Refugee Thanksgiving

The following op-ed appeared in the Burlington Free Press on Sunday, November 29, 2015.

The recent tragic attacks by terrorists in Paris and other places have created a sense of anxiety not only in Europe, which is dealing with tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, but among us Americans halfway around the world as well. This anxiety has unfortunately prompted a reaction by many prominent leaders and by a considerable segment of the public to demand that we close our doors to those refugees for fear that a terrorist will be among those we might admit.

I hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will reject such xenophobic attitudes. Failure to do so will make the refugees fleeing from ISIS violence double victims of the terrorists. Our humanity calls on us to put ourselves in the shoes of families who want nothing more than to find safety and shelter for their children just as we ourselves would do if faced with the same situation. Turning our backs on them would make us complicit in their victimization. For this reason I applaud President Obama, Secretary Kerry, our Congressional delegation and Governor Shumlin for doing our part in offering sanctuary.

Of course U.S. authorities will have to carefully vet the candidates for asylum, and I am convinced that they will be able to do so. According to the U.S. State Department Reception and Placement overview (, the process involves the United Nations, the United States, and local agencies. For each refugee the UN review takes one to 18 months to complete, including registration, comparison of personal information to other ID information, prioritization based on special circumstances such as torture victims, and qualification and determination for country placement. If UNHCR thinks the US is good fit, they send all the paperwork to US officials.

Once the US receives the paperwork, it can take up to another two years to process. Homeland Security does security checks and interviews refugees overseas, health screenings are conducted, and additional high-level security checks are made against all US law-enforcement databases. If approved, the US passes the case along to a local non-governmental resettlement agency to facilitate entry.

In the Placement and Resettlement process 9 domestic resettlement agencies meet and review biographic information and other case records from overseas Resettlement Support Centers weekly. These agencies match local communities (about 109 across the country) with specific resources to the incoming refugees. Communities must have interpreters, available housing, English classes, employment services, medical care, and schools that can accommodate the refugees. Refugees are met at the airport, taken to the provided housing, receive employment authorization, and are in touch with the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program for 3 months after arrival.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement office, which receives 300-350 refugees annually, has seen families come in from all over the world – Bosnia, the Congo, Malaysia, India, Iraq, Somalia, and Nepal. Out of the approximately 300 refugees Vermont accepts each year, on average 200 of them have been employable adults. This has been consistent for the last 5 years. The center has an 80% placement rate for employment and works with numerous businesses in Chittenden County to train and employ refugees. Out of the center's 13 full time equivalent employees, 11 are former refugees. Information about the center can be found on Facebook: Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program/USCRI.

So, as we count our blessings in Thanksgiving for this wonderful land we’ve been blessed to live in, let us remember that there, but for the grace of God and circumstance of birth, are we, and welcome into our community these refugees who want to begin a new life in freedom and safety.
- Rep. Mike Yantachka, Charlotte, VT

Interview with Jon Copans, Deputy Commissioner of the Public Service Department

The November edition of the Chittenden County Democrats Show featured Deputy Commissioner Jon Copans from the Vermont Department of Public Service. Jon talked to host Mike Yantachka about the role of the PSD in energy policy, the difference between the PSD and the Public Service Board (PSB) and the status and challenges of energy and telecommunications in Vermont. The interview can be seen here.

Recent Interviews with VT Treasurer Beth Pearce, States Atty TJ Donovan, Asst Judge Charley Delaney

The monthly Chittenden County Democrats Show is broadcast on Channel 17 CCTV in Burlington, VT, on the first Monday of each month unless pre-empted by a holiday or station programming.  It features local and state officials and leaders interviewed by hosts Bob Hooper, Treasurer of the Chittenden County Democratic Committee, and State Representative Mike Yantachka of Charlotte. The shows are broadcast live at 5:25 PM and can be streamed online in real time or viewed afterword at

Guests that appeared in recent months include VT Treasurer Beth Pearce on the July 6th show, Chittenden County States Attorney TJ Donovan on August 3rd, and Chittenden County Assistant Judge Charley Delaney on October 5th.

Treasurer Pearce discussed Vermont's current fiscal situation noting that Vermont's bond rating is AAA.  She also provided a status update on the state employees' and teachers' retirement funds.

States Attorney Donovan discussed his efforts at tackling the drug addiction problem and his focus on court diversion, the program that helps offenders avoid criminal prosecution by their involvement in reparative community service and counseling.

