB liability of over $203 million. The State estimates that the savings to its plan could result in a reduction of its OPEB liability of approximately $150 million.

What if the law changes and negatively impacts retirees?  The State can opt out of the EGWP + Wrap if changes are made that negatively impact retirees.

Agriculture & Forest Products:  One of the many positive economic signs is the sustained growth in Vermont’s agricultural and forest products businesses. The number of farms and agricultural jobs is rising. We boast some of the best foods in the world, such as our valued-added dairy products, award-winning beers and maple products. Our investment in the working landscape grants program continues to pay dividends: boosting economic development and strengthening the Vermont brand. Our Farm-to-Plate and Farm-to-Institution programs are the gold standard for the rest of the country.

The Legislature continues to see our agricultural and forest products as a good investment.  To that end, expect to see additional grants for agricultural start-ups, innovation and diversification; increased efforts to protect our prime agricultural soils; and expansion of the raw milk market.

Unemployment Compensation for Military Spouses:  Traditionally, when an active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces is required to relocate due to permanent change of station orders, activation orders, or unit deployment orders, their spouse, if any, relocates with them.  The spouse would have to leave their job in order to accompany their military husband or wife.  The spouse would not receive unemployment benefits.

Under H.275, the military spouse would not be disqualified from receiving unemployment insurance benefits because of the relocation required in order to accompany their military husband or wife.  The bill makes clear that the experience-rating of the spouse’s employer will not be charged for the benefits.  Passage of this bill will make Vermont the 45th state to grant unemployment compensation benefits to military spouses.

Clarifying Guardianship of Minor Children:  The House passed overhauls  to Vermont law regarding minor guardianship. Existing law is nearly 100 years old and fails to adequately address the needs of family to choose someone other than a parent to have custody and responsibility for a child. Most probate guardianships are ordered with the consent of the parent, but some are contested and the rules governing contested cases are currently incomplete. In addition, existing law gives little guidance in handling a guardianship that begins with consent, but later becomes contested when the parent seeks to resume custody. H.581 addresses all of those issues and lays out a clear road map for parents, guardians and probate judges going forward. It is a significant piece of legislation and reflects the careful work of a dedicated group of stakeholders who met for nearly 18 months.  The bill is now in the Senate.

Natural Resources and EnergyRecycling Batteries  We currently have to dispose of single-use batteries, or “primary batteries,” in the trash because they are not recyclable by the methods available at Vermont recycling facilities. The recoverable materials from primary batteries include zinc, manganese and steel, off-setting the need for virgin materials is typically the best way to reduce a product’s overall lifecycle impact; however, it is not economically feasible for our solid waste districts to pay for a primary battery recycling program. Although the industry runs an active rechargeable battery recycling program, single-use batteries have not been included.

H.695, currently under review, will update Vermont’s solid waste laws to require all solid waste districts and municipalities, as well as retailers on a voluntary basis, to act as collection points. It will also encourage primary battery manufacturers to join an existing stewardship program or form one of their own and sets up a process to allow industry-sponsored stewardship programs to recover recycling costs.  The primary battery industry has become proactive in supporting a battery stewardship program.

Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources:  The protection of our shore-lands is still an active topic and the House-passed version (H.526) was significantly revised by the Senate. H 526 passed the House last year by a 105 – 35 margin and the bill passed the Senate with strong support, too, 22-6 and will now be revisited by the House committee. It is likely a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.

The water in Lake Champlain is impaired due to phosphorus levels that exceed the Vermont water quality standards. In order to address that violation, a new cleanup plan agreement is expected this summer from EPA. After Vermont was “de-delegated” several years ago there has been a public process and renewed effort to find mutual policy commitments that will provide “reasonable assurance” to EPA that target TMDL reductions can be met. The Governor will need to confirm to EPA our State’s willingness to move forward by the end of this April.

Institutions:  Saving Energy Dollars:  The State of Vermont spent $14 million on energy in FY12, emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide.  Over the past six years the Legislature has worked to provide a strategy and the necessary tools for the State to reduce its energy consumption by 5%.

Past action of the Legislature has required the incorporation of energy efficiency and thermal conservation in any new state building or any renovation over $250,000 and to include renewable energy resources as appropriate.  It has required the Department of Buildings and General Services to analyze energy consumption in each property and to conduct energy audits in 20% of its properties annually so that it may understand how to strategically improve its buildings. The first sets of properties were completed this year.

This year action is in moving forward to add the final tool necessary to accomplish goals to save money and reduce greenhouse emissions by creating an Energy Revolving Loan Fund of up to $8 million, using a credit facility the State Treasurer will make available.  With the creation of a funding stream the State of Vermont would now be able to make a significant difference in its energy consumption, reducing its carbon footprint, and providing leadership in building management.

Commerce & Economic Development: Looking ahead, we have much work to do, finishing up a large economic development bill. This bill continues our annual attempt to stimulate the economy of Vermont by helping to create jobs and improve the business climate of the State.  The bill has two major themes: first, to protect and grow Vermont’s legacy industries in manufacturing agriculture and working lands; and second, to encourage and reward the investment in, and development of new technology and knowledge-based businesses.

Finally, Commerce and Economic Development is hard at work on a telecommunication bill that, among other things, deals with the permitting of cellular and wireless broadband towers. A few years ago the Legislature removed the process from Act 250, which is controlled at the municipal level, and put the process under the control of the Public Service Board, bypassing the control of the towns. That change is due to sunset in July of 2014, and we have to decide whether to allow that happen, or to continue to keep the process with the PSB. There are valid arguments both ways, and a proper balance must be found.

 

Workforce Development:  H. 852, the Workforce Development bill, responds to a cry from employers unable to find workers with the skills and experience needed for their jobs; and from Vermonters who are unemployed and stuck in low paying jobs without a way to get their foot in the door for the job they want.

Long-valued by employers, the Vermont Training Program supports both incumbent as well as new workers training, including individuals moving to a different job within the same company.  Over time, however, the allocation of funds between these two needs has fallen out of balance, resulting in almost no funds going to Vermonters entering new employment. Current action would rebalance this spending, bringing worker training back to its original purpose of helping employers fill vacant positions while helping Vermonters move into those jobs.

In addition, the bill will help revitalize the Workforce Development Council. This Council will develop a comprehensive state plan for workforce development; carry out a public engagement process for employers and workers regarding training needs; compile an inventory of education and training programs Vermonters can access; develop performance metrics; identify duplication in training programs as well as gaps, among others. Finally, the bill continues support for important internship programs for our students.

Telecommunications:  In an effort to expand broadband to every last Vermont mile, the 2011 Vermont Legislature loosened requirements for permitting of cellular and wireless broadband towers. This removed the Act 250 process controlled at the municipal level and put the process under control of the Public Service Board, setting in motion the dramatic increase in cellular and broadband connection many of us appreciate today. That authority is due to sunset in July of 2014, reverting back to Act 250 and town control. A bill before the Legislature however would repeal this sunset, keeping the process with the Public Service Board. There are compelling arguments on both sides. The Legislature will review the history and the need for telecommunication expansion while also listening to arguments calling for the return to municipal control as to where citing will occur.

Earned Sick Days:  H.208 proposes that employees who currently do not have access to sick days be allowed to earn one hour for every 30 worked, up to a maximum of 56. The uses of these hours are prescribed: for care of self, or family, or to make court dates relating to domestic violence and other family matters. The hours have no monetary value until used, and if the employee abuses this time, an employer may refuse payment with cause. Many employers already offer a similar benefit.  Passage in the House appears difficult.  Keep an eye on this one.

Open  Meeting Law:  Vermont’s open meeting laws are in need of modernization.  Technology allows us to stay connected and informed through a variety of means without being physically present.  In addition, the public is asking for more ways to stay informed and involved.  A bill before the Legislature would address many of these concerns.  Some of these changes would: clarify electronic participation; clarify what is and is not a public meeting; makes changes to posting requirements; clarify what constitutes proper use of executive session; provide for penalties and enforcement provisions for violations and describe how a mistaken violation in good faith may be cured.

Updating our Election Laws:  Open, reliable, and valid elections are a cornerstone of our democracy, spurring action to address needed changes to election laws.  For one, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that maintaining a late August primary election date does not provide the time stipulated in federal law to ensure absentee voting rights of military personnel and US citizens residing overseas.  As a result, the Legislature is looking to move this date to the first Tuesday in August.

Other area of interest is the use of vote tabulators for large as well as small towns; address timelines for addition of voter registration information to the checklist; require independent candidates to file by the same dates as party candidates; and in primaries, write-in candidates would need to receive the same number of votes as the number of signatures required on primary petitions to be placed on the general election ballot; write-in candidates would need to declare before the close of the polls on election day to be counted. Differences in House and Senate versions need to be reconciled, which will happen this spring.

Use of Respectful Language:  Vermont law dates back to 1777.  Reflecting past times and attitudes, words such as insane, lunatic and disabled are sprinkled throughout our statutes.  After a four-year effort, the Legislature passed a bill in February 2014 (S.27) that adopts language intended to recognize people as individuals rather than as disabled persons.  Advocates for these changes expressed it eloquently. We must first think of an individual as a person rather than a disabled person.  We use “people first” language, for example, when we refer to someone, we refer as ‘person on the autism spectrum’ rather than an autistic person.  Following the lead of advocates for respectful language, the bill replaces developmental disability with intellectual disability; removes the word handicapped; changes elderly to elders; changes hearing impaired to a hard-of-hearing; restores the term mental illness instead of psychiatric disability; and restores the phrase chemical dependence instead of substance use or abuse.  These changes are intended to sensitize Vermonters to the needs and rights of all individuals, regardless of the challenges they face.

Hands-free Cell Phones:  Highway safety has been a long-standing priority of the Legislature. This year, the House passed a bill to allow hands-free only use of electronic devices, except in the case of an emergency or for law enforcement and emergency personnel. This expands current law-for work zones only- to statewide.

Solar Net Metering: Vermont is a national leader in solar energy and green jobs in part due to our net metering program.  Solar net metering benefits the environment, encourages job growth, reduces energy costs, promotes energy independence, and diversifies Vermont’s energy resources. The success of this program has also caused some growing pains.  The current cap on net metering forced utilities to turn away customers who wanted to participate in the program.  The House recently passed a bill lifting these caps from 4% to 15% on a 136-8 vote and is now in the Senate.  Watch carefully to its success.

Transportation:  Mindful of our continuing energy challenges and our need to drive down our carbon footprint, this transportation budget continues to invest in all modes of transportation including railroads, public transit systems, airports, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Highlights of the FY15 Budget:  $115 million for Paving;  $140 million for Bridges: $50 million for Roadway;

$13 million for Highway safety and traffic operations;  $2.7 million for Park-and-Ride Facilities;  $7.9 million for Bicycle and Pedestrian facilities;  $4.2 million for Transportation Alternatives;  $80 million for Maintenance -including snow removal; $29.8 million for Public Transit;  $19.9 million for Aviation;  $37 million for Rail;  and $108.7 million for Town Highway Programs.

Several successive years of record level transportation investments are yielding positive results. We are seeing improved performance in pavement and in the condition of our bridges. In 2008, Vermont ranked near the bottom of all states, 45th in the nation for structurally deficient bridges.  By 2013, our strong investments have improved our rank to 28th. Overall percentage of structurally deficient bridges has declined from 19.7 percent of all bridges in 2008 to just over 8 percent in 2013.

Budget:  The process begins in January when the Governor presents a proposed budget, containing his priorities, to the Appropriate Committee.  The Appropriation Committee’s job is to review, take testimony, fill the State’s needs with the expected revenues and pass out a budget for a vote.  A tall order!  Based on the State’s economy, the Ways and Means Committee makes sure there are enough revenues for that budget.

End of Session Report: June 2013

Posted By on June 10, 2013

Budget:  Setting the budget begins before the legislature starts in January.  The House Appropriations Committee begins by taking testimony from those agencies and departments that are impacted by the budget.  In late January the Governor gives his annual budget address proposing expenditures for the next fiscal year. The House initiates the process by finding the revenues and/or gaps in revenues and arrive at a final budget.  This final budget is voted on by the House and sent to the Senate for approval. Each budget (the Governor’s, the House’s and Senate’s had different priorities. This year there were many proposals to generate revenue – many of you sent emails regarding some of those proposed changes – thank you.  I am including a message from the Chair of Appropriations Committee, Martha Heath, as I find her words about the budget say it best.

“Preparation of the FY14 budget required, for the 7th year in a row, addressing a gap between available resources and estimated expenditures.  While the nation is easing its way out of the Great Recession, revenues for the state of Vermont have finally returned to 2008 levels.   Finding the right balance between maintaining necessary services while making investments for the future was our challenge.

