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Note: Blog posts entitled "Legislative Report" have been published in The Charlotte News, and those entitled "The Word in the House" have been published in The Citizen.

Legislative Report 5/30/2018 - Missed Opportunities

The legislative process is both deliberate and deliberative. Bills do not get passed without a considerable amount of testimony from stakeholders on every side of an issue and discussion among the members of a committee comprised of Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, and Independents. Bills that are introduced are often modified significantly by the time they are voted out of committee and sent to the floor for consideration by the entire body of either the House or the Senate. Once the bill gets to the other chamber, the process is repeated. So, a lot of thought goes into a bill to ensure that it is a solid piece of legislation that accomplishes the purpose intended.

That is why, after hearing the rhetoric that he wants to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters and improve affordability, it is disappointing that the Governor has decided to veto four bills that address those issues. Two of the bills, S.103 and S.197, would protect Vermonters from misuse of toxic chemicals and hazardous materials. The first would create an Interagency Committee on Chemical Management to evaluate chemical inventories in the state, identify potential risks to human health and the environment, and propose measures to address those risks. It also would require testing for potability of new water sources used for human consumption. The second would require businesses responsible for exposing employees or the public to toxic materials through intentional or unintentional releases to cover the cost of medical monitoring of exposed individuals. The PFOA contamination of the public water supply in the Bennington area demonstrates the need for such legislation to protect the health of Vermonters.

Two other vetoed bills, S.40 and H.196, directly address affordability concerns for low and middle income Vermonters. S.40, the minimum wage bill, would gradually increase the minimum wage in Vermont to $15 per hour over six years. This bill would assist more than 25,000 minimum wage adult, non-farm workers who often have to work more than one job to make ends meet. It would also have the benefit of putting more money into the local economy at the same time. The other bill, H.196, is the paid family leave bill. This bill would create a statewide insurance program that would allow an employee to take up to 12 weeks to care for a child or other family member during critical times of need, including childbirth, prolonged illness, and emergency situations. The program would pay 70% of the employee's average weekly wage and would be financed entirely by a 0.137 percent tax on employee wages. For a full-time, minimum wage worker, this would be 58 cents per week, or about 5.5 cents per week for every dollar per hour. This is a crucial benefit that smaller employers often cannot afford to provide but guarantees that some income is available during times of crisis or family necessity. If we want to make Vermont attractive for working families, raising the minimum wage and addressing flexibility for families to take care of each other is necessary.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report /Word in the House 5/16/2018 - Not Quite the End of the Session

The last two weeks of a legislative session are a whirlwind of activity. Dozens of bills that have been worked on during the previous 16 weeks of the session in both the House and the Senate reached final stages of passage. Most traveled back and forth between the two bodies as amendments were made to reflect the different concerns of the responsible committees. Twenty-eight bills this year required a conference committee made up of three representatives and three senators to resolve disagreements in language that couldn't be settled by amendments. 

The budget is the final bill passed in a session. Any bill that was still outstanding when the budget passed would be dead. As the session ended just after midnight Sunday morning, we managed to complete all of those bills as well as many more. The bills included raising the minimum wage, providing paid family leave, establishing toxic materials responsibility, protecting sexual harassment victims, funding clean water efforts, setting appliance efficiency standards, helping Vermont manufacturers improve energy efficiency and productivity, providing free tuition for National Guard members, several consumer protection and economic development bills, and an income tax reform and education funding bill as well as the budget.

Our legislative agenda reflected in the bills we passed promote a caring economy that makes Vermont more affordable for lower and middle income families, protects all Vermonters from various social and environmental impacts, and provides opportunities for economic growth. While we did not adopt the Governor's proposal for using one-time money to keep our education property taxes from increasing, the funding changes made by the legislature will hold the residential property tax rate increase to two cents in a sustainable way that avoids the need to find one-time money again next year. One-time money is just that. There’s no guarantee that it will be there next year, which just defers a tax increase. Instead, this year's one-time money will be used to pay for one-time expenses like fully funding our reserves and paying down the teachers' retirement fund obligation saving Vermont taxpayers $100M in future budgets. Our income tax changes will return $30M in extra tax revenue generated by the federal income tax changes back to Vermonters by lowering the income tax rates for everyone. Overall state spending increased less than 1 percent, significantly lower than the rate of inflation. Here are links to the details of the tax changes and to the budget.

Unfortunately, the Governor has stated that he plans to veto the budget as well as several other bills that address affordability and the health and welfare of Vermonters. The budget passed with a tri-partisan vote of 117 – 14. If he does carry out his veto promise, he will have to call the legislature back into session. There have been plenty of opportunities for the administration to engage with the legislature to work out a compromise, but that didn't happen. Now we are faced with the additional expense of an extended session.

Finally, I would like to make a correction. It was called to my attention that in my previous article about the minimum wage bill, I reference some total wage numbers that seemed to be based on different assumptions. The $15/hour total should have been $31,200 based on the same 40 hours/week and 52 weeks/year used for $10.50/hour.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 5/2/2018 - A Case for Raising the Minimum Wage

We are now in the last weeks of the 2018 legislative session. Barring any surprise demands by the Governor or legislators, like the call for passing a taxing and regulating marijuana sales that occurred last week, we should be finished by mid-May. There are a number of important bills that we continue to deal with before we pass the budget and adjourn. One of these bills is the Minimum Wage bill (S.40), which was passed by the Senate and has been studied for several weeks by the House General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee.