Assistant Judge Delaney discussed the role of "Side" Judges in the judicial system and county government.  Side judges also serve as county administrators and oversee the county budget.

The interviews can be seen below.

Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce    7/6/2015

States Attorney TJ Donovan    8/3/2015

Assistant Judge Charley Delaney    10/5/2015

State Legislators Oppose Fast Track of Trade Bill

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


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: 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.

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 (

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 (

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 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 (

Legislative Report 5/6/2015 - Difficult Decisions

Statue of Gov. Thomas Chittenden,
Vermont's 1st Governor
The legislature is in the final stretch of the session and instead of winding down, we seem to be winding up as bills dealing with some of the more difficult issues reach the floor. Differences of opinion seem to become more pronounced even as everyone strives to adhere to the rules of civil debate. Contention instead turns to use of parliamentary strategies such as amendments, roll call votes, and sometimes interminably long floor speeches. The work on the floor ran into the evening on both Thursday and Friday as numerous amendments and 16 roll calls were requested on the Senate health care bill, S.139. Moreover, many of the bills passed earlier by the House will be coming back from the Senate with changes. Several of these will have to be resolved by a conference committee, including the budget.

Two bills this session generated a large volume of emails and constituent contacts: the firearms regulation bill which strengthens enforcement capabilities for illegal use of guns, and the bill passed by the Senate with a provision to eliminate the philosophical exemption from vaccinating children. The vaccine issue came up very late in the session with a Senate amendment to a House bill that was passed earlier, so it is not certain whether the House will actually take action on the floor before the session ends sometime in the next two weeks. However, having passed the health care bill on Friday, the House Health Care Committee decided to begin to consider S.98, the vaccine bill on Tuesday. The Vermont House rarely takes up a bill without exhaustive testimony from all sides of an issue, and this will give the public an opportunity to weigh in.

Existing law allows three types of exemptions from the immunization requirements for children to attend school: a medical exemption, a religious exemption, and a philosophical exemption. The use of the philosophical exemption by parents who believe that vaccines pose a higher risk than the diseases they are supposed to prevent is opposed by the medical community who see it as a threat to the health of the general public. Vaccines are important and have been successful in practically eliminating many diseases and reducing the incidence of many others in the general population. Recently I have heard many first person accounts of adverse reactions to vaccines, which give me pause when faced with the question of whether the philosophical exemption should be eliminated. Supporters of keeping the exemption are concerned that if a child has an adverse reaction to a vaccine, or if there is a possibility that such a reaction occurred, that it should not be dismissed automatically as having nothing to do with the vaccine. This is probably a rare occurrence, but it does become the overriding concern for parents who are faced with it. Parents need to be reassured that they are heard and listened to when they have serious concerns.

While each side is convinced that their position is right, we in the legislature take our responsibility seriously to allow testimony from all sides of any issue before taking a firm position to change or not change a law. We need to let the process work before we make such a decision. I am looking forward to an open process that will lead to the correct decision.

I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

The Word in the House 4/29/2015 - Promoting Healthy Workplaces

A couple sits down in a restaurant. A waitress comes over to take their order. They notice that she is all stuffed up, and as she recites the specials she turns away to cough. Who can blame them if they are more than a bit uncomfortable when she delivers their food? A meeting at the office is punctuated by sneezing and nose-blowing by a co-worker around the table. A week later several people have called in sick or are spreading their own cold germs around the office. A mother wakes up her 9-year old one morning and discovers that he has a 101 deg-F temperature. If she calls in to work to stay home and care for her son, she'll lose $80 from her next paycheck. She's already behind in her bills and can't afford to lose that money. But she has to stay home for her child's sake. You get the picture.

There are about 60,000 working Vermonters who do not get paid time off if they or a member of their family are ill. They face a choice of losing critical wages or, in some cases, losing their job, or putting others at risk of getting sick. Last year a similar bill had been introduced but failed to gain enough support to make it out of committee. Over the summer legislators, businesses, worker representatives and advocates got together and reworked the proposal to make it more acceptable to employers while providing a modest but needed benefit to employees. As a result, this past week the Vermont House of Representatives passed the Healthy Workplaces bill, H.187, to address this situation. Passage of the bill did not come without a great deal of controversy and floor debate. When the final vote was taken, the bill passed 72 to 63.