The House raised $23M to support its version of the budget.  $8M was put into reserves to help with future shortfalls – particularly ones caused by sequestration at the federal level.  While the Senate was working on the budget, lower caseload projections decreased anticipated costs by an additional $4M.  In addition they chose not to put any money into reserves therefore they only raised $10M.  In April we all learned that revenues were far above forecast thus the need for reserves would be filled when the end of the year closeout happened.  Given this revised forecast, the House, the Senate and the Governor came together and agreed to build a final version of the budget without raising any new revenue.  The budget outlines how the $10M gap was closed using updated information and good management practices.

Many of the differences in the budget were in the language sections. The biggest change related to money was in childcare where the total new investment is $4.5M; this is $1.7M less than the House proposal.  The good news is that FPLs (federal poverty levels) used to determine subsidies will rise from FY09 levels to FY13 levels and will impact both who qualifies for a subsidy and those already receiving subsidies.  In addition childcare providers will receive a 3% increase beginning on November 1st.

This final budget makes important investments.  It addresses the Medicaid cost shift by increasing provider reimbursement by 3%.  This will affect not only hospitals and doctors but also our direct care workers who serve the developmental services and choices for care populations.    Language in the bill directs insurance companies to acknowledge this change in their rates, lowering rate increases from what they would otherwise be.  This directly benefits Vermonters who purchase private insurance.   The bill eases the transition for Vermonters moving from Catamount and VHAP into the Exchange by providing premium and cost sharing subsidies per the House-passed budget.   For the first time we are appropriating dollars for LIHEAP in the base budget, reluctantly recognizing that what was for many, many years a federal responsibility must now be partially paid for by the state.

This budget increases investment in higher education by 3% specifically for scholarships and financial aid to Vermont students thus lowering their debt burden.  This is a critical investment in our future.

We have taken steps to both build jobs and get people back to work.  By continuing and increasing our investment in working lands, using further investment from the federal government to rebuild from Irene and supporting employers hit by that storm, we are building industries and jobs of which Vermont can be proud.  We have invested in housing by redirecting the General assistance appropriation from crisis management to housing supports .

 

We have made significant investments to support Vermonters with substance abuse and mental health issues.   The funding for the new state hospital, Reach Up supports additional substance abuse focused case workers, and the addition of a manager for the Hub and Spoke initiative are a few examples.

The House and Senate have worked hard to come together to find the right balance between fiscal responsibility and making investments for the future while not raising new revenues….”

Health Care:   Vermont Health Connect This fall Vermonters will be able to access health insurance in a new market place called Vermont Health Connect. Through Vermont Health Connect, individuals and small employers will be able to compare health plans and choose the one that best fits their health care needs and their budget. Starting in 2014, insurance companies will have to compete in a new way for your business with better outreach, lower costs and better customer service.

At www.healthconnect.vermont.gov Vermonters can look at the benefit package and see if they qualify for tax credits to help them pay for their premiums and subsidies to help them pay for their other medical bills.

Small business owners can get information that will help them choose whether to offer health insurance to their employees. There is a list of information sessions being held around the state where people can go to get their questions answered. Phone number: (802) 654-8977.

The House Health Care Committee has been focused on making sure the transition to Vermont Health Connect works as smoothly as possible. That is why we worked with Gov. Shumlin’s administration to put forward a bill that would supplement the Federal premium assistance for Vermonters moving from VHAP and Catamount to plans on Vermont Health Connect. Vermont will be one of only two states to offer additional assistance to people when they buy health insurance. We will continue to meet over the summer and fall to be sure that when Vermonters begin to enroll in Vermont Health Connect on October 1, 2013 everything will be ready to go.

Human Services and Health Care:  Human services and health care spending is roughly $2 billion per year, or about 40% of the statewide budget.  This includes Medicaid, Long Term Care, VHAP (Vermont Health Assistance Program), Catamount Health, 3Squares, Reach Up, and General Assistance.

On January 1, 2014, Vermont’s health care exchange known as “Vermont Health Connect” will go into effect, as mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.   Vermonters who currently enroll in VHAP or Catamount Health will transition either to expanded Medicaid or Vermont Health Connect.  During the 2013 session, the Legislature worked hard to ease the impact of health care reform on lower-income Vermonters in the following ways:

  • About 30,000 Vermonters in VHAP and approximately 2,000 in Catamount will transition to an expanded Medicaid program.   The State has invested about $18 million state dollars into Medicaid expansion, which will be matched by about $68 million in federal dollars, which is a great deal for both Medicaid recipients and Vermont taxpayers.

  • About 20,000 lower-income Vermonters will transition from VHAP and Catamount toVermont Health Connect.  The Legislature has invested in lower premiums for these Vermonters, so that they can purchase health care at reduced cost.

  • Nearly 30,000 Vermonters who currently do not qualify for state-funded health care will be eligible for premium and cost sharing assistance in Vermont Health Connect. These are lower-income, working Vermonters who are uninsured or underinsured or paying a very high percent of their incomes on health coverage. They will do significantly better in 2014.

The Legislature addressed the Medicaid cost shift by increasing provider reimbursement by 3%.  This will affect not only hospitals and doctors but also our direct care workers who serve the developmental and elderly populations.

Agriculture:  GMO Labeling According to a UVM poll, more than 90% of Vermonters are in favor of labeling foods produced using genetic engineering, they want this labeling for health, religious, moral, economic opportunity and environmental, reasons.   On a strong vote, the Vermont House voted for this right, moving it onto the Senate for action next year.

The State faces potential litigation from the biotech industry on 3 legal issues:  federal pre-emption; first amendment rights; and the dormant commerce clause.  The bill was carefully crafted to address possible litigation on each of these issues.  According to expert testimony the bill, as written, is legally defensible and has a reasonable possibility of prevailing in court.  Should the bill pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor next year, it would go into effect 18 months later.  At that time, Vermont would join 64 countries that already have such labeling requirements in place.

Agriculture:  Brownfields There are at least 97 contaminated sites or ‘brownfields” in Vermont, and some of these may be suitable for remediation.  Municipalities and developers shy away from these properties due to potential liability concerns.  H.226 limits this liability for municipalities, regional development corporations, regional planning commissions, secured lenders and innocent purchasers.  This opens the door to expedite clean up and reuse blighted properties to everyone’s benefit.

Government Operations:  Search and Rescue  What happens when someone is lost in the backcountry, remote areas or on the waters of the state?  Interim standards set last spring will be replaced with a comprehensive search and rescue response that is organized, immediate and cooperative.  The Commissioner of Public Safety will coordinate responses with public and nonpublic entities that specialize in protecting this safety: state police, game wardens, ski patrol, municipal police, fire departments, emergency medical service providers and others.  The goal is to save lives and recover lost people as swiftly as possible and help to protect against needless loss of life.

Government Operations:  Campaign Finance Reform Government Operations has been working intently on a Campaign Finance Bill.  The Committee  wants to illuminate where a political candidate’s money is being used, the money coming in and the money being spent.  An agreed upon message is — enhanced, robust reporting of finances, more disclosure , more often.  Our constituents have been requesting this reform.

We heard very pointed testimony from a constitutional law scholar.  We were advised to move forward cautiously when trying to institute campaign finance reform and how best to avoid potential lawsuits in light of recent federal court rulings , including a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2007 that threw out VT’s attempts to curb campaign spending.

The Citizens United decision which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on electioneering communications, suggests that stricter and more frequent disclosures of spending and donations to such entities could withstand judicial scrutiny.  A few guiding principles guide much of the litigation and law surrounding campaign finance.  States regulating campaign donations and expenditures must meet the high standard of showing that their regulations prevent actual corruption or its appearance.

Political donations facilitate speech and political association, two fundamental First Amendment rights.  To try and regulate or suppress those rights in anyway puts the burden on a state to show that there is a compelling governmental interest for those regulations.

We are trying to craft a defensible bill that provides transparency for all and be upheld under scrutiny.

Judiciary in the 21st Century:  This year, the Vermont legislature addressed a variety of issues related to victims’ rights, possession of marijuana and end-of-life issues.  First, access to justice was increased for people who were sexually victimized as children, raising the statute of limitations to 40 years after the occurrence.  Second, individuals who suffer from domestic abuse which results in an inability to work or get to work will have a variety of additional protections and supports.  Third, individuals overdosing or friends who find them this way will be able to call 911 without fear of arrest, saving countless lives.  Fourth, those in possession of small amounts of marijuana will face a civil penalty rather than the life-altering result of a criminal conviction.  And finally, those with a terminal illness who face intolerable suffering will have a legal route to acquire life-ending medication.

Judiciary: Statute of limitations on sex crimes extended  S.20 affords greater access to justice to people who were sexually victimized as children.  It extends the statute of limitations for certain crimes of sexual violence against a child (anyone under 18) to forty years after the occurrence of the crime. This change acknowledges the serious nature of the crimes of sexual assault, felony sexual exploitation of a minor, and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child.

The current statute limits the window during which these cases may be prosecuted to the earlier of the victim turning 24 or ten years after the date they first reported.  For many children, especially those who can’t disclose abuse until they are adults, this is simply not enough time. This is especially important for child victims, because we know that they often delay reporting for a number of reasons: threats from the abuser that they or someone else will be hurt if they tell; fear of the abuser; confusion about what’s happening; not realizing that it’s wrong; shame; not wanting to break up the family; having disclosed to someone previously and not been believed; and repressed memories.

Children are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and perpetrators specifically target victims who they think will be unlikely to report, or who will not be believed if they do talk about what has happened to them.  Now the criminal justice system will be able to respond to these victims when they are able to report, even if it is years later.

Judiciary:  Decriminalization of Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana Beginning July 1, 2013, possession of 1 oz. or less of marijuana or 5 grams or less of hashish (less than 1/5 oz.) will result in a civil penalty rather than a criminal charge for anyone 21 and older. Criminal convictions carry a heavy burden: they become part of a person’s permanent history; can prevent access to federal student loans, public benefits, certain professions and many jobs.  They can inadvertently perpetuate poverty and even lead to greater recidivism. A civil penalty avoids these long-term consequences.  Now, a first offense will result in a fine of up to $200; a second offense up to $300 and a third and subsequent offense up to $500.  For persons under 21, there is a mandatory referral to the Court Diversion Board for screening.  If necessary, referral to treatment may be required.

Judiciary:  Good Samaritan Bill (H.65)  A drug user whose friend is overdosing — or who is overdosing himself — can now call 911 without fear of being arrested.   Currently about 52 Vermonters a year die of opiate overdoses, sometimes because their friends are afraid of getting in trouble by calling.  This is a law that has saved lives in other places and will save the lives of Vermonters.

Judiciary:  Helping Victims of Domestic Abuse Passage of S.47, Relief from Abuse Protective Orders (APO), means that the court, not the victim, now has the responsibility of getting the APO to the sheriff so he can serve the defendant.   Should a defendant appeal an order, the appeal will not put the order on hold—a necessary protection for victims. Finally, it says that if a defendant refuses to hand over a victim’s personal documentation—e.g. a driver’s license or birth certificate—which evidently is not uncommon in cases of domestic abuse, the court may order him/her to do so.

Judiciary:  Helping People With Suspended Driving Privileges to Legally Drive Again  About 23,000 Vermonters have had their driver licenses suspended (DLS) for failing to pay accrued fines.  Many of these folks continue driving, often claiming it is the only way to get to work.  These individuals will now have a way to get back on track.

The legislature passed a law, building on work begun last year, that clarified that those with civil DLSes (not as a result of DUI) may participate in a program through court diversion to set up a payment plan and be able to get their licenses back.

Judiciary:  Addressing the Needs of Abuse Victims H.19 The purpose of the domestic and sexual violence survivors’ transitional employment program is to provide temporary, partial wage replacement to individuals who must leave employment, without good cause attributable to the employer, because of circumstances directly resulting from domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  The reason for this bill is to clarify the law and to ensure it is meeting its stated purpose.

First, the bill clarifies the existing program to ensure that victims of domestic violence who are physically or emotionally unable to work may access the program. The existing statute is vague on this point, predicating eligibility on the following conditions. The claimant must leave employment for one of the following reasons:

  • The individual reasonably fears that the domestic and sexual violence will continue at or en route to or from the place of employment.

  • The individual intends to relocate in order to avoid future domestic and sexual violence of the individual or a member of the individual’s family.

  • The individual reasonably believes that leaving the employment is necessary for the safety of the individual or a member of the individual’s family.

Consistent with the stated purpose of the statute, this bill would amend the statute to ensure victims who are “physically or emotionally” unable to work as a result of domestic violence are eligible for the program. This is entirely consistent with the purpose of the program and articulates expressly what is implicit in the existing conditions. It removes any doubt for victims who may no longer be able to physically do the work they used to do, or who suffer from mental health issues like PTSD as a result of abuse which makes it impossible for a claimant to continue working.

Second, the statute clarifies the due process protections for claimants by ensuring opportunity for hearing, if requested, and opportunity to provide additional information or evidence to the Commissioner subsequent to an initial denial.