The current Vermont minimum wage is $10.50/hour which became effective on January 1, 2018. The bill under consideration would continue increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2024, about a 75 cent increase per year on average, starting at 60 cents in 2019. The minimum wage exemptions would remain the same, including for students under age 18, agricultural workers, nannies/babysitters, newspaper deliverers, and employees of nonprofits that receive state funds. The bill would also adjust state child care subsidies to account for the minimum wage increases in order to maintain those benefits for low wage workers with children.

So, why do we need to keep raising the minimum wage since Vermont has one of the highest minimum wages in the northeast? The simple answer is that for a large number of people, it is simply not enough to live on. Governor Scott has talked repeatedly about making Vermont more affordable and protecting the most vulnerable. For the approximately 25,000 Vermonters who work one or more minimum wage jobs, it is still too hard to pay for the basic necessities of supporting their families. For single parents making minimum wage, there are repercussions for their children as well. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) of all minimum wage earners in Vermont, 62% work full time, 88% are at least 20 years old with an average age of 38, 56% are women, and 22% have children. On average, those with families earn 55% of their family's total income. A person working 40 hours per week at the current minimum wage makes about $21,840/year, slightly above the federal poverty level for a three person family. However, according to the EPI study, a modest but adequate standard of living in Vermont for one adult without children costs about $32,000/ year, including housing, food, transportation, taxes and health care. With children, necessitating child care, the costs are even higher. At $15/hour, the 2024 target, a full-time minimum wage job would pay $31,200*, which would no longer be a poverty-level wage.

Objections to raising the minimum wage revolve around the increased costs to business, the potential loss of jobs, and economic impacts. Most minimum jobs are in the service sector of the economy. In the first year, a full-time employee's earnings would increase $1250, a cost to the employer. This cost would presumably be passed on to consumers. However, the increased income would also be spent, thereby injecting more money into the local economy. The impact on jobs would be minimal compared to the increase in wages. Moreover, the high turnover rate seen in minimum wage jobs may be reduced thereby saving employers training costs. The EPI study estimates that while 2% of low wage jobs would be lost, 98% of low wage workers would benefit. Overall, the economy would benefit from raising the minimum wage gradually over several years while improving the affordability factor for those who need it most.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

*Note: The original publication of this article incorrectly had $26,500 as the annual income at $15/hour for a full time job.

Legislative Report 4/18/2018 - A Profile in Courage

n 1957, three years before he was elected President, Senator John F. Kennedy wrote his best-selling book Profiles in Courage. In it he described events in the lives of eight U.S. Senators who bravely cast votes in defiance of their party and public opinion, thereby jeopardizing their chances for re-election. These were acts of personal integrity that they believed were the responsible thing to do in those circumstances. I was privileged to witness a similar act of courage on the front steps of the Vermont Statehouse this past Wednesday. At 2:00 in the afternoon, Governor Scott, accompanied by his wife, stood at a podium with news cameras, legislators and members of the public both in support and against the action he was about to take: signing three bills that would impose regulations on gun sales, prohibit certain gun accessories, and provide law enforcement with the authority to confiscate guns when responding to domestic violence incidents and under court order from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.

The scene in front of the statehouse was alive with tension as opponents dressed in hunter orange and carrying signs that read “One term Governor”, “Traitor” and “See you in court” vied with signs saying “Thank you Governor Scott” and “March for our Lives.” As the Governor stood at the podium, he was greeted with chants of “Traitor! Traitor!” which were countered by chants of “Thank you! Thank you!” He began his speech over the shouting, speaking carefully, deliberately and directly to those in front of him. He endured constant interruption by opponents yelling their disagreement almost continuously during his speech while supporters clapped enthusiastically when he made points supporting his decision to sign the bills. At one point Governor Scott said, “I understand I may lose support over my decision to sign these bills today, but those are consequences I'm prepared to live with.” As I stood behind the Governor with dozens of my colleagues and members of the Governor's staff, I felt I was witnessing history in the making and an event that was clearly a profile in courage.

My positions on many issues differ from those of Governor Scott. We have different perspectives on issues like raising the minimum wage, finding a way to pay for cleaning up the waters of our state, and looking for a way to price in the true costs of fossil fuels while incentivizing conversion to renewable energy sources. On other issues, like the opioid crisis or helping businesses use energy more efficiently, the Governor and the legislature have been able to work collaboratively toward a common goal. It is my hope that differences can be overcome to achieve results that benefit Vermont and Vermonters. Governor Scott is correct in saying that “public safety is the top priority of any government.” He should not become a one-term Governor simply because he did the right thing to improve the safety of Vermont citizens.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Statement on Gun Regulation Bill Signing Ceremony of 4/12/18

I was privileged to witness the bill signing ceremony on the front steps of the Vermont Statehouse this past Wednesday for three pieces of legislation: S.55, a universal background check bill;
H.422, a domestic violence bill; and S.221, a “red flag” bill. These bills impose regulations on gun sales, prohibit certain gun accessories, and provide law enforcement with the authority to confiscate guns when responding to domestic violence incidents and under court order from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.

Governor Phil Scott, accompanied by his wife, stood at a podium before news cameras, legislators, and members of the public, both for and against the action he was about to take. He began his speech over the shouting of opponents, speaking carefully, deliberately and directly to those in front of him. Despite constant interruption by opponents, he spoke of the events and reasons for his decision to change his position regarding gun regulation in Vermont. At one point Governor Scott said, “I understand I may lose support over my decision to sign these bills today, but those are consequences I'm prepared to live with.”

I commend Governor Scott for his courage in taking this position. He is correct in saying that “public safety is the top priority of any government.” It is my hope that the Governor and the legislature will continue to work collaboratively together on the many challenges facing Vermont to achieve results that benefit Vermont and Vermonters.