So, what does the bill actually do? H.187 guarantees that working Vermonters will be able to accrue up to three paid sick days each year. For every 40 hours worked, employees earn one hour of earned sick time. Eligibility includes all permanent workers, whether full time or part time. These hours can be used for personal illness, the illness of a family member, or seeking protection from domestic and sexual violence. While the accrual of time begins in 2016, employees would have to wait until they have worked 1400 hours or one year - whichever comes first - before they could access this benefit. Working full time, the 1400 hours would be equivalent to eight months of work. Starting in 2018 the amount of annual paid time that employees can earn would increase to five days. Certain workers are exempt from this rule. Seasonal workers, such as gardeners, ski area temps, and students who work during the summer or vacations are not covered. Nor are persons with guest worker visas, nor proprietors, partner-owners, managers or executives of a business. If the sick days are not used, they can be carried over, but an employer does not have to pay an employee for time not taken.

Opponents have suggested that this legislation will result in drastic increases in payroll costs. However, calculations suggest a one-time 1% increase in payroll in 2016 for employers currently providing no paid time off to any employees, followed in 2018 by a one-time 0.5% increase. Employers who currently offer any type of paid leave will be minimally affected as long as this time off can be used for unscheduled illness or safety concerns for themselves or their family. For example, if an employer offers five days of vacation time, reclassifying it to five days of combined time off (CTO) will put them in compliance. A separate sick time policy is not required. The bill is a minimum standard and employers are free to offer additional paid time off as part of their existing benefit package. This bill will positively affect thousands of working Vermonters, and businesses will gain by the improved loyalty and health of their employees.

I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Legislative Report 4/22/2015 - Re-forming Our Education System

During last year's elections, candidates across the state heard complaints about property tax increases due to education spending. Decreasing enrollment and the large number of school districts throughout the state (282) present challenges to how our public schools are governed and funded. The House Education Committee was reorganized this year with a new Chair who previously served on the Ways & Means Committee and was the recognized expert on school funding. Rep. Dave Sharpe of Bristol and his committee have made a serious attempt to create policies that would control spending and property tax increases. The resulting Education bill (H.361) reflects a lot of tri-partisan work that will reform education funding, spending and governance. The bill was passed out of committee unanimously and achieved strong support when it was voted on by the full House: 88 to 55.

The bill has as its purpose the improvement of education quality for all Vermont students through greater equity in student opportunity by maintaining a community supported system, asserting Vermont's commitment to public education, and achieving economies of scale. Elements of the bill include:

  • Creating larger education districts of at least 1100 students by 2019 unless a waiver is granted for special circumstances. The larger education districts comprised of existing smaller districts will share responsibility for educating all pre-K to grade 12 students. The State Board of Education may approve alternate configurations, including existing Supervisory Unions, as long as the proposal advances specific goals like equitable educational opportunities, stable leadership, the flexible and efficient use of resources, increased student-to-adult ratios, budgetary stability and less volatility for taxpayers, and community engagement.
  • Financial support for reorganizing districts including access to grants up to $150,000 and temporary local property tax reductions ranging from $.08 in the first year to $.02 by the fourth year after consolidation.
  • A temporary cap on local spending increases ranging from a 1.4% increase to 4.1%, depending on whether the district chooses to base the increase on its total spending amount or its per equalized pupil spending amount. For example, a district that spends exactly the statewide average (roughly $14,100) would be allowed a 2% increase. A district that spent more would have a lower cap; a district that spent less would have a higher cap.
  • A moratorium is imposed on the legislature passing any new unfunded mandates on schools until 2017.
  • For the year 2016 the statewide non-residential education property tax rate will be $1.525 and the residential rate will be $.98, the same as this year.

The bill also reflects the realization that more work needs to be done. It creates a House-Senate Joint Oversight Committee to monitor, evaluate, and provide a continuing review of matters concerning education policy, education funding, and student outcomes and the intersections of each with corrections, economic development, health care, and human services issues. It charges the Office of Health Care Reform to consider the possibility of transitioning health insurance plans for teachers and administrators to plans offered through Vermont Health Connect by 2018 in order to address the impending excise tax on highly beneficial health insurance plans. It also requires the Secretary of Education propose alternative methods of delivery and payment for special education services, including best use of paraprofessionals, ways to reduce administrative burdens, and increase flexibility in the provision of services.