Judiciary:  End of Life Choices  As soon as the governor signs the bill, Vermonters who are suffering from a terminal illness and who are within 6 months of the end of life may request a lethal dose of medication from their physician in order to hasten their death.  There are many safeguards built in to the legislation:

Patients have

  • to be evaluated and diagnosed by 2 physicians;
  • to be capable of understanding and making decisions for themselves;
  • to make their request 2 times orally and 1 time in writing, witnessed by 2 people who are not related to the patient.

This law is based on the Oregon model but with less governmental reporting.  Along with hospice and palliative care, it is an important part of end of life choices for which many have asked.  In 2016 after careful scrutiny and assurances that best practices are in place, the legislation moves to a more streamlined program where the doctor-patient relationship is private and protected.  Immunity for the physician is granted only when they follow the precise protocol established in the legislation.

Education:  Flexible Pathways Initiative  S.130, The Flexible Pathways Initiative, easily passed the House.

For 94 years high school graduation has been determined by the Carnegie Unit – the number of hours spent in a classroom seat – 125 hours for each high school credit; a minimum of 20 credits are needed to graduate. A significant number of VT high school students – a number that could exceed 10,000 – are disengaged without connection to their education and to their postgraduate years. S.130 for the first time codifies an alternative learning opportunity.

Dual enrollment offers two free college courses to qualified juniors or seniors that will be offered on college or high school campuses. Work based learning, virtual or blended learning, and early college for seniors are some of the new offerings that will be guided by Personal Learning Plans (PLP’s). PLP’s will be fully implemented in 2017 for 7 -12 students after the Working Group, a number of educators, creates a plan and method of implementation.

Early College will offer a full time college experience to seniors that have met PLP standards. Their host high school will not receive ADM reimbursement, rather 87% of the base education rate – next year $7,960.00 – will come directly from the education fund, similar to what is currently provided to the VAST program at Vermont Technical College.

Tuition for Dual Enrollment will be fully funded from the general fund for the first two years. The third year will be set by CCV’s rate of $669.00 per course. If the college course is offered at the high school, a charge of $134.00 will be paid to a college for administration and course credit approval. Dual Enrolment courses will provide high school and college credits.

In the third year the lesser amount of $134.00 for courses taught at the high school will come out of the education fund, and courses taught on college campuses for $669.00 will come half from the general fund and half from the education fund.

Education:  Pre Kindergarten  The relationship between enrollment in prekindergarten education and better educational outcomes is undisputed. Children who aren’t able to access high quality early education – for whatever reason – are more likely to challenge the resources of our public school system throughout their K-12 experience.

The House passed a comprehensive prekindergarten education bill that expands access, clarifies oversight, and strengthens quality standards throughout the state. By investing in high-quality early educational instruction, we provide a foundation for learning that can’t be replicated later in life. Unfortunately, not all children have access to foundational supports that can help prevent lifelong difficulties in learning.  Only 38% of eligible 3 or 4 year-olds in Vermont are currently enrolled in a high-quality program.

Our current system of providing pre-k to Vermont children exists through a blend of public and private programs. This hybrid promotes affordable options for high-quality education in a myriad of settings across the state. As complex as it is, this system permits unique flexibility that families need to effectively access early education services for their children.  With 71% of Vermont’s children under six living in homes where all adults are in the workforce, we know that working families face difficult challenges that impact their children’s access early educational opportunities.

This bill requires the 16% of Vermont towns who do not currently pay for any of their eligible children to attend a qualified program to fund at least 10 hours of prequalified prekindergarten instruction. It also erodes barriers to access for children in towns that do fund pre-k by permitting portability of a 10-hour tuition payment. Portability of tuition helps ensure that a child doesn’t forego their opportunity to participate in an early education program because other wrap-around care and services aren’t available. Our work ensures that Vermont’s children will be on equal footing with one another because it will no longer matter what town a child lives in when they seek access to prekindergarten education.

Under the new law, parents may – but are not required – to enroll their 3 or 4 year-old child in a high-quality prekindergarten program. A comprehensive list of prequalified programs will be available to parents in a publicly accessible database. The bill gives school boards the authority to limit its tuition payments to prequalified providers within the district’s specific “prekindergarten region”.

By eliminating the real-life hurdles to Pre-K enrollment, we are making wiser investments with our education dollars and doing the right thing for children.

Education: Concussions  This bill will assure that each school has a concussion management action plan that describes the procedures the school shall take when a student athlete suffers a concussion.  The plan will include policies on:

  • removing a student athlete from play when it is suspected that the athlete has suffered a concussion;
  • what steps the student athlete must take in order to return to any athletic or learning activity;
  • who makes the final decision that a student athlete may return to athletic activity; and
  • the responsibility for informing a parent when a student suffers a concussion.
  • It calls for the provision of a health care provider present at collision sport athletic events (starting in 2015)

Education:  H. 60 Free and Reduced Lunch  Currently, children in Vermont who are on reduced lunch, pay 40 cents for lunch.  This bill expanded the eligibility for the free lunch program to families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Families below that threshold already qualify for free lunch, which is paid for through federal funds.  The estimated cost of $322,250  was appropriated in the 2014 budget.   Currently, many of the children who are eligible for reduced lunches, do not receive them, as their families are not able to pay for them.   It is expected that greater gains in student academic performance, attendance and behavior will occur when children are not hungry.   Vermont is the first state to pass such a law.

Education:  Mental Health/Substance Abuse Services through Schools  The bill calls for a study that looks at how these services are currently being offered at schools, who pays for them, as well as model programs nationally, and funding mechanisms through health insurance or other sources.

Agriculture:  Hemp Hemp is one of the most versatile and productive plants and is profitably cultivated and processed in almost all of the developed nations of the world. S.157, “The Hemp Bill,” declares hemp to be an accepted and approved agricultural crop in the State of Vermont, and also provides for a flexible regulatory role for the Agency of Agriculture. This will give our “agripreneurs” new tools to develop unique products for a national market. Hemp remains illegal under federal law, so farmers will have to plant at their own risk!

Agriculture: Meat and Poultry Industry  H.515 includes provisions related to itinerant slaughter which will expand the ability of farmers to market their animals and increase opportunities for on-farm slaughter.

Agriculture: Pet Merchants  H.50, the so-called “pet merchants” bill, changes confusing and outdated statutes related to pet merchants & animal breeders and strengthens the inspection process. It also creates a pet dealer permit process under municipal authority. The bill’s intent and language was agreed to by a broad coalition of interests, including: VT Federation of Dog Clubs, the Human Society of the United States, and the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association.

Natural Resources & Energy: Shoreland Protection Vermont is home to over 800 lakes and ponds.  These lakes are a boon to our economy and our tax base primarily due to the peace and enjoyment we experience in their proximity.  Across Vermont, too many lakes are threatened from development styles that are known to harm lakes.  Removal of vegetation right down to the water’s edge increases polluted run-off, degrades aquatic habitat and destabilizes banks, resulting in damage to the health and value of our lakes.  Although local involvement is best, only 48 municipalities have set standards for shoreline development.  This has left us with only 17% of our shorelands fit enough to able to provide these essential protections.

As many of you may remember, earlier in the session the legislature put forward a bill that was designed to provide coordinated, scientifically based, site-specific shoreline protection regulation throughout the state on any new development.  This was met with considerable resistance from property owners who did not feel they had enough input in the process.  As a result, legislation was put on hold.  Over the summer, members of two committees will hold public meetings in 5 different locations.  These meetings are designed to inform both the public and lawmakers as to appropriate next steps to protect our shorelands.

General. Housing & Military:  Support for Working Vermonters  The legislature passed several key pieces of legislation this session that help working Vermonters.

While equal pay provisions have been in law since 1963, Vermont women still earn only 86 percent of what men do today. The equal pay bill addresses this discrepancy by clarifying instances where individuals who do the same work may not be paid equally and by providing employees who seek to find out if they are receiving equal pay with protection against retaliation. Additionally, the law will now extend protections for mothers who nurse or express breast milk in the workplace and allow employees to request flexible work arrangements. These changes will allow for a more employee and family friendly work place at little or no cost to the employer. This law also creates a committee to study the feasibility of creating access to paid family leave in Vermont.

With passage of the agency fee bill, non-union members of public sector employee bargaining units will join their private sector counterparts in paying their share of the costs of conducting collective bargaining (contract negotiations) and grievance procedures. Employees can exercise their right not to join the union while paying their fair share of the cost for these legally mandated services. The agency fee will spread expenses among all employees, making for more effective representation and lower dues and fees for everyone.

Take one part aging population, one part empowerment of people with disabilities, and one large part policy by the State of Vermont and one has a critical need for a stream of quality home care workers.  The Medicaid-funded programs the State offers are focused on helping elders and people with disabilities remain in home and community based care rather than in institutions.  These programs utilize independent direct support workers, who work as little as two hours a week or as much as eight hours a day.  The state recognizes both that they are underpaid and that they do not have a voice in the setting of rates for the services they provide.  In fact, many of these workers have never seen a raise that outpaced inflation.

Vermont workers and the Department of Labor achieved a much-needed modernization of our state wage and hour law.  Throughout the bill, the investigation, negotiation, adjudication, appeal, and enforcement processes for resolving unpaid wage claims are spelled out in greater detail to clarify the process for all involved.  There is also an expansion of corporate responsibility for unpaid wages – now, the president of a corporation or other officers who have control of the payment operations may be held personally liable when wages are unpaid.

Health Care: Treatment of Lyme Disease in Vermont The Health Care committee heard a lot of testimony from Vermonters who have struggled with Lyme disease. There appears to be an increasing prevalence of this and other tick-borne diseases. In order to push for better treatment for Vermonters, the committee sent a letter to the Health Department strongly urging the Commissioner to embark on a number of important projects aimed at preventing infection, encouraging early detection and treatment and reassuring doctors they won’t be subject to disciplinary action solely for treating Lyme disease outside of CDC guidelines. The committee has asked the Department to report back on their efforts and also on efforts underway in neighboring states to combat Lyme disease. The Legislature will revisit the issue early in 2014. Lyme disease can be a debilitating disease, especially if the early symptoms go unrecognized. The Health Care committee is focused on efforts to improve prevention, early detection, accurate diagnosis and aggressive treatment of Lyme disease.

Human Services:  The Human Services Committee approached their work on the budget and on bills with this in mind:  public investments in people; ensuring our most vulnerable Vermonters are safe and protected; maintaining a structure that helps Vermonters move out of poverty; and preventing problems that can lead to even greater cost to the State.

Human Services:  Opiod Addiction & “ Meth” Abuse This spring, the Legislature took significant steps to address the growing problem of drug addiction in Vermont by passing H.522.  In order to prevent “doctor shopping” by those looking for multiple prescriptions to legal but addictive drugs (like oxycontin), doctors will need to check the newly strengthened Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) under most circumstances, to make sure the patient isn’t getting the same drug elsewhere. This system was designed to serve public health needs, not law enforcement, and its information has never been available to law enforcement generally.  [As a border community, if the nearby states have a similar system, interaction of information can be shared.]    However, now, the Commissioner of Health will be able to provide a report from VPMS data about someone to the Commissioner of Public Safety, although not to other law enforcement officers and only if necessary to avert a serious threat to the public.

Vermont has so far escaped a large-scale meth (methamphetamine) epidemic, but we are seeing it encroaching. The legislature had already required that drugs with ephedrine (an ingredient in meth) had to be behind a locked case and were limited to a 30-day supply.  Addicts got around this by sending out “smurfs” to each buy the drug at multiple pharmacies. Vermont pharmacies will now start using a free electronic registry system called NPLex that operates in real time to record the sales of drugs like Sudafed, and further limit the amount one person can buy.  Because meth is so toxic to the environment in which it is made, the Dept. of Health will look at the issue of housing, contamination, and standards for re-occupancy.

Finally, the Dept. of Health continues its look at how to increase treatment for drug addiction and will also develop guidelines and training for hospitals in how to deal with patients who may have addictions. A pilot project may be created to make “opioid antagonists”—i.e., drugs such as naloxone that can reverse an overdose—more available for people who are at risk of an overdose. This will save lives. In the end, the goal is to prevent addiction, help those who are addicted get the treatment they need, and protect the public.

Human Services: “Tris”  Vermonters want products that are safe.  Flame retardants used in some children’s products and in upholstered furniture will soon be kept out of products available here. These particular flame retardants have , chemicals commonly referred to as Tris which can be especially unsafe for children. Our firefighters also face greater health hazards when they are fighting a fire where there is upholstered furniture with these chemicals in the foam padding. In Vermont, Tris will not be allowed to be replaced by chemicals classified as “known or reasonably anticipated to be” a human carcinogen or chemicals identified as causing birth defects, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity, or harm to reproduction or development. These products will still have flame retardants in them, but not retardants made with Tris.

Institutions & Corrections: Capital Dollars at Work The legislature approved investments of $173,042,697 in projects throughout the state in FY14 and FY15.  Communities and Vermonters will benefit with upgrades in drinking water, wastewater treatment and nonpoint source clean up, support of secondary education and higher education with funds for building construction and maintenance, and support of our forests, parks, recreation, agriculture, and fishing resources.  These investments also put Vermonters to work in good paying construction jobs.

Highlights include:  More than $70 million is dedicated to Irene recovery, with the funding of the build out of our new mental health system of care and renovation of the Waterbury State Office complex.    Significantly, the bill also provides over $17 million to pay off the state’s obligation on school construction by the end of FY15 and leaves in place the moratorium on state aid for school construction.

Over $1 million is invested each year in seven grant programs, which provide for recreation, human services, education, historic preservation and economic development. In addition, the legislature passed two resolutions enabling the Department of Forest Parks and Recreation to transfer recreation land to the town of Grand Isle and allowing for the expansion of a much-needed quarry in Plymouth.  A separate bill enables the Austine School in Brattleboro to sell a parcel of land and also asks the Secretary of Education and the school to work together to consider the future of services to Vermont children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Natural Resources & Energy:  Thermal Efficiency We took steps this session to address the problem of heating fuel — one of Vermont’s major contributors to climate change and a growing economic burden for Vermonters, as the price of oil has doubled in the past ten years. H.520, our “thermal efficiency” bill, lacks the funding source we had hoped for and was shortened and weakened by the Senate, but some important provisions remain. First, the bill makes changes to the state’s Home Weatherization Assistance Program, which since 1990 has been bringing workers into low-income homes to make them more efficient. The program has a long waiting list, so we now require it to prioritize those Vermonters who qualify for LIHEAP heating assistance. We also provide a way to identify the leakiest LIHEAP homes, so we can target those homes before the others. This will help us to spread dwindling LIHEAP resources more efficiently over time.

H. 520 also coordinates, under the watch of the Public Service Board, the weatherization services provided by various efficiency groups around the state for Vermonters of every income level. This will begin to provide the same oversight and streamlining that we require for electric efficiency services. Among other improvements, consumers will be able to find, in one central clearinghouse, all the information and resources they need to weatherize their homes.

In addition, the bill recognizes that not every builder complies with the state’s current efficiency requirements for new construction and renovations, so we put measures in place to make sure that every builder knows about these laws before the first shovel hits the ground. The bill also authorizes the Department of Public Service to adopt a “stretch” code for residential buildings to achieve even greater energy savings. We charge a working group with developing a standard “energy rating tool” that an owner may use to disclose the building’s energy performance to a prospective buyer, much as a miles-per-gallon sticker does for a car.

Transportation:  (S. 38)  Eligibility for Driving and Identification Privileges in Vermont  Farming is the backbone of Vermont’s economy and landscape. An estimated 1500 farm workers residing in Vermont face significant challenges to mobility and have been literally living in the shadows of the dairy barns. Being dependent on their employers and community volunteers in order to access groceries, basic necessities and medical care making living in Vermont difficult. Their issues were brought to the attention of many concerned citizens and legislators.

S.38 authorized the DMV to issue operator, junior operator, and learner’s privilege cards and non-driver ID cards to Vermont residents who are unable to demonstrate immigration status, and to Vermont residents who otherwise do not satisfy the requirements of the of the federal REAL ID Act.

To be eligible for a privilege card, applicants must provide DMV reliable proof of their identity and of their Vermont residence, and must satisfy any other requirements of law that may apply, such as paying a license fee and passing a written examination and skills test. The face of the privilege card must indicate that it is not valid for federal identification or official purposes, which is a requirement of the REAL-ID Act.

There is no federal law that prohibits Vermont from taking this action. Other states have already established this, Washington and New Mexico issue licenses and Utah issues driving privilege cards.

We in Vermont can give some acknowledgement to the workers who are contributing to our state’s economy, by providing a way to identify themselves, and by providing some freedom of movement. All communities are safer when everyone feels comfortable, interacting with law enforcement. Police can identify and verify residents when needed and the holders feel more confident. All of Vermont is better served, especially when we know our neighbors.

Transportation:  Funding our Transportation Infrastructure  Each year, the Legislature seeks to maximize federal transportation dollars.  Over the past 10 years, state revenues from the per-gallon gasoline tax have declined because Vermonters are consuming less gasoline, even as they drive more. Due in large part to more efficient vehicles, Vermonters purchased 36 million fewer gallons of gas in 2012 as compared to 2005.

To make up for this lost tax revenue, and to maximize federal matching funds, the Legislature adopted a new sales tax on gasoline to replace part of the per-gallon tax.  Assuming the new tax is passed on to consumers, gasoline prices will increase by an estimated 5.9 cents in May 2013. Likewise, diesel prices will increase by 2 cents per gallon in 2014 and an additional penny in 2015.  Look at it this way: if you drive 10,000 miles a year, at 25 miles per gallon, this new tax structure will cost you only $24 in additional taxes in 2013.

This much needed increase in transportation revenues will allow Vermont to fully access our share of federal transportation funds [In fiscal year 2014, the State of Vermont will leverage $260 million in state transportation funds in order to obtain $370 million in federal transportation money, for total combined spending on the maintenance and construction of Vermont highways and bridges of $630 million], to maintain funding of our town highway aid programs, and to continue essential repairs to our roads and bridges.

Ways & Means: Charitable Organizations & Break-Open Tickets  To fund new initiatives, the Governor’s budget relied on a substantial reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal credit put in place to support low-income working families. It has been called the single most successful anti-poverty program in history. Vermont offers a credit equal to 32% of the federal credit. After much discussion and debate, the proposal to cut EITC was rejected by the Legislature because it would unfairly impact low-income working Vermonters. The Governor’s proposed budget also relied on the taxation of break-open tickets, a pull-tab form of gambling used by the Elks, Veteran’s groups and other charitable organizations. The significant new tax burden would mean selling the tickets was no longer cost effective, taking away this form of revenue generation for community causes. The Legislature rejected this tax increase proposed by the Governor.

Ways & Means: Tax Reform: Broadening the Base, Lowering the Rate  Tax reform will have to wait until next January. Working closely with the Senate Finance Committee, the House developed a proposal for income tax changes that will give over 200,000 Vermont families a tax reduction. The proposal caps itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction (roughly $30,000 for joint filers), establishes a 3% minimum tax for households with incomes over $125,000, and reduces marginal tax rates. It does not affect personal exemptions, which will continue to be calculated as they are now.

Between now and January, we intend to fine-tune the proposal and do the necessary work to familiarize and educate the public. We will work to improve the proposal, so please share thoughts and suggestions this summer and fall. Tax policy changes, even when they’re are revenue neutral, are never easy. By definition, they result in some people paying less and some people paying more. In the end, our goal is to make the tax code as fair and equitable as possible. Deductions and credits generally benefit one group over another. While deductions and credits may at times serve the interests of good public policy, such as EITC, they can also create distortions and inequities in the tax code.

Our income tax system is more progressive than most other states, but there is a growing gap in Vermont between the highest income earners and everyone else. Tax reform that shifts slightly more of the burden to high income earners is a thoughtful and reasonable  way to address that gap.

Ways & Means:  Good Information, Good Tax Policy As part of the technical tax bill (H.295), the Legislature adopted a provision that requires the Tax Department and the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to share non-identifying Tax Department data with certain JFO employees so that they can run analyses of legislative proposals. This MOU will include protocols for preventing the identification of individual taxpayers, handling and transmitting returns and return information, and the incorporation of penalties for unauthorized disclosures. It is and would continue to be a violation of law for the Tax Department to turn over personal data to the JFO.

The history behind this provision is that, until about a decade ago, Vermont income tax was calculated as a percentage of federal tax liability and very little analysis was needed of income tax data.  When Vermont moved to link state taxes to the federal form at taxable income, the need for more complex analyses became necessary. As a separate branch of government making significant decisions in the lives of Vermonters regarding taxation, we need timely, non-partisan tax analyses to make the best decisions.

Ways & Means:  Reining in Education Spending With a $70 million increase in education spending statewide while numbers of pupils continue to decrease, a significant increase in the education tax rates for FY14 was inevitable. The legislature was required to raise the non-residential rate to $1.44, the base penny rate to $.94, and the base calculation amount to $9151. These tax rate increases prompted us to look closely at possible ways to curb education spending.

The establishment of Act 68 encouraged increased spending in property-poor communities but did little to suppress spending in communities; the only real tool that was put in place was the spending threshold over which taxpayers in high-spending communities pay double in per-pupil spending over the threshold. This session, the Legislature reduced the threshold from its current 125% to 121% of the previous year’s statewide average per pupil spending.

The legislature also created two studies: first, to look at the renter rebate program to analyze if the $8 million we are spending is achieving the goal of helping low-income renters effectively, and secondly, a data collection and recommendation process for looking at our staff-to-student ratios to make recommendations about possible tax consequences for an excessive number of paid adults in the school buildings.

Commerce & Economic Development:  This session, the Vermont House worked to keep commerce humming through forward-looking insurance practices, consumer protections, better access to capital, and steps to encourage housing. Our emerging knowledge-based economy has required us to improve patent laws and to listen to the changing needs of our many entrepreneurs and startup companies.  We continued to focus on workforce training and took steps to modernize workers’ compensation and the unemployment insurance system.

IRENE RECOVERY – The storms of 2011 were devastating to our little state. Many individuals and small businesses lost everything they had, and it will be years before our recovery is complete. We have tried to help by passing a measure that would help our affected businesses by relieving them of the increased cost of unemployment insurance when they were forced to lay off their employees.

WORKERS COMP PAYMENTS – We passed a bill that will allow insurance companies to make payments to injured workers by means of electronic cards. Similar to debit cards, weekly benefits can be directly loaded onto a card, so the worker does not need to wait for a check to arrive in the mail, take it to a bank, and cash it. The benefits are available more quickly!

WORKERS COMP FOR FIRE & RESCUE WORKERS – We all know that firefighters who rush into burning structures, as well as rescue workers who treat people under extremely hazardous conditions, face dangers that  most of us do not. These conditions can cause injuries and diseases that might not appear until many years later. We have offered a change to our laws that would make the “presumption” of these injuries that they were actually caused by exposure to the conditions faced, making it easier for workers to collect benefits due to them.

UNCLAIMED LIFE INSURANCE BENEFITS – We learned that some insurance companies use a national database to learn of a death and then stop paying out on that person’s annuity. However, they do NOT use that database to pay out the death benefit on the life insurance policy. We passed a measure that requires companies to search the national death master list to learn if policyholders has died, and to then pay the benefit due to a beneficiary.

Commerce & Economic Development:  First-in-the-Nation “Troll-Buster” Bill or Protecting knowledge-based business in Vermont.  Vermont is a creative, innovative place.  Vermonters invent things – lots of things.  Businesses are innovating in technology and software development, building the foundation for Vermont’s future in the ‘new economy.

According to CNNMoney, Vermont is #1 in the nation in patents granted per capita and #8 in entrepreneurial business start-ups.  Vermont is home to large, medium, and small tech companies that are developing and exporting hardware and software solutions to companies around the world – often in web-based applications.

These “knowledge-based” businesses are being seriously threatened by a business practice that is nothing more than a modern day protection racket.  In the press, it’s called “patent trolling.”  The ‘troll’ is an individual or business that has purchased patents – often from bankrupt companies – and indiscriminately sends letters to software developers demanding payment for alleged patent infringement.  (The ‘troll’ reference is from the Norwegian fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff, where a troll living under a bridge threatens to eat anyone trying to pass over the bridge.)

The troll’s business model is simple: it threatens a federal lawsuit if the target company does not pay a license fee of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to the troll.  There is no good faith effort by the troll to perform research and determine whether, in fact, the target is infringing their patent.  For the target business or non-profit, their choice is to pay the troll’s demanded fee or spend huge sums on a legal defense in court.

This practice is extortion, plain and simple, and it is harming businesses in Vermont. Vermont will be the first jurisdiction in the nation to offer its businesses a defense against this nefarious racket.  This groundbreaking legislation will allow Vermont companies and their customers to bring a cause of action in Vermont or Federal court to demand that the troll “put up or shut up.”  The bill helps a court distinguish between legitimate patent enforcement and the troll’s practice of bad faith assertion of patent infringement.

With this bill, Vermont proclaims it is the ‘welcoming place’ for software developers.  Our message is clear: “Vermont is the place to innovate and create, and the State has your back.”

I would love to have your input.  Contact me at amook@leg.state.vt.us

Thank you for letting me serve you….  Anne

2013 Town Meeting Poll

Posted By on March 6, 2013

Please fill out as many parts of this survey as you are comfortable completing. Nothing is required but your input will help Anne at the State House this session.

 

This survey is currently disabled.

Posted By on March 3, 2013

Dear Friends and Constituents:   These first few months of this new biennium have been very busy.  My committee assignment is once again Government Operations, which considers legislation regarding elections, municipal charter changes, state government operations, pensions, and the regulation of 45 professions, to name a few.

Many of you have asked about the process of a bill.  Here is my best shot.  Much of what you may have heard or read about to date on most issues such as the budget, taxes, pull tickets, recycling, childcare, firearms, and end of life issues are only proposed. Any bill which proposes a change in law is introduced and assigned to the committee of jurisdiction.  That committee takes testimony on all sides of the issue.  The bill first must be voted out of that 11-member committee, then proceed to the floor of the House for debate.  Amendments can be added at this time which will change the meaning, the original intent or end effect of the bill – which a legislator may or may not support at that time.  The bill with all its amendments has 2 opportunities to pass or fail.  Once the bill has passed the House, it proceeds to the Senate and the whole process begins again.  [If a bill begins in the Senate, the process is the same and passed to the House.]  The bill that might pass the House, may be changed in the Senate; at this time, it is assigned to a “conference committee” which mediates the differences.  A successful bill then proceeds to the Governor to be signed into law or vetoed.

As you can see, there are many hurdles along the way.  In the last biennium, over 800 bills were introduced, less than 25% became law.

Education Property Tax

There are two parts to education financing:  First are the spending decisions made by communities across the state – the local voters who decide how much to spend based on the needs of their school children, the pressures on the budget such as salaries, health care, and fuel costs. Second is the responsibility of the legislature to determine how the taxes will be divided up among taxpayers.  We set base rates for homestead and income sensitized taxpayers, both of which are adjusted by local spending decisions.  And, we set a non-homestead rate, which is a flat rate, and is not adjusted by education spending.

As we began to set the education property tax rate for FY14, we were faced with education spending increases – 5.5% higher than FY13.  This translates into $64.4 million in increased education spending over last year, with total education fund spending increases (including transportation, tech ed, small schools etc.) of $72.6 million.

During the recession of the last five years, school boards have worked very hard to keep growth in education spending very low, and stimulus/ARRA money insulated us from some cost increases.  The education costs we face today are increasing as a result of rising health insurance, special education costs, contractual salary increases and a continued decline in our student population.  Over the last 12 years our school age population has declined by 22,000 students.  Vermont now has 82,000 enrolled in public school.  We have fewer children and we are spending more money.

As we recover from the recession we face additional challenges.  The first is that our statewide grand list continues to decline.  This year it is projected to decline 1.5%.  Lower values mean that last year’s rates on property will raise less money.  The second is that revenue from other sources that feed the Ed Fund (sales tax, lottery, Medicaid etc.) has also been slow to recover.

As a result of these financial pressures, our Education Property Tax is set to rise significantly.  We set the base education homestead tax rate at $.94 cents (up from $.89 cents) and the uniform non-homestead tax rate at $1.44 (up from $1.38) per $100 of assessed value.  Property tax adjustments for income-sensitized taxpayers (households earning $90,000 or less) will stay at 1.8%.  If no bill is passed, the tax rates revert to the much higher statutory amounts ($1.10, 1.59 and 2%).  In addition to setting the rates for FY14, the legislature has also made a commitment to continue our work on reforming education finance.  By March 2014, we expect to have proposals into the General Assembly which address financing, educational outcomes, and oversight of our current system.

 

Budget Realities

Each year, the Governor presents the legislature a budget proposal that is reviewed and adjusted first in the House, then in the Senate, before it returns to the Governor for signature.  For the seventh year in row, budget deliberations began with the need to fill a hole, this year, $67M, before decisions about future spending could be considered.

At this time, the House Appropriations Committee –working with other agencies and committees in the House – is evaluating every line item in that budget proposal.  This budget proposal presents dilemmas – many even tougher than we faced at the height of the recession.  In order to reduce spending in some categories, the most obvious option is to curtail benefits to others, the loss of which is likely to hurt our investments in economic growth; all the while we must look over our shoulder at the loss of Federal funding in many, many categories.

A balanced budget will be produced, though Vermont has no Constitutional requirement to do so: we will do our best to keep Vermont’s economic engine moving forward, maintain our roads, our parks, and our schools, our services to oversee our health, our environment, and our communities, even as we continue our recovery from Irene.

Transportation

The transportation budget makes critical investments in our aging roads and bridges, and supports economic recovery by providing funding for jobs in construction and engineering.

As the revenues into the transportation fund decline, and the costs and demand for fixing our infrastructure increase, Vermont faces a growing transportation funding gap.

  • Cars are more efficient; people are driving less.
  • 39 million fewer gallons sold in Vermont since 2005
  • Gas tax is 25% of transportation fund revenues

 

The Governor’s proposed transportation budget addresses a $36.5 million budget gap. It provides the state funds necessary to match federal funds to sustain progress in rebuilding Vermont’s roads and bridges. Without this match, $56 million in federal funds are at risk to be sent back to Washington for potential redistribution to other states. If the additional state dollars are not raised, the result will be delays to approximately $110 million in projects ready to be built, including completing Tropical Storm Irene recovery.

Solving this funding gap will help continue the work that has improved road surface conditions by 30% in the last four years and repaired structurally deficient bridges.

The FY-14 budget proposal is not a spending increase but rather an $800,000 decrease from FY-13.  This revenue proposal is to maintain current levels of spending and does not contain new capacity projects not already under construction. The Legislature is considering a combination of an increase in the gas tax, prudent levels of Transportation Infrastructure Bonding, some tough budget cuts, and redirecting Transportation Fund transfers back to the transportation budget.  The gas tax will also be restructured to address inflation over time.

The Transportation Committee is working toward a phased multi-year proposal that includes all of the above elements and results in an estimated 6.7 cent increase in gas tax at the pump in the first year and inflationary increases thereafter.  The increase results from a new 2 percent assessment on gas sales.  An additional 2 percent assessment is planned for FY-15 but will be largely offset by a simultaneous decrease in the pennies per gallon tax.

In all, it will provide for continued transportation system improvements, preserve $56 million in federal funds, and make further progress on Tropical Storm Irene recovery.  It also resolves structural issues in the T-Fund and provides for more sustainable transportation revenues for the foreseeable future.  Not an easy task.

Education: Flexible Pathways

Research demonstrates high school juniors and seniors derive many benefits from taking college-level courses for dual-credit. In addition to enhancing their college and career readiness, such classes motivate first- generation students, who might not otherwise view college as an option, to pursue a higher education. Additional benefits students derive from taking dual enrollment classes include: a more rigorous high school education, a smoother transition from high school to college, and a reduction in college completion time.

Dual-credit courses may be offered at high schools and taught by high school teachers with the requisite training. They also may be offered at community and four-year colleges as well as universities.

The shortage of Vermonters with post-secondary degrees is currently one of the Green Mountain State’s primary economic challenges. No longer is a high school education enough for entrance into the job market. 60% of jobs in the near future will require a postsecondary degree. Moreover, 81% of the fastest growing high-wage jobs will require postsecondary education. While Vermont’s 83% high school graduation rate is commendable, only 64% of our state’s students graduate from college.

And, even more importantly, if all of Vermont’s high school students graduated ready for college, the state would save as much as $12 million in college remediation costs.  Roughly 1,200 Vermonters did not graduate from high school in 2011; for those individuals their loss in lifetime earnings alone totals $147 million.

Dual enrollment enables eligible high school students to enroll in selected college courses at significantly reduced tuition rates. Eligible students would be able to take up to two courses for high school and college credit through a postsecondary institution’s dual enrollment program at no cost before graduating. Districts would be reimbursed by the Agency of Education for FY 14 and FY 15. Tuition costs subsequently be split 50-50 by school districts and by the state using the Next Generation Initiative Fund.

Balancing Jail and Justice

When a person is arrested, sending them to jail until a court hearing can be costly and unnecessary. Vermont’s correction policies carefully balance public safety with our interest in deterring crime and saving critical dollars from prison operation expenses. The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions is reviewing various risk-assessment tools that will help correction officers evaluate offenders to determine their eligibility to remain at home, subject to electric monitoring, while they await arraignment. It’s unlikely that electronic monitoring would be appropriate for all detainees; but freeing up some of the 400 beds that are currently used to detain defendants would allow us to bring some of our approximately 500 out-of-state inmates back to Vermont.  This shift would create significant cost savings for the state and supports our aim to house offenders closer to their families.

The committee has also discussed the state’s use of work camps and other innovative ways to engage our inmate population to lower the rate of recidivism. State’s attorneys, public safety officials, members of the judiciary, the defender general, and other advocates have testified before the committee on this issue, as well as a bill that would change the calculation courts use to impose sentences.

Funding our State Infrastructure

The Capital Bill supports our communities and Vermonters with substantial investments in drinking water, wastewater and storm water treatment, construction and maintenance of our secondary and higher education infrastructure; and support of our forests, parks, recreation, agriculture, and fishing resources.  This year the Governor has proposed that we spend in excess of $43 million on these investments.

In addition, the Capital Bill provides the funding for construction and physical maintenance of the facilities from which state services are provided.  Even without the demands of the reconstruction of the Waterbury State Complex–which is estimated to be $124,655,000–there are enormous pressures on the capital bill.  The $43 million price tag on the facilities required for the reconfigured and reconstructed mental health system of care, the $30 million replacement of the 50+ year old Health Department Lab, the $5.5 million continuation of Public Safety barrack improvements and almost $8 million for substantial work on the courthouse in Lamoille County, are just part of the overall picture.

These needs are substantially in excess of the $153,160,000 recommended debt authorization for capital construction.  As a result the House Institutions and Corrections Committee is reviewing past funding decisions and pushing hard to reallocate funds that have not been expended. The committee is challenged to make funding decisions without final figures on either insurance proceeds or FEMA for the storm damage in the Waterbury Complex.  The only certainty is that we won’t get this information for a while and the funds will not be enough to cover the gap we are facing.

What are you hearing about Statewide Water Quality?

There has been a revitalized interest in water quality and related issues in Vermont, partially driven by the significant impacts of Tropical Storm Irene and the spring flooding of 2011. Moreover, the disapproval of the Lake Champlain TMDL and the impairment of other state surface waters have refocused legislative efforts on the outcomes delimited in Act 138 of the 2012 legislative session. FEMA, the State of Vermont, and our local communities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars restoring and rebuilding our infrastructure, our rivers and lakes, and our homes and businesses.

The initiatives of Act 138 are slowly being implemented, but like many legislative efforts, are somewhat stagnated due to a lack of implementation funding. There continues to be debate on the priorities not only in the area of water quality, but on statewide priorities in general. Currently there are several planning and zoning enhancements under consideration in the Fish Wildlife and Water Resources committee. These bills propose to expand the Regional Planning Commission’s goals to include planning for flood resilient communities, and municipalities with zoning will be required to carefully review development in flood plains and fluvial erosion areas.  Concurrently the need for statewide shoreline zoning for our lakes and ponds is being evaluated. This bill would potentially include protection standards to help minimize disturbances and other causes of pollutant runoff.

Working Parents Help Our Economy

Working outside the home is a financial necessity for most families; access to affordable, quality childcare is imperative. Studies show our local and state economies benefit. When parents know their children are well cared for and are safe, they are able to participate in the workforce;  unemployment subsidies decrease, and employers confirm a notable rise in worker productivity.

The Governor’s proposed budget recognizes the importance of quality childcare by adding $17 million into the childcare subsidy program to help low-income families. Wile I applaud that commitment, he proposes that money be reallocated from the state share of the Earned Income Tax credit (EITC). The EITC is widely believed to be one of the most successful programs existing to help move working people out of poverty. The House Human Services Committee is wrestling with the short- and long-term impacts of reducing support for one successful program in order to invest in another.

 

A Changing of the Guard

On February 21, the General Assembly elected Brigadier General Steven Cray of Essex, Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard. Our statutes require that the Adjutant General be elected by a majority vote of the General Assembly and, after several weeks of interviews and campaigning, General Cray garnered 125 out of 178 votes. He will replace former Adjutant General Michael Dubie and interim Adjutant General Tom Drew.

The new adjutant general will lead our Guard through massive changes over the next 7-10 years. Between the Afghanistan war winding down, and the controversy over the F-35, he will be navigating through some choppy waters. General Cray showed the General Assembly that he had a thorough knowledge of Vermont’s strengths and weaknesses as we move forward, and we are confident he will keep our Guard trained and ready for any state disaster or federal need in the years ahead.

 

Confronting Homelessness

Homelessness has been a persistent and growing problem in Vermont for over 30 years.  On the second day of the 2013 session, the House passed a resolution recognizing the severity of homelessness in Vermont.  Vermont’s homeless population, which includes people “couch surfing” or otherwise precariously housed, rose from 2,281 in 2008 to 2,819 in 2012 – a 24% increase.  A growing percentage of the homeless are families with children as this year’s “Emergency Shelter/Solutions Grants Vermont Annual Report” (ESG) documents. According to the report, 4,244 people sought shelter last year – 22% were homeless children. The average length of stay in the state’s shelters was 36.3 days in 2012, compared to 15.2 days in 2002.

The House Committees on Housing and Appropriations are deeply concerned about the continued heavy reliance on costly motel stays as a primary solution for housing homeless Vermonters.  Safety and habitability concerns surrounding motels are common throughout the state.  Efforts are underway to phase out this emphasis on motels through revisions in the General Assistance program, in collaboration with the Department of Children and Families.

Search and Rescue

There is already language in statute describing what must happen when a vulnerable person is reported missing.  There is presently nothing in statute as to what must happen when a person, any person, is reported missing or lost “in the backcountry, remote areas, or waters of the State.”  The House Government Operations Committee is working to rectify this.

The language is very much in flux, but the focus is a search and rescue response, which is organized, immediate, and characterized by cooperation Salient points being discussed:

  • The Commissioner of Public Safety is designated as having jurisdiction over all search and rescue operations.
  • The Commissioner must “cooperate with and support all public safety agencies and any nonpublic entities that specialize in protecting the safety of the public.”
  • The Commissioner must “specifically coordinate with game wardens in the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”
  • The Commissioner “shall ensure… the seamless integration of all responding search and rescue agencies and organizations.”
  • The Search and Rescue Team within the Department of Public Safety “shall regularly conduct search and rescue training with collaborating agencies and organizations with the goal of continually refining search and rescue operations.”
  • A search and rescue database, organized geographically and updated regularly, must “identify all agencies and organizations having specific search and rescue response capability.”  “Identification” is to include “points of contact.”

Pension Forfeiture

Public employees must not betray the trust placed in them by the public.  This trust is special and a privileged expectation of all public employees.  If the trust is broken, there is a mechanism that may be used to make taxpayers ‘whole’ and also to restore the public trust.

House Government Operations and House Judiciary worked on legislation defining the consequences for a public employee convicted of financially-related felonies, including “an attempt to commit, or aiding in the commission of” such felonies.  The consequence in addition to the sentence in the criminal proceedings is that the public employee’s retirement benefits may be subject to forfeiture, “in whole or in part,” in proceedings before the Civil Division of the Superior Court.  The Court has discretion in considering the extent of the forfeiture, and may consider the severity of the crime, the degree of public trust placed in the public employee, and whether or not there are innocent family members such as children or an unknowing spouse when determining the extent of the forfeiture.

The House passed this bill in February.  It is now in the Senate Government Operations committee for its consideration.

Puppy Mills, by Teo Zagar

After more than a decade of deliberation and frustration, the diverse array of stakeholders in the “puppy mill”/pet merchant/dog breeder story appear to have settled upon an agreement to regulate the humane breeding and sale of dogs in Vermont.  The result of these efforts can be found in H.50, a bill that will close loopholes and comprehensively define a licensing and inspection regime for the business of breeding and selling dogs.

 

Vermont Health Connect

Vermont’s individuals, families and small businesses will have access to a new insurance marketplace in 2014 that will allow them to make apples-to-apples comparisons of their health coverage options. Vermont Health Connect will serve as the place where Vermonters can access tax credits to help pay their health care premiums. For a family of four making up to $94,000 Vermont Health Connect will offer financial assistance paying for health insurance that has never been available before.

Many more Vermonters will receive reliable, comprehensive coverage through Vermont Health Connect in 2014. Currently, individuals in the private insurance market have an average deductible of $10,000 and the average out-of-pocket cost to Vermonters is $12,000 a year. Under the Affordable Care Act, Vermont Health Connect will offer insurance where the out-of-pocket maximum will be almost half that amount. Some Vermonters have an unlimited out-of-pocket maximum, which means they could potentially pay hundreds of thousands of dollars towards health care each year.

 

Health insurance plans in Vermont Health Connect will offer real value to Vermonters and will help them to stay healthy. Plans will cover primary care services without a deductible; in order to keep Vermonters healthy and preventive care will be covered without a deductible or co-pay. Additionally, Vermont is one of only two states (along with Massachusetts) that is considering a state supplement to federal premium and cost sharing assistance. Vermonters who are coming from VHAP or Catamount, along with 40,000 Vermonters of similar income will be offered an additional assistance premium and cost sharing.

In 2017 the federal government will allow states to apply for a waiver from the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Vermont is on a path to apply for a waiver in 2017 that would allow Vermont to create a universal health care system. Once this system is in place, Vermont could save $500 million compared to our current system. In order to embark on a new health system, Vermont needs to do more work to be sure our health care is affordable, offers high quality and contains growth. If we don’t change health care so that it is keeping people well, it won’t matter how we pay for it, we won’t be able to afford it. The Green Mountain Care Board is working on quality and cost containment projects to make Vermont’s health care delivery system the most efficient and highest quality in the nation.

 

The Value of Reach-Up

Vermont’s Reach Up program helps very low-income families with children by providing cash assistance for basic needs. It also provides recipients with services that promote employment and self-sufficiency. Most families receiving assistance are able to transition out of the Reach Up program in less than two years. The Governor has proposed limiting Reach Up assistance to an initial 36 consecutive months, followed by a 12-month period of ineligibility, with a 60-month cap on lifetime eligibility. In the state of Washington, a similar policy that was recently enacted led to increased homelessness, out-of-home placements of children, and increased poverty. So, the House Committee on Human Services is particularly concerned about the evidence-based link between poverty and poorer outcomes for children. The committee is reviewing the Governor’s proposal and providing important scrutiny of the short- and long-term effects.  Testimony has included other suggestions for improving outcomes for families on Reach Up like addressing the most common barrier to employment – reliable transportation.

Combating Prescription Drug Abuse

Opioids may be among the world’s oldest known drugs, but they have recently sparked one of Vermont’s biggest problems: prescription drug abuse. Opioid addicts are becoming more adept at “doctor shopping,” procuring, and selling these powerful drugs – putting our communities and themselves at great risk.

The House Committee on Human Services is crafting a multi-layered, systemic response to opioid addiction by requiring a more effective use of the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) and implementing other safeguards and supports throughout the state. One element of the bill requires medical professionals to search the prescription drug database before issuing each prescription. This allows doctors, pharmacists, and other registered users to take note of a patient’s prescription history before recommending or dispensing a controlled substance. Even with these changes, a patient’s medical history would still remain private. In short, the Committee is considering sensible legislation that allows Vermonters access to legal medical use of prescription drugs, but makes it more difficult for abusers to gain unlawful access.

In addition, Vermont has begun implementing a “Hub and Spoke” System to provide care for individuals with opioid addictions. A “hub” is a specialty treatment center responsible for coordinating the care of individuals with complex addictions and co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions. It is designed to provide comprehensive assessments and treatment protocols; provide methadone treatment if appropriate; initiate buprenorphine treatment; and coordinate referral to ongoing care. A “spoke” is the ongoing care system comprised of physicians and other addictions professionals, including counselors. They will monitor adherence to treatment and coordinate access to recovery supports. One “Hub and Spoke” system in Chittenden County is in operation and the other four will begin operation in the near future.

Good Samaritans and Drug Addiction

Vermonters value savings lives and we want to encourage witnesses to a drug or alcohol overdose to seek medical assistance for the person who has overdosed.  Every year, about 52 people die from drug overdoses in Vermont.  Many of these overdoses are a result of opiate addiction and because of the potential criminal sanctions, many witnesses are reluctant to call 911.  The Judiciary Committee is working on a bill that is proposing to offer limited immunity from criminal and civil liability if medical assistance is sought during a drug overdose.  Also known as the Good Samaritan law, it is savings lives in 11 other states and at nearly 100 universities across the country.

 

Energy and Environment

Most Vermonters heat their homes with oil and other fossil fuels. This leaves us vulnerable to constant price increases, worsens our greenhouse gas emissions, and makes our homes less and less affordable. In the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, House bill 216 (H.216) aims to improve the thermal efficiency of our leaky housing stock. It bolsters low-income weatherization, takes steps to keep the price of oil as low as possible for people who receive heating assistance, and streamlines services for higher-income Vermonters who can more easily finance their retrofits. As the pace of home improvement picks up, we also anticipate local job growth for contractors, auditors, and other heating professionals. More to come.

Addressing the Governor’s Revenue Proposals

The Governor has laid out proposed budget priorities for the coming fiscal year that include increasing childcare subsidies, low-income heating assistance, and thermal efficiency funding. These priorities are laudable and in line with values of supporting Vermont families and protecting the environment. Deep concerns, however, have arisen because the Administration’s proposed funding sources for these priorities would negatively and solely affect low-income Vermonters and charitable organizations.

The first of the Administration’s proposals would cut $17 million from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to fund additional childcare subsidies. This would equate to an average loss of approximately $350, or 65% of the state EITC benefit, for almost 45,000 Vermonters to assist about 7,000 through expanded access to childcare. Research shows that the EITC is an effective anti-poverty measure that encourages work, provides a short-term safety net, and improves children’s school performance. The Ways and Means Committee is still looking into ways to support vital access to childcare with a more balanced funding approach.

The second major proposal from the Administration would tax break-open tickets at 10 percent of gross receipts to fund the low income heating assistance program (LIHEAP) and thermal efficiency. Break-open tickets are a pull-tab game that usually cost $1-2 each and serve as fundraisers for many local charitable organizations.  The Governor has argued that taxing each ticket sale at 10 percent would bring in approximately $17 million, but most estimates come in far lower.

While testimony has raised concerns about ensuring these ticket sales are effectively regulated, there is still skepticism that the proposed tax would bring in a significant amount as proposed in addition to growing belief that it would harm the fundraising efforts of important charitable organizations.

Are You Missing Money?

The State Treasurer’s Office has more than $57 million in unclaimed property.  Could some of this be yours?  Financial property becomes “unclaimed” after a business or non-profit entity loses contact with a customer for a period of years. Unclaimed property may include cash, checks, security deposits, refunds, stocks, bonds, bank accounts and estates. There is no charge to claim funds through the State Treasurer’s Office. Search at     www.MissingMoney.Vermont.gov or call (802) 828-2407

Commerce and Economic Development

The Commerce and Economic Development committee has had a most productive session to this point, passing out more bills than any other House committee. Steps have been taken to protect workers, to save trees, and promote economic development through self-employment assistance.

3a Captive Insurance:  Vermont is the clear leader among all states for the number of captive insurance businesses that are domiciled here, and the other states are anxious to chip away at our lead. One of the things that some states have done to try to reduce our lead is to intentionally misapply a portion of the Dodd-Frank act to force captive companies to re-locate to their home state or face double taxation. Our Congressional delegation is working to eliminate this practice, and we have now passed a resolution in favor of our captives to support their efforts.

3b Saving time and money while reducing paper:  Those who go before the Public Service Board find the amount of paper needed to file an incredible amount of information, nothing short of staggering.  In an effort to reduce that burden and to save trees, the Legislature is looking into allowing parties to file their information electronically.  In addition to ease, this step will allow citizens to follow the proceedings, adding a great deal of transparency and accessibility.

3c Injured Workers:  A current bill will help workers who have been injured collect their benefits through the use of electronic benefit cards. These cards will function like a debit card that insurance companies can “load” with weekly benefit amounts. This will be of great help to those workers who are “unbanked.”  Had this measure been in place in August of 2011, it would have been great help to the many Vermonters whose banks were closed by Tropical Storm Irene.

3d Helping the Unemployed Start a Business: Workers who are laid off from their jobs are able to collect unemployment insurance to help pay bills while they look for a new job. Some folks would like to take advantage of this involuntary “down time” to start their own businesses. The present system, however, does not allow for this.  The legislature has taken up a bill that would allow the Department of Labor to identify a small number of individuals to maintain benefits while working to start a new business and become self-employed.

Coming soon:  a bill to offer some relief to employers facing crushing Unemployment Tax costs following Tropical Storm Irene.

Vermont NEA Endorses Anne

Posted By on October 17, 2012

The Vermont NEA endorsement is given to incumbents who have a positive voting record on public education issues. Based on Anne’s stated commitment to and/or active support for public education, they have endorsed her 2012 candidacy for Vermont Representative.

100% on VPIRG’s 2012 scorecard

Posted By on October 17, 2012

VPIRG produces a scorecard of key votes at the conclusion of each legislative biennium.
You can use this year’s scorecard to find out how your representatives in the Vermont
House and Senate voted on VPIRG-backed legislation to promote clean energy, reduce
exposure to toxins, make health care more accessible and affordable and protect our
democracy. Legislators were scored based on whether or not their vote was in the public
interest. See page 2 to see how Anne voted alongside other Legislators.

http://www.vpirg.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/2012-Scorecard-Final.pdf

VSEA Endorsement

Posted By on October 15, 2012

Based upon her support of the Vermont State Employees’ Association’s legislative issues, the VSEA Board of Trustees, representing over 6,500 public sector workers in Vermont, voted to endorse Anne Mook’s candidacy at their Annual Meeting. The VSEA membership plays an active role in legislative races and participates in a wide range of “get out the vote” activities. The VSEA thanked Anne for her continued support of issues important to the VSEA membership and the Vermont labor community.

Sierra Club Endorsement

Posted By on October 12, 2012

 The Vermont Sierra Club is please to inform you that you have received our endorsement for the 2012 election. Because of your commitment to our environment, Vermont’s working families, and social justice, we are proud to stand by you in this year’s race!

David Van Deusen
Conservation Organizer
Vermont Sierra Club
(802)522-5812

Battle Day Parade 2012

Posted By on August 17, 2012

Anne Mook walks in the 2012 Bennington Battle Day Parade

End of Session Report 2012

Posted By on June 7, 2012

Dear Constituents, Friends and Family:  What an ending to the 2012 legislative session; at times, fast-paced and frenetic, but in the end, meeting some serious needs of Vermonters.  Any bill that is not signed by the Governor by this time will not automatically be carried into 2013; a new sponsor(s) must submit a new bill drafting request for the January 2013 session.

 

I will be submitting my petition in mid June to seek another term as your State Representative.  Mark your calendars… Primary Day is August 28 and the General Election is November 6.  As always, thank you for your continued support.    /s/  Anne 

 

The purchase of “Vermont Strong” license plates goes to the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund and Vermont Foodbank. Buy yours today at our DMV office!

 

“Listening Forums on Health Care” are being held around the state.  Bennington’s forum will be held on June 13th from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Bennington Firehouse on River Street.  What benefits would you like to have available in a health care plan?  This is your opportunity to offer your suggestions.

 

Flood Recovery & ResiliencyTropical Irene brought many changes to our state, physically and structurally.  The extraordinary efforts and cooperative spirit of community volunteers, our National Guard, regional commissions, and municipal governments are to be applauded.  Our losses were great. The damages to our roads and bridges were most visible to the public. The Agency of Transportation performed Herculean tasks.  Two critical building structures were among the losses — the state office building in Waterbury, and the Vermont State Hospital.  In Waterbury, with no offices available to the employees, the employees needed to be placed in offices around the state to work so services to Vermonters could continue.  Secondly, our Vermont State Hospital was so severely damaged that a plan for the patients’ relocation was immediate, and discussions to rebuild and where, were critical.

 

[Note: The State Hospital condition allowed the state to look at the delivery of mental services on a whole in the state, for now and into the future.  You will read about some of the conclusions.]

 

In last fall’s “off session”, a number of lawmakers returned early to Montpelier to get a handle on the action that was going to be needed for those Vermonters without homes, or jobs or resources.  Because of the lawmakers’ diligent work, legislation was ready for the start of the session in January.  For instance, the House Ways and Means Committee started by voting out legislation to abate the property taxes in affected flooded communities. In addition, the Governor appointed a Long Term Disaster Recovery Group to raise private money to assist homeowners who sustained damage. There were also early efforts to help coordinate public and private resources to help mobile home owners dispose of their destroyed property so they did not have to continue paying rent on their destroyed homes. As the legislative session progresses, bipartisan efforts continued to maximize support for affected towns. These included:

  • Delaying the local payment to the Education Fund by 90 days for cash-strapped Irene-affected towns to maintain their cash flow.
  • Authorizing reimbursement to towns to abate education property taxes for properties that were partially or fully destroyed and uninhabitable after Irene.
  • Putting $15 Million into the Emergency Relief Assistance Fund to hold harmless town tax rate increases over three cents for flood recovery work.
  • Creating 11 new transportation positions through FEMA funds assigned to help municipalities navigate accessing federal resources.
  • Passing a “Rivers Bill” that would bring Vermont communities into voluntary compliance with the National Flood Insurance Program standards and address issues that surfaced during Irene such as removal of debris, securing propane tanks, training for those working in our streams, and continued river assessment in flood prone areas.
  • Modest increases in DMV fees in order to assist the Agency of Transportation with the ongoing charge of rebuilding flood-damaged roads and bridges.
  • Increased lending capacity of the Vermont Economic Development Authority in order to help meet the needs of businesses as they recover.
  • Regulating activities in flood plains that are currently exempt from municipal review, such as agriculture, utilities, and transportation.
  • Authorization of $500,000 in refundable tax credits for properties in designated downtowns and village centers damaged by flooding this year.

 

FY 13 Budget

Developing a state budget is much more than numbers.  Putting a dollar sign in front of a number brings to life the policy we make in this Legislature.  Our budget affects peoples’ lives, provides the backbone of our civic life, and points us to a brighter future for all Vermonters.  The money and policy committees depend on each other for guidance as programs link with money to implement our goals.  Growing revenues from the slowly improving economy, past investments that saved us money, declining growth in Medicaid, and prudent use of disaster relief funds allowed us to make import investments.

 

Rebuilding Vermont after the 2011 weather events, accounted for nearly half of the budget increase.  These funds will be used to repair our roads and bridges; help rebuild infrastructure in flood-ravaged communities; revise Vermont’s mental health system following the closure of the Vermont State Hospital; and help Vermont mobile homeowners replace their flood-damaged homes.

 

Funds have also been allocated to improve community safety and law enforcement.  The budget funds an additional prosecutor and two forensic investigators to address the increasing evidence that people are trafficking in Internet-based child pornography in Vermont.  Local law enforcement will see additional funds to address the growing gang presence.  The full contingent of the Vermont State Police ranks is funded, and our courts will be open five days per week, once again.

 

Investments we have made in community:

Agencies – like VNAs and Area Agencies on Aging which will improve service to our elderly neighbors who choose their care in community settings.

Services for graduating students with developmental disabilities.

Funding for model addiction recovery will help do away with waiting lists for opiate addiction and better coordinate addiction services.

 

This year’s budget invests in substantial improvement to the State’s technology infrastructure, some of which is over thirty years old.  This long overdue modernization of our computer systems is critical for effective and timely delivery of services, transparency of how Vermont’s money is spent, and collecting valid data with which to make informed decisions.

 

As good stewards of taxpayer money, it was determined that any surplus money at the end of the year  will be divided as:  half will be sent to the Education Fund to relieve property taxes,  one-quarter will go to a true “rainy day fund;” and the last quarter will cover federal cuts to the state.

 

Vermonters will see a balanced budget that provides for the essential services of state government while saving money to address an uncertain future.

 

 

 

The Capital Bill reflects investment in state buildings

Recently the Bennington state office building opened.  It is the Institutions Committee (through investments in previous Capital Bills) that made the commitment to renovate, and re-build this structure.  Thank you to the House and Senate Institutions Committees – for your investment in keeping a state office building in southwestern Vermont. 

 

This year’s Capital Bill was designed to invest in our recovery from Irene.  Funds were allocated to the creation of a new system of mental health care to replace the Vermont State Hospital, which I previously mentioned was destroyed due to flooding. Funds were dedicated to the restoration and re-use of part of the Waterbury State Office Complex. These investments will improve the future delivery of services to Vermonters and the effective fulfillment of government functions on their behalf.  Together we will be able to use these facilities to care for Vermonters who need help, to keep our communities safe, and to ensure the efficient operation of state government.

Mental Health System of Care.   Capital Bill funds were allocated to the relocation or replacement of services previously provided at Vermont State Hospital. This will include the establishment of a 14-bed unit for acute care at the Brattleboro Retreat and 6 beds at the Rutland Regional Medical Center. A new 25 bed facility in Central Vermont will also be funded for planning and construction. All of these projects are part of the recently adopted Mental Health System plan for statewide care in facilities and in our communities.

Waterbury State Office Complex.  Large sections of the Waterbury State Office Complex will be renovated and re-used. Some of the buildings that were most heavily damaged and closest to the river will have to be torn down, and some buildings close to the street may be transferred into private or municipal ownership. The line of the oldest buildings across the front of the complex will be flood proofed, and renovated for state use. Flood mitigation measures will be undertaken for all structures and in the floodplain areas near the river. Eventually, approximately 700 employees will come back, so that together with the Department of Public Safety and Forensic Lab employees there will be about 900 state workers at Waterbury.

 

Health Care Exchange

The Legislature took an important step forward in moving toward a health care system that provides the best care possible for all Vermonters. The combination of the Federal Affordable Care Act and the new state law passed will give many of us access to better insurance plans at more affordable prices. The Health Benefit Exchange is due to be in full operation starting in 2014.

 

This new marketplace will be good for our families because we will be able to compare health insurance products and define the type of health care coverage that best fits our family’s health care and financial needs. The Federal Affordable Care Act also provides for significant tax breaks for most Vermonters who purchase insurance here. These tax breaks will make good coverage more affordable.

 

“Listening Forums on Health Care” are being held around the state.  Bennington’s forum will be held on June 13th from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Bennington Firehouse on River Street.  What benefits would you like to have available in a health care plan?  This is your opportunity to offer your suggestion .

 

Redistricting: It happens every 10 years!  This process began with six public hearings conducted across the different regions of the state followed up by extensive testimony within the State House.  The Legislature set goals to honor the overwhelming sentiment from the public: to make as few changes to districts as were necessary, avoid splitting towns and villages, and make the process as transparent as possible.  By constitutional mandate and state statute, reapportionment must maintain equality of representation as nearly as is practicable based on the 2010 U.S.  census numbers.  Difficult decisions were made to balance these goals.  Because population in Vermont has shifted northward, Burlington’s population warranted an additional seat, and thusly, the elimination of a seat from an area of the state with population decline.  Fifty districts had absolutely no change, except perhaps for district name.

 

Why is redistricting so important?  It affects where you vote and who represents you in Montpelier, as each state representative represents approximately 4,172 individuals (+/- deviation).  It is not a change in school districts or town borders.  Bennington did not see a drop in population and therefore, there are no changes in the lines of districts Bennington #2-1 or #2-2.  In the past, sections of Bennington had been sliced off to add population to an adjacent town that was low on population.  It did not happen this year, so this format will remain as is for the next 10 years.

 

S. 106 Miscellaneous Bill - became the host bill for several bills at the end of session.  It included the Search & Rescue (H. 794) bill, the Embezzlement bill (S. 152) and an EMS bill.

 

The Search and Rescue section establishes interim protocols for search and rescue which will stay in place until further legislative action.  Under the interim protocols, local search and rescue operations will:

  • Use the incident command system;
  • Respond immediately to every call, in consultation with the state police search and rescue team;
  • Attempt the earliest possible rescue or recovery of every person in need of help;
  • Call upon the individuals and organizations capable of helping listed in the search and rescue database
  • Receive more training from the Criminal Justice Training Council.

In addition, a search and rescue strategic plan committee will convene leaders from all participating agencies to further examine our current approach, suggest improvements, and report back to the Legislature by Dec. 15, 2012.  [Note:  this bill is in response to a tragedy that occurred in 2011 in the Ripton/Lincoln area, and the lack of uniformity of search/rescue procedures throughout the state.]

 

The Embezzlement section of S. 106 is in response to the increase number of embezzlements throughout Vermont.  As passed it authorizes the State Auditor to create an internal controls checklist and provide education to county, municipalities and school district personnel who receive or disburse funds. [The same procedures can be installed for non-profits and businesses as well.   For example – the person who signs the checks should not be the same individual who rectifies the bank statement.] The document is designed to determine that financial controls are in place to assure proper use of all public funds.  The legislative bodies of these organizations must receive and review the checklist and insure sound systems of internal financial controls are in place.  Treasurers must file quarterly reports with the select board or school board regarding his or her actions.   Good working internal controls can be very effective in creating an atmosphere in which it is difficult to create this crime.

 

EMS (Emergency Medical Services): This section addressed licensing and the credentialing of EMS workers, to be established by rule.  Establish response time standards for urban and rural areas – also recognizing there are volunteer and career EMS personnel.

 

Miscellaneous Municipal items: additions or deletions in some of the following subjects:  damage caused by dogs, abatements, enforcements of civil ordinance violations, filing of land plats, unused clean energy development fund money available for Vermont village green renewable energy projects.

 

Vermont’s Working Landscapes:  Recognizing that Vermont’s most reliable assets are our people, our natural resources and our brand, the Working Lands bill will stimulate economic development; encourage entrepreneurism and job creation in agriculture and the forest products industry.   A new group, the Working Landscapes Enterprise Board, will implement policy, make determinations on funding and resources for those who want to start up, expand, or branch out in agriculture and forestry.  The board will consider enterprise grants, infrastructure investments, capital for a business’ growth phase, and business planning and startup help, as well as provide wraparound services, technical assistance and financial packaging. Available funds may be leveraged through private funders and foundations. This is a transformational piece of legislation.  If Vermont still has vibrant agricultural and forest activity in 20 years, it will have been because of the work started this year.

 

GMO labelingVermonters care about food and care about choice.  Today 80% of all packaged foods sold in this country are products of genetic engineering, yet it is extremely difficult for Vermonters to make informed choices about these products because they are not labeled, or are mislabeled as “natural.”  This is a concern to many Vermonters and the impetus for the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Labeling bill.

 

Although no bill moved forward this year, action and testimony taken lays out a legally defensible case for a statewide labeling requirement of foods produced through genetic engineering. Most importantly, a record is being established and reviewed this summer to prove Vermont’s “legitimate state interest” for future enactment of these requirements. Based on testimony from dozens of expert witnesses, there is genuine cause for concern regarding the public health and environmental consequences of genetic engineering. Furthermore, reputable polling conducted by UVM indicates that nearly 97% of Vermonters favor labeling. There is increasing public concern and pressure around this issue nationwide, with numerous other states pursuing similar legislation. Expect to see a bill taken up for reconsideration in the next biennium.

 

Educational Leadership:  A most controversial bill this year was the decision of changing the governance of the Department of Education.  Vermont spends $1.5 billion each year on education. We have successful outcomes but many feel we can do better.  With a Secretary of Education (Vermont now has a Commissioner of Education) in the governor’s cabinet, he or she can convey a unified vision to deliver effective outcomes that improve the quality of education in our state. Every two years, the electorate can hold the governor accountable for Vermont students’ education metrics and the cost of delivering them. Furthermore, it is believed that our new education governance model will help us reduce the achievement gap, which costs our state in so many ways.

 

The Legislature passed a law this session enabling the governor to appoint a Secretary of Education beginning January 1, 2013. This bill elevates the Commissioner of Education to a cabinet level position and gives the governor authority to select a secretary from a pool of three candidates advanced by the Vermont Board of Education.  Permitting the state board to select candidates also provides a buffer against the politicization of education at the state level, and recommends to the governor candidates that have a background with strengths in educational management, policy and programs.

This legislation significantly increases transparency and accountability at the state level.  It will help Vermont administer statewide education policies more efficiently and allow decisions related to education to be made in the context of broader state priorities. It is the hope that with greater transparency and accountability, the importance of education policy will be elevated and put on par with other vital services administered by state and local government.

 

Treatment for Opioid Addiction:  Opioid addiction is a serious, growing problem within all communities;  ask any law enforcement official. It is a problem for both the individual who is addicted and for society at-large and is present in all age groups and all socio-economic levels of society. Providing adequate and appropriate treatment is imperative. H. 627 authorizes the Department of Health to establish a regional system of opioid addiction treatment sometimes referred to as the Hub and Spoke Initiative. In this initiative, an individual will receive appropriate, comprehensive assessment to determine whether pharmacological treatment, which may include methadone, buprenorphine, and other federally approved medications, is medically appropriate. If it is available, then the individual will receive that treatment, if that person agrees to abide by certain rules of conduct. Helping a person overcome or legally manage an addiction is in the best interest of all of us.

 

Protecting Adults from Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation :  Older Vermonters and Vermonters who have disabilities are sometimes vulnerable to abuse, neglect and exploitation. Adult Protective Services (APS), in the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), investigates complaints about these issues. Advocates have been concerned that APS has not been adequately protecting these Vermonters.  To address this, the Legislature passed a bill to ensure these problems are thoroughly addressed.  H.290 required DAIL to collect and provide some very specific data to the Legislature to see how Vermonters are truly being protected. It also called for an independent evaluation of Adult Protective Services.  This bill was vetoed by the Governor.

 

Prohibition on Fracking:  Enhanced extraction of natural gas, called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is one of the issues to watch in 2012.  Although Vermont does not appear to have a good source of recoverable natural gas, there are some shale deposits in the northwest corner of the state that could be of interest for extraction in the future.  Hydraulic fracturing (differentiated from benign hydro-fracturing for well water) involves horizontal drilling at considerable depths and injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals.  Over the past 10 years, the use of fracking has grown about 3000% and many questions remain unanswered as to the effect on air and water quality and seismic activity.

 

During this session, the Legislature passed a bill making Vermont the first state in the nation to place a prohibition on fracking.  Over the next three years, the Agency of Natural Resources will be reviewing upcoming studies and putting rules in place to make sure Vermont’s  air and water are protected should the prohibition ever be lifted.

 

Affordable HousingIrene devastated mobile homes across Vermont. Since September, state agents have been working to find a way to increase affordable housing and access to new mobile homes. S.99 addresses these needs and provides the governor’s administration with the tools it needs to aid in the redevelopment of mobile home parks and alternative housing. S.99 also gives municipalities a new option in disposing of abandoned mobile homes and provides landlords with a definitive timeframe when disposing of unclaimed property after an eviction. Additionally, legislation was also passed this session that prohibits discrimination against affordable housing units in land use decisions, ensures homeowner safety in licensing of electricians, and creates a specialty license for renewable energy installers.

 

Vaccinations:  The tension between parental rights and public health came to a head in the form of the bill S. 199 which would have eliminated a parent’s right to opt out of a required vaccine for school on philosophical grounds. Our vaccine schedule is in place to protect the public from the threat of diseases like polio, measles and pertussis (whooping cough).  The philosophical exemption is in place to protect an individual’s freedom to decline a medical procedure for one’s child. The House Health Care Committee took a great deal of time understanding the actual immunization rates and concluded that there is currently no crisis that rises to the level of calling for the elimination of this basic parental right. Instead, the Legislature has passed a bill that calls for outreach and continued communication between parents and their school nurses with a goal to increase vaccination rates around Vermont. The Legislature was particularly concerned with making sure adequate protections are in place both for children who cannot be vaccinated and also for children with special health needs. Parents wishing to exempt their child from a vaccine will now need to sign off annually with their school nurse. The Department of Health will increase outreach into communities with lower vaccination rates and will collect more complete data about the use of exemptions.

 

Mutual Benefit Enterprise:  What is a mutual benefit enterprise?  When a group of producers who operate cooperatively such as farmers, artisans, crafters, or cheese makers want to build a production facility — so they can add value to their products — they will need capital.  If the producers do not have enough of their own capital, they can now seek investors who are not producers themselves.

Vermont’s new Mutual Benefit Enterprise structure allows producers, value-adders, and investors to come together for their mutual benefit in an enterprise that is protected from provisions of antitrust legislation.  This business form will allow Vermonters to capture more of the value from their farm and forest land, and will help these enterprises get the resources they need to grow their sales and their employment.

 

 Rivers:  Flooding events of 2011 not only changed Vermont’s physical landscape, the floods also brought a paradigm shift in how the state manages its water resources, which may help or hurt floodway resiliency.  Legislation passed this year will help us co-exist with our rivers and better coordinate with FEMA and federal assistance in the following ways:

  • Expand state assistance to communities and governmental units to comply with National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) requirements.
  • Support communities by providing model bylaws and ordinances to regulate development in waterways and floodways.
  • Assist municipalities with mapping to help identify flood hazard areas, river protection zones and areas sensitive to erosion.
  • Clarify authority and activity in rivers and streams under emergency conditions.
  • Create education and outreach to help emergency workers prepare and recover from flooding.  Simple changes in the type of activity in a river can have a profound affect on a river’s ability to stabilize, decrease future flooding and protect water quality and habitat.

 

Liquor and Catering:  Vermont’s beer, wine, and liquor manufactures are part of an exciting, burgeoning new industry. To support them, while also maintaining important protections, the Legislature made a number of small though valuable adjustments to state liquor laws. Restaurants that cater events will no longer need to seek out a separate catering license to serve alcohol; caterers who do not have a restaurant can apply for a license to sell wine and beer at their events. These changes simplify the regulations for businesses and those planning events alike. The Legislature also enabled vintners to deliver more of their own product to retailers and restaurants. Finally, this year’s legislation expands the Liquor Control Board from three to five members in response to a growing desire to have wider representation of regions and interests on the board.

 

Housing:  Mobile Homes Financing and Weatherization:  Housing that is affordable for modest income households consists mainly of older, non energy-efficient homes, and mobile homes.  The financing of mobile homes has been especially difficult and made more difficult by the 2011 flooding in Vermont.   The Legislature stepped in to help.  As a result, homeowners across our state will have access to new funding for weatherization, and mobile home owners will be eligible for tax incentives and financing help totaling $1.1 million, and will be able to form cooperative mobile home parks.

 

Military Affairs Issues

 Property Tax Exemption:  This year the Legislature was able to correct a longstanding wrong.  The property tax exemption benefit has only applied to those veterans disabled while serving in a war or while overseas.  Soldiers who are 50% disabled as a result of service incurred stateside or during peacetime will now be eligible for the property tax exemption benefit.

Clarification of health care coverage:  Health care became an issue for several Guard members.  This resulted when a Guard member was called up for less than thirty days.  They now can keep their pre-existing insurance coverage.  Once thirty days has passed, the State can start paying the employers’ share of healthcare costs, thus keeping seamless coverage for the entire family.

Housing allowances: The Guard’s deployment during Irene was a great success; however, this was the time soldiers had been deployed for more than 30 days and some glitches emerged.  National Guard members from out-of-state that helped the state recover, received housing allowances while our Vermont National Guard members did not.  Legislation passed this year will ensure that the next time our soldiers are called up under state service, they will receive the same housing allowance that they receive when they are called up for federal service.  The housing allowance recognized that the soldier is foregoing civilian pay and needed to pay rent or mortgage back home.

“Next of Kin” license platesUntil recently, a Vermont family was not eligible for a Gold Star license plate unless the Vermont soldier was killed in combat. The Legislature sought to bestow similar dignity and respect upon  families who have lost family members in non-combat situations. This year, we passed legislation issuing a special “Next of Kin” license plate to family members who have lost soldiers serving honorably in non-combat active duty.  Vermont joins 30 other states in honoring these “Next of Kin” families.

 

Sixteen Year Olds May Donate Blood:  Getting a blood transfusion can literally save an individual’s life. We often hear that the blood supply is dangerously low. By increasing the pool of possible donors, the needed supply of blood will be maintained. This bill allows sixteen year olds to donate blood if they meet the criteria of the organization conducting the blood drive. High schools often host blood drives and by allowing more high school students to start giving blood during those years, it not only increases the blood supply then, but may also increase the likelihood that those students form a life-long habit of giving blood.

 

Judiciary: 

Criminal records – What if you did something incredibly stupid and irresponsible as a youth, or just had a low-level drug possession charge, and now have a criminal record as a result?  What if you have lived a stellar life ever since, but because of your record, have difficulty obtaining a job or professional licensure?  We believe people deserve a second chance.  As of July 1, 2012, if you were convicted of a non-violent misdemeanor years ago, have gone at least 10 years without new charges and paid any restitution owed, you can apply to have your record expunged or sealed.  If the court agrees to expunge or seal your record, you may lawfully claim not to have a criminal record.  We believe this will help those people who have turned their lives around since a youthful indiscretion.

 

The most common non-violent misdemeanor charge in Vermont is driving without a license .  Nearly 38,000 licenses are suspended and about 60% (23,000) of these suspensions (DLS) are for failure to pay fines and for accumulation of points, resulting in situations hard for many people to extricate themselves from. After July 1, the department of motor vehicles, diversion boards and the judicial bureau will begin notifying people of their eligibility to enter in to a diversion contract in order to clear their driving records.  This should take some pressure off the courts and save tax dollars.  The diversion program for DLS will also get people back on track with our legal system.

 

Universal Recycling and Solid Waste:  Vermont has only two landfills, and soon will have only one in the very near future. It is imperative to reduce the quantity of waste currently going to landfills. H. 485 takes the first step to achieving universal recycling in Vermont, which not only diverts waste from our limited landfill space, but also provides significant economic development opportunities. Specifically, H.485 sets a schedule to ban recyclable material from landfills statewide, and then phases in recycling of yard waste and other organic materials such as food scraps. There are tiered implementation dates from July 2014 to July 2020. Solid waste facilities, trash haulers, and individuals have compliance target dates that allow for education and smooth transition.

 

Transportation:  Our State Infrastructure:  Vermont’s transportation budget invests in restoring and providing a safe transportation system.  The administration has proposed one of the largest transportation budgets in history – $658 million in 2013 – that seriously addresses neglected infrastructure needs as well as challenges presented by Irene.

Some highlights from this year’s transportation budget:

  • For the first time in nearly a decade, the number of miles of highway rated ‘very poor’ condition has decreased to 25%.
  • The $104 million proposed for paving in 2012 will continue to increase the better condition rating of our roads.
  • The 2012/13 budget for bridges is at record high of $123 million with the Champlain Bridge already completed. From 2010 to now, the number of ‘structurally deficient‘ bridges has come down from 16% to 9% – moving Vermont up from 42nd place ranking to 29th among other states.