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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.



State Legislators Oppose Fast Track of Trade Bill

I issued the following Press Release on Monday, June 8,2015:

STATE REPRESENTATIVES URGE CONGRESS TO REJECT FAST TRACK AUTHORITY WHEN U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES  TAKES UP CONTROVERSIAL TRADE BILL

Secret trade negotiations threaten state sovereignty and policies promoting renewable energy and
state-based climate solutions, GMO labeling, pollinator protections

Several Vermont state legislators joined environmental leaders from legislatures across the nation
urging a vote against so-called “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority legislation now pending in
Congress. This controversial legislation would put into place for six years a speeded-up process for
approving any trade deals negotiated by current and future presidents, requiring a simple up or down vote without amendments.

Trade agreements that would be covered by fast track include the 12-nation Trans-Pacific
Partnership (TPP) encompassing 36 percent of global GDP – by far the biggest trade agreement the
U.S. has ever negotiated - as well as an agreement with the European Union, the Trans-Atlantic
Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These trade deals go far beyond traditional trade
agreements that simply lowered tariffs, and would include sweeping provisions aimed at
“disciplining” local, state and federal policies viewed as “trade irritants”.

 Vermont legislators that signed on to the letter include Chittenden County Senator Ginny Lyons,
Representatives Steve Berry (Manchester), David Deen (Putney), Patsy French (Randolph), Helen
Head (South Burlington), Warren Kitzmiller (Montpelier), Amy Sheldon (Middlebury), Mary
Sullivan (Burlington), and Michael Yantachka (Charlotte).  The legislators’ letter (posted here:
http://www.ncel.net/articles/State%20Leg.%20Fast%20Track%20Letter.pdf) raises concerns both
about the extreme secrecy of these trade negotiations and likely provisions that threaten state
sovereignty and could chill future legislation by allowing corporations to challenge state laws and
seek multimillion-dollar damage payments, using a trade arbitration process that side-steps state and federal courts.  The Vermont House and Senate both passed a joint resolution, J.R.H.12 (Act R-230), during the 2013 session opposing the TPP and the fast track process.

 While virtually every investor group is well represented among the US Trade Representative's more than 600 ‘citizen’ advisors, almost no legislators are, yet these agreements can put at risk important state initiatives including clean energy policies and environmental regulations. Even under existing trade agreements including NAFTA, local and state policies such as bans on chemicals, environmental permitting decisions and tobacco regulations have faced challenges. Just this month [May 2015], the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that U.S. country-of-origin food labels for meat violate trade rules, and the U.S. House Agriculture Committee has already voted to repeal the law. Legislators are concerned that GMO and toxic chemical labeling laws in the states could be threatened next under trade deals such as the TPP that go beyond WTO rules.

 The fast track bill passed the U.S. Senate on the eve of the Memorial Day recess and may be
considered by the U.S. House of Representatives in the next days or weeks. Vermont's Senators
Leahy and Sanders and Congressman Welch are on record opposing fast track for the TPP.  The
Representatives support the state’s federal delegation in rejecting fast track, so that each trade
agreement can be considered on its merits as it is negotiated, with sufficient opportunity for the
public as well as members of Congress to fully review complex text and assess any impacts on state
and national environmental laws.

Legislative Report 6/4/2015 - 2015 Legislative Session Wrap-Up

As a final installment in my Legislative Reports, I thought it would be good to highlight some of the best work the legislature did as well as point out some areas where we need to do more.


Water Quality
With cooperation and input from Vermont's agricultural community, we passed legislation that will help prevent agricultural runoff from small farms by controlling discharges that could violate our water quality standards. New farmer education and training requirements have been adopted. Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) will become Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) that all farms must follow. The Agency of Agriculture will provide technical assistance to help farmers comply and access financial resources to support necessary alterations.


Public Safety
The Legislature made considerable progress in fortifying the safety of our citizens this year. We strengthened the sex offender registry requirements, ensuring that convicted sex offenders report updated information to the Department of Public Safety prior to release from a correctional facility. Our groundbreaking “Revenge Porn” bill made it a crime to disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals without their consent and with the intent to harm. We helped law enforcement combat drug trafficking by modifying rules related to the forfeiture of assets used in perpetrating certain crimes. While we failed to require background checks for all firearms purchases in Vermont, we did manage to prohibit under Vermont law violent felons from owning firearms and we required courts to submit the names of those whom a judge has deemed to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).


Child Protection
The deaths of two children because of abuse last year required an effective response by both the administrative and legislative branches. In the past year, prosecutors and the judiciary have seen an increase in the number of petitions filed for both children in need of supervision and termination of parental rights. No single agency or system can keep all children safe from harm. Child protection is a community responsibility requiring collaboration among the various departments within DCF, families, the courts, treatment providers, other stakeholders, and the public. Legislation that we passed this session requires better communication between these stakeholders, clarifies and strengthens the mandatory child abuse reporting law, focuses on the best interests of children rather than a rigid placement hierarchy, and enhances the penalties for those who harm children with death or serious bodily injury resulting.


Energy Transformation
Over the past decade, Vermont has led the nation with its energy efficiency programs, lowering both electricity costs and rates. With this year’s Renewable Energy Standard law, we will help Vermonters transform their energy use in the heating and transportation sectors. The law will encourage a shift in these sectors from fossil fuels to clean electricity, reduce carbon emissions, and save Vermonters money. As envisioned under this law, homes will be well insulated and tightly sealed; appliances and heat sources, such as air source heat pumps, will be highly efficient; electric vehicles will harness local sources of clean energy and reduce carbon-emissions in transportation. Solar and other forms of renewable electricity will provide the clean power to replace fossil fuel energy and reduce transmission and distribution costs for all Vermonters.


Education
Vermont’s public schools enrollment has declined for nearly two decades. Since 1997, public schools in Vermont are down more than 24,000 pupils, but staffing levels have remained relatively constant, and education spending and taxes have continued to climb. The Education System Reform legislation passed this year attempts to address the problem of student population decline and rising costs by promoting district consolidation while improving student access to the education they need to succeed in tomorrow's economy. Another focus of cost reduction is teacher health insurance. A working group led by the Director of Health Care Reform will be formed to consider alternatives available to school districts, supervisory unions, and their employees to address the high cost of health care and recommend options that will avoid triggering the federal tax on high-cost, employer-sponsored insurance plans (referred to as the “Cadillac Tax”). Among other options, the Director is required to consider the possibility of transitioning to plans offered through Vermont Health Connect, the Vermont Education Health Initiative, and other means. While these moves are in the positive direction, the property tax burden of funding education has not changed. Several proposals for alternative funding are still being considered, but they will have to wait until next year.


Budget Reform
While the legislature always passes a balanced budget, the approach the budget committee took this year was a significant step toward bending the growth in state spending and creating long-term budget sustainability. This session, we made significant progress in reducing the rate of increase in Corrections, Buildings and General Services, and Public Safety budgets. Continuing reductions in federal support, growing demand for services and investment in public infrastructure, and slower economic growth has spurred the Legislature to adopt five new fiscal goals:

1. Reduce reliance on the use of “onetime” money.
2. Move toward budgeting less than 100% of projected revenue.
3. Include assessment of future year costs as part of assessing programs and budget proposals.
4. Explore moving to a two-year budget process.
5. Expand the use of Results Based Accountability measurements throughout state government.


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

House speaker Shap Smith Discusses 2015 Session

Vermont Speaker of the House Shap Smith appeared on the June 1st segment of the Chittenden county Democrats Show to discuss the results of the past session, including the budget, Vermont Health Connect and other topics.  The show, which features interviews with office holders and others airs on CCTV Channel 17, Burlington's community access television station on the first Monday of the month unless pre-empted by other programs.  Hosted by Chittenden County Democratic Treasurer Bob Hooper and State Representative Mike Yantachka of Charlotte, the show offers an opportunity for callers to question guests on topics of current interest.  This segment can be viewed online here.

Legislative Report 5/20/2015 - End of Session

Remember the Rubik's Cube? I always had a hard time solving that 3D, 3-axis puzzle. The last week of the legislative session seemed like trying to solve a giant Rubik's cube of legislation. Fourteen bills were assigned to Committees of Conference because the House and Senate could not agree on details in the versions each chamber passed. In addition to those bills, the Immunization bill (H.98), the Water Quality bill (H.35) and the Energy bill (H.40) still had not been settled.

Early in the week the House Health Care Committee took a couple more days of impassioned testimony on whether to retain the philosophical exemption or to remove it before finally bringing it to the full House for a vote. The hours-long debate on the floor reflected the range of opinions heard in testimony. Several amendments were offered before the House voted to remove that exemption while retaining the religious and medical exemptions. The 85 to 57 vote crossed party lines as individual legislators made up their own minds on the legislation. Following the decision on vaccine exemptions, the House voted quickly to concur with the Senate on proposed amendments to the Water Quality bill, which will put Vermont on the path to reducing phosphorous runoff into its lakes and streams.
 
By Friday afternoon most of the conference committees reported agreement on all but the Budget, Revenue, Health Care, and Education bills, and the Senate was still debating amendments to the Energy bill. Earlier in the afternoon we passed the very important Child Protection bill (S.9) which requires any mandated reporter who reasonably suspects abuse or neglect of a child to report it to Department of Children and Families instead of to a superior, and it improves cross-agency communication for child welfare cases. Typical of the "hurry up and wait" character of the session's final days, the House was repeatedly recessed to await updates on the status of conference committee negotiations.
 
Friday evening we received from the Senate its amendments to the Energy bill, and the House quickly concurred in its passage. The Senate left the provisions adopted by the House and added provisions regarding siting of solar energy projects. They include giving municipalities automatic party status in Public Service Board hearings, defining minimum setback requirements, and allowing municipalities to define screening requirements. Passage of this bill satisfies the objections Connecticut and Massachusetts had regarding Vermont's double-counting of renewable energy credits (RECs) and avoids the loss of $50M in annual revenue for our utilities, thereby avoiding a potential 6% increase in electric rates.
 
Saturday brought the passage of the Education bill and the Health Care bill. The Health Care bill had been trimmed back considerably because of an inability to agree on funding. What remained was a 33 cent/pack cigarette tax increase and subjecting soda to the 6% sales tax. The package contains $3.2 million in new state health care spending, which is eligible for roughly another $3 million from federal matching funds. The money will be used to level-fund Vermont Health Connect subsidies for out-of-pocket costs, target increases to Medicaid rates, and invest in initiatives to strengthen the primary care system.
 
As late as Saturday afternoon negotiations were still going on among the House and Senate leadership and the Governor regarding how the agreed upon budget would be funded. $53M in program cuts had been agreed upon with the expectation that $30M in additional revenues would have to be found. This represents $3M more in cuts and $5M less in revenues than originally passed by the House. Finally, around 10 PM the final agreements were made and the House gave final approval to the Budget. After the traditional speeches from the leaders of the Progressive, Republican and Democratic parties, the Speaker of the House, and the Governor, the session was gavelled to a close just before 11 PM.
 
I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 5/13/2015 - The Home Stretch

By the time this article is published the legislature will be within a day or two of adjourning. It's a time of hurry-up and wait for some of us who are on committees that have finished as much work as they will do this session. I spent a good part of last week in the vaccine hearings. Other committees dealing with tough issues or which are finalizing work on Senate bills are still going at it. The legislature began the week a day early on Monday in an effort to finish by this Friday or Saturday.

Some of the bills which have made it through both the House and Senate with differences that could not be resolved have been assigned to conference committees. These committees consist of three members of the House and three members of the Senate who will meet to negotiate a version of the bill that all six can agree on. This compromise version will then go before both bodies for an up or down vote. No amendments will be allowed. Two bills which must be passed before adjournment, the Budget and the Revenue bills, have been assigned to conference committees that will have to work together to come up with a balanced budget.

Several important House bills will have been voted on by the Senate this week including the Water Quality bill (H.35) and the Energy RESET bill (H.40). I consider these must-pass bills because the first is necessary to begin effectively controlling the phosphorous pollution going into Lake Champlain and the second is necessary to avoid a 6% increase in electric rates that will result from policy changes by Connecticut and Massachusetts if the bill doesn't pass. I have written articles, which can be found on my website, on both of these bills.

Last week saw the passage of several bills by the House. S.44 establishes a Universal Children’s Savings Account Program in Vermont. The bill creates a special fund that would provide every Vermont child with college savings account funded with $250 at birth. VSAC will administer and manage the program, including working with private foundations, philanthropists and other donors to fund the accounts. VSAC will also work with families and children to provide financial counseling, education, and support. Children of low-income families may receive additional initial deposits if the money is available. Families will be invited to match contributions and participate in savings programs. 

Another bill, H.355, establishes a licensing requirement for professional Foresters. Some landowners have been harmed as a result of their dealings with persons claiming to be foresters. Currently, Vermont and Rhode Island are the only New England states that do not have forester licensing. By licensing the profession through the Secretary of State's office, this measure will help landowners by ensuring that foresters have a minimum level of education and qualification for practicing forestry in Vermont, will promote continuing education in the forestry field, and will provide a basic level of credibility and accountability for the profession.

Finding money unexpectedly is always a nice surprise. So, let me once again note that there are hundreds of listings for Charlotters at the State Treasurer's Unclaimed Property database which can be accessed at http://www.vermonttreasurer.gov/unclaimed-property. Check it out and see if you might be among the lucky listings. Other states have similar lists, so if you've ever lived someplace other than Vermont, you might try those places as well.

I continue to welcome your feedback on issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).