While the bill reflects a lot of good work and compromise to get the tri-partisan support it received, it still relies heavily on the property tax. I will continue working with my colleagues to come up with funding alternatives that decrease reliance on the property tax. I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

A Common Sense Approach to Gun Rights

On Friday, April 17th, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 80 to 62 to pass a bill that makes it illegal under Vermont law for a violent criminal to possess a firearm, and requires that a person judged in a court of law as dangerous to themselves or others be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check database.  I was proud to advocate for the bill's passage and to count myself in the majority.  I made the following statement on the floor of the House after my vote:

"Mr. Speaker,
We've heard comments today that reflect a fear that any bill we pass dealing with guns in any capacity will lead to no one being able to own a gun.

This is an irrational fear. It implies that if we move away from one extreme - an absence of regulation - that it will inevitably project us to the other extreme - a total outright ban of all gun ownership.
We are smarter than that. The character of democracy is to hear opinions from all sides and find a middle ground.

We cannot allow convicted violent felons, people who have already shown a propensity for ignoring the basic rights of you, me, our neighbors, to possess deadly weapons.

As far as reporting persons who have been judged in a court of law to be a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness, the Executive Vice President of the NRA suggested in 2012 after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that the dangerously mentally ill should be reported to 'an active national database of the mentally ill.'  This is what we are doing.

Let us not fear the measures we take to protect ourselves by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and of those who have been demonstrated to be violently dangerous, so that we can make our communities safer."

The Word in the House 4/15/2015 - Cleaning up the Waters of the State

A lot has happened in the legislature in the two weeks since I wrote my last article on the budget. I took time out from writing to celebrate Easter with my family and friends. Work in Montpelier continued, however, and we passed two major bills dealing with Education and Water Quality, and my committee on Natural Resources & Energy began taking testimony on the siting of electrical energy generation facilities. Any one of these topics would take up an entire article, so let me give you an insight this week on the consideration of the water quality bill by the House.

Recognizing that Lake Champlain and Vermont's other bodies of water are extremely important to our state's economy, the House took a giant step with the water quality bill (H.35) in an effort to reduce the amount of phosphorous and other pollutants entering these waters. It engages all land use sectors - including roads, highways, agricultural operations, developed land in urban areas, waste water treatment plants, and forest lands - to implement the Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits and the impending TMDL for other waters using cost effective strategies. There was not much disagreement on what needs to be done to accomplish this gargantuan task, one that will take years to accomplish. Having heard from pretty much everyone who has an interest in the problem, the Fish Wildlife & Water Resources Committee introduced the bill with the theme “All In”. The disagreements surfaced, however, with how the effort was going to be paid for.

Approximately $8M has to be raised for the effort. This would be done primarily through fees on agriculture operations and through a surcharge on the property transfer tax. A 2 cent surcharge on gasoline was also proposed but did not make the final cut. Small farms, defined as a parcel of land on which 10 or more acres are used for farming and that houses a specified number of animals (e.g., fewer than 200 mature dairy cows) or produces crops for sale, will be assessed $250 - $500 annually. Medium sized farms (200 - 700 mature dairy cows) will be assessed $1500 and large farms (more than 700 mature dairy cows) $2500 annually. Fees will also be assessed on feed and fertilizer. These fees will go into an Agricultural Water Quality Special Fund to assist farmers to comply with Accepted Agricultural Practices set by the Agency of Agriculture and for enforcement.

A 0.2% surcharge will be placed on the value of property subject to the property transfer tax. The surcharge is not assessed on the first $100,000 in value of property used as a principal residence, and is not assessed on the first $110,000 in value of property purchased with VHFA funds. The surcharge will be deposited in the Clean Water Fund and will sunset in 2021.

Because of the broad implications of the bill, which spanned 100 pages in the House Calendar, four committees were involved with its development: Fish Wildlife & Water, Agriculture & Forest Products, Ways & Means, and Appropriations. Of the 40 committee members voting to move the bill for consideration by the full house, only 3 voted against doing so. During the floor debate, a motion was made to vote on the non-funding sections of the bill first and then on the funding sections. The non-funding sections were passed 142 – 0. As Rep. David Deen, Chair of Fish Wildlife & Water, said, “We've done the easy part.” An amendment was offered on the remaining sections to remove the fees and transfer the required amount from the General Fund, which would have thrown the budget that was passed the week before out of whack. That amendment was defeated 100 – 40, and the remaining sections were adopted on a vote of 125 – 16. The final vote to pass the bill the following day was 133 – 11 indicating broad tri-partisan support for the bill. You can find more about the provisions of this bill in the guest posting by Representatives Bob Krebs and Sarah Buxton below.

I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Water Quality Bill (H.35) (by Rep. Bob Krebs and Rep. Sarah Buxton)

Our lakes, rivers and ponds are struggling from pollution as our water management efforts over the decades have not kept pace with the impact of storm water runoff and high water events. A comprehensive and far-reaching water quality bill  (H.35) will be offered early next week that engages all land use sectors - including roads, highways, agricultural operations, developed land in urban areas, wastewater treatment plants, and forestlands. All will be required to improve practices through long-term and sustained efforts. The bill has been reviewed by FWWR, Ag, Ways & Means, Judiciary, and Appropriations.
·         Purpose: This bill improves the quality of the State waters, implements the Lake Champlain TMDL and meets the impending TMDL for other waters, identifies cost effective strategies to address water quality, and engages stakeholders in efforts to achieve cleaner water throughout the state.
·         Small Farms:  “Small Farms” will be defined as a parcel of land on which 10 or more acres are used for farming and that houses no less than a number of animals (to be set by rule) and more than the maximum number of animals for a small farm (e.g. 199 dairy cows), OR produces crops for sale. Small farms will be required to certify compliance with the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) every 5 years. The Agency of Agriculture (AAFM) is authorized to inspect farms to determine compliance with the AAPs. During inspection, AAFM shall identify areas that could use assistance to improve compliance with the AAPs. Identified areas will be ranked and receive priority assistance to achieve AAP compliance. An annual fee of $250 (beginning in 2016) shall be assessed on farms housing fewer than 100 mature dairy animals and $500 shall be assessed on farms housing 100 to 199 mature dairy animals.
·         Agricultural Water Quality Funding:  An Agricultural Water Quality Special Fund will be established to fund the administration and implementation of water quality programs.  The following fees will be deposited into the fund: $2,500 annual registration fee for large farms, $1,500 annual registration fee for medium farms, annual $100 registration fee for commercial feed $100, $30 a ton fee on nonagricultural fertilizer distributed in the State, annual product registration fee on pesticides of $125. $1,056,000 will be appropriated to AAFM in FY2016 for 7 agricultural water quality positions
·         Farmer Training: Agency of Ag will adopt requirements for training owners or operators of small, medium, and large farms regarding: prevention of discharges to waters; mitigation of stormwater runoff; and land application of manure, nutrients, septage, and sludge – and will require training as a condition of a LFO permit, MFO permit, and SFO certification.
·         Custom Applicators: Custom applicator means the owner of a company engaged in the business of applying manure, nutrients, septage, or sludge to land for compensation. Custom applicators will be required to complete 8 hours of training over each 5 year period to address application methods that minimize runoff and identification of weather or soil conditions that increase risk of runoff.
·         Enforcement: The new enforcement subchapter streamlines and makes consistent the existing enforcement authority, while also providing new authority, including: Emergency assistance orders to protect water quality; Mandatory corrective actions; and Authority to remove livestock when the volume of livestock waste exceeds farm capacity. When a farm is found to be in violation of the LFO, MFO, or AAP requirements, the Agency must provide the farm with a “required corrective action” plan. The Agency will also have civil enforcement authority to enjoin activities, order corrective actions, and levy civil penalties of up to $85,000 for violations.
·         Stream Alteration:  A stream alteration permit will be required for an agricultural practice that moves 10 cubic yards of instream material except for approved streambank stabilization projects.
·         Land Use Conditions: Property Valuation and Review (PVR) shall remove agricultural land or a farm building from use value appraisal (UVA) if the owner/operator is identified by the Agency of Ag as out of compliance with the water quality requirement or not in compliance with an enforcement order for an agricultural water quality violation. If land or a building is removed from UVA, a farmer may not apply for reenrollment until the Agency notifies PVR that the owner or operator is complying with agricultural water quality requirements or the enforcement order for an agricultural water quality violation. Agricultural land or a farm building included in an AAFM notification to PVR would be subject to the land use change tax.
·         ANR Basin Planning: ANR must update the basin plans for the 15 watersheds and conduct certain activities in planning, including: ensuring involvement by municipal officials and interested parties; ensuring local input in planning process; providing education to municipal officials regarding planning and developing a recommendation on conformance of basin plan with applicable regional plans.
·         ANR Stormwater Management: Clarifies activities that require an ANR stormwater permit and activities that are exempted. ANR will issue general permits for stormwater discharges from municipal roads by July 1, 2021. By Jan. 1, 2018, ANR will issue a general permit for discharges of stormwater from impervious surface of 3 or more acres in size that previously were never permitted or were permitted under a pre-2002 permit standard. The general permit shall require retrofitting or redevelopment of old impervious surface. ANR may deny an application for a stormwater permit due to an applicant’s compliance history.
·         Vermont Clean Water Fund: A Clean Water Fund Special Fund will be established to provide funding to programs and projects that address sources of water pollution in impaired waters, projects that address water pollution in critical source areas, and programs or projects to repair riparian conditions that pose a risk of flooding. The Fund shall consist of revenue dedicated to it including a 0.2% surcharge on the property transfer tax.  A Clean Water Fund Board shall administer the Fund, made up of the Secretaries of ANR, AAFM, AOT, and ACCD, and 8 additional members, appointed by the Speaker of the House, the Committee on Committees, and the Governor. The Clean Water Fund Board shall make recommendations to the Secretary of Administration regarding how funds from the Clean Water Fund shall be included in the State budget.
·         Clean Water Surcharge and DEC Fees: A 0.2% surcharge will be placed on the value of property subject to the property transfer tax. The surcharge is not assessed on the first $100,000 in value of property used for the principal residence of the transferee and is not assessed on the first $110,000 in value of property purchased with VHFA funds. The surcharge is deposited in the Clean Water Fund and will sunset in 2021. $1.3 million in DEC fees has already been approved and, combined with a $1.3 million ANR appropriation, will provide funding for 13 water quality staff.
·         Logging: The Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation will revise the Acceptable Management Practices by rule by March 1, 2016 to ensure that all logging jobs are designed to prevent water quality impacts

The Word in the House 4/2/2015 - Creating a Balanced Budget

I'm glad I don't serve on the Appropriations Committee or the Ways & Means Committee. The job that those committees have to do is the most difficult balancing act faced by the legislature. Vermont does not require a balanced budget by Constitution or by statute. However, the legislature has always, as far as I know, matched projected spending and revenues. The challenge this year has been to close a gap of $113M between projected spending and revenues for the next fiscal year beginning in July. The committees closed that gap by a combination of $53M in budget cuts, $35M of new tax revenues, and $25M of one-time funds. More importantly, through the cuts and tax structure changes, they put the state on a more sustainable path that should reduce the reliance on one-time funding for base budget needs, bend the rate of spending growth, and bring the expenditure pressures in line with revenue growth to end the cycle of annual budget gaps.

The two bills dealing with the fiscal responsibilities of the State of Vermont are H.489, the revenue bill, and H.490, the budget, also known as “The Big Bill." While both bills passed the House last week, their passage came with considerable floor debate, numerous amendments and drama. The revenue bill had been voted out of committee on an 8-3 vote, and the budget was voted out unanimously on an 11-0 vote. The latter unanimous vote was unprecedented, with Democrats, Republicans and Progressives in agreement. This reflects the considerable effort on the part of the Appropriations Committee to solicit and review input from everyone, and prioritize the programs and policies, and work with the Ways and Means Committee to determine the revenue capacity of Vermonters. Both committees knew that neither cuts alone nor taxes alone could close the gap.
A critical question in this exercise has been how do we prevent these budget gaps we've been seeing in the last few years from recurring over and over. One element of this fix is addressed by reducing spending on non-essential government programs and redirecting spending to areas with the potential to stimulate economic growth. Another element is to change the tax structure to make revenues more sustainable. I received many emails advocating to preserve various programs and grants, all of which are valuable in themselves. However, weighed against other needs, like the Department of Children and Families, many had to be trimmed or cut altogether.

Some legislators, I among them, felt that raising a little more revenue could save jobs of state employees and restore some of the cuts to the low income heating assistance and weatherization and working lands programs. Two amendments were offered to raise an additional $10M to do that. One would add a $2/night room charge for hotel rooms; the other would have added 0.4% to the top two income tax rates for those making more than $500K and $1M. Several amendments attempted to cut taxes and cut more spending out of the budget. Each amendment was accompanied by lengthy debate, some very passionate; but all of the proposed amendments were defeated. I am comfortable with this result because, even though I would have liked more support for what I consider worthy causes, I know that we have to get spending in line with what Vermonters can afford.

Now both bills go to the Senate. It is likely the Senate will make changes to both bills. If the changes they make are accepted by the House, the bills will then go to governor Shumlin. If the House decides not to concur with the Senate, the differences will be settled by a Committee of Conference. In addition, there will be two more bills dealing with spending and taxes: the Education bill and the Water Quality bill. So, keep your hats on; there's more to come.

Subsequent to the publishing of this article, I interviewed Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle), Chair of the Appropriations Committee, on the Chittenden county Democrats Show to talk about the decisions that the committee made regarding the budget.

 I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Legislative Report 3/25/2015 - Win Some, Lose Some

During the past few weeks I have received many emails and phone calls from constituents about budget cuts, taxes, and education.  I have made it a point to pass those messages on to members of the Appropriations and Education committees.  I would like to give you some inside information on what is going to be in the budget or out of the budget and what the final education bill will include,  but at the time of this writing those bills have not been finalized.  Nevertheless, by the time this article is published, we will have a proposed budget in front of us.  We will then know the final decisions that were made, subject to change by amendments from the floor.  It is pretty apparent, however, that no one will be completely satisfied with the result.  The same goes for the education bill.  Provisions regarding teacher strikes and the imposition of a contract by a school board when negotiations fail are still being discussed by more than one House committee, as is the proposed 2% cap on school budgets.  So, until the shifting sands solidify, allow me to instead just write about the fate of two of the bills I introduced this session.

The Natural Burials bill (H.25) was recently passed by the House on a voice vote and is on its way to the Senate.  It had been assigned to the Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.  After the Committee spent weeks listening to testimony from funeral directors, cemetery commissioners, advocates and skeptics of natural burials, and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, they made several changes that substantially improved the bill.  They tightened the specifications for creating natural burial grounds, ensuring that they would fit into the current regulatory framework of existing cemeteries.  They also set parameters on how such burial grounds would be located with respect to groundwater sources to ensure that they would pose no risks to public health.  This is the value of the committee process the legislature employs; a good bill is made into better law by careful deliberation taking many points of view into consideration.

The other bill which I introduced to secure the unclaimed bottle deposits for the state, H.140, did not even make it out of my committee.  These unclaimed nickels amount to more than $1 million dollars that have already been paid by Vermonters and remain in the hands of beverage distributors.  The beverage industry mounted a major defense of its claim to the abandoned deposits in their testimony.  They claimed that it would drive the cost of beverages up in Vermont and drive consumers along the Connecticut River to New Hampshire.  While they provided a breakdown of the costs of the bottle deposit program showing that it was a costly and inefficient way to recycle, I was able to use the same information to show that their giving up the unclaimed deposits would add only a half-cent to each container.  Nevertheless, my committee voted 5 to 4 not to approve the bill. 

When a bill comes out of committee, it has been thoroughly examined and discussed and has the support of at least a solid majority of members.  The committee process works, and that is why I usually feel comfortable voting with the committee when a bill I have not been involved with reaches the floor.  I listen to the debate with an open mind and will support amendments if I think they can improve the result.  In the coming weeks there will be a lot of debate on many important and controversial bills.  The decisions I make will be informed by my constituents as well as the committees of jurisdiction.  So, please continue to send me your thoughts and questions.  I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

The Word in the House 3/18/2015 - Health Care after Single-Payer

Since Governor Shumlin abandoned plans for establishing a universal health care system, popularly known as a single-payer system, the House Health Care Committee has been trying to improve the system we currently have. Vermont Health Connect continues to have operational issues with regard to processing change of circumstance filings, and the Committee is continuing to require updates from the Administration. The Committee's main focus, however, is to address the affordability of health insurance for all Vermonters through H.481, which was voted out of committee and will be acted on by the full House.

H.481 addresses the Medicaid cost shift, provides additional assistance to under-insured Vermonters, allocates additional resources to support primary care providers and the Blueprint for Health, and increases funding and responsibilities of the Green Mountain Care Board. The bill also provides funding to pay for these reforms and policy changes. Here are the details.
Addressing the Medicaid cost shift: This bill provides funding, to be matched with $1.10 of federal funding for every state dollar, to reduce the Medicaid cost shift. By increasing reimbursement rates to health care providers serving Medicaid patients, it reduces the cost pressure on the 54% of Vermonters who purchase their health insurance privately. It also enhances access to the health care system for Medicaid patients.
Helping the under-insured: While the Affordable Care Act has reduced Vermont's uninsured rate from 7.6% in 2009 to 3.7% in 2014, the second lowest in the nation, many of the newly insured have plans that are unaffordable – high deductibles, co-pays, and out-of-pocket maximums. H.481 increases the cost-sharing subsidies for Vermonters at 200%-300% of the federal poverty level (family of 4 with income between $48,500 and $72,750) reducing deductibles from over $3,000 to $1,200 and cutting the out-of-pocket maximums from over $6,000 to $2,500.
Strengthening primary care: Primary care providers are the most cost-effective health care resource, and H.481 targets them for increased resources in Vermont’s health care system. H.481 takes advantage of 10:1 federal match dollars in funding Health Homes, provides educational loan forgiveness to encourage primary care providers to practice in Vermont, and funds a study on providing state-funded universal primary care in Vermont.
Strengthening the Blueprint for Health (B4H): B4H organizes health care resources at the community level to coordinate services for patients. The focus is on primary care and preventative medicine, moving Vermont from reactive to proactive health care. Since 2006 it has been proven to save money and improve outcomes. H.481 increases B4H state funding by $2M in FY’16 supplemented by $1.22 in federal match for every Vermont dollar.
Strengthening the work of the Green Mountain Care Board: The GMCB has been effective at managing costs in Vermont’s hospital system. Funding in H.481 allows the GMCB to establish rate setting protocols that address the Medicaid cost shift and the pursuit of the All-Payer rate which will allow us to establish a payment system whereby providers are paid to support improved outcomes instead of quantity of care.
H.481 also includes three tax proposals. First, it repeals the Employer Assessment that was used to pay for the Catamount Health system. While Catamount Health no longer exists, this assessment continues to be paid into the Health Care Resources Fund by employers that do not provide health insurance to their employees. Repeal will save these businesses $4.4M in FY’16. Secondly, it establishes a 0.3% Payroll Tax, a reduction from the governor’s original 0.7% proposal, which would be levied on all employers. It is expected to raise $17.8M in FY’16. Finally, it assesses a 2 cent/ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The Health Care Committee has heard extensive testimony from the medical community who believe that a major contributing factor to the increased prevalence of obesity and type-2 diabetes is the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. This tax is anticipated to raise $30.9M in FY’17 revenue.
In a separate companion bill that received unanimous support, the Health Care Committee adopted a provision authorizing direct enrollment with insurance carriers for individuals within VT Health Connect effective November 1, 2016, the beginning of the next open enrollment period. This is intended for individuals not receiving subsidies who wish to work directly with their health insurance company.
I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Legislative Report 3/12/2015 - Doyle Poll Results

The 50th annual Doyle Poll attracted 179 respondents on Town Meeting day this year. I am grateful to those who took the time to fill out the survey this year. To Senator Doyle's selection of 15 questions I added a 16th on an issue that I wanted to know your opinions about. Since it was printed on the back of the survey, however, only 140 people responded to it. Here for your consideration is a tally of the responses.




Not Sure
Do you believe water quality is a major issue in Vermont?
Should Vermont legalize marijuana?
Should Vermont have a payroll tax to reduce the cost of Medicaid?
Would a carbon tax benefit Vermont's environment?
Should sugary drinks be taxed in order to reduce obesity?
Should Vermont have a one-day sales tax holiday?
Are you concerned about the increased use of opiates in Vermont?
Is Lake Champlain as clear as you would like it to be?
Should natural gas be an important part of Vermont's economy?
Do you believe Vermont's health care is better than 5 years ago?
Are statewide cell service and broadband important to the future of Vermont’s economy?
Does Vermont have too many school districts?
Should Vermont's Presidential Primary be on the same date as New Hampshire's?
Do you believe that our state is doing a good job at attracting jobs to Vermont?
Do you believe Governor Shumlin is doing a good job?
Do you support requiring background checks for sales of guns between private parties and at gun shows?

There were two questions that appeared in last year's survey (2. marijuana and 9. natural gas) and four that appeared two years ago (5. sugary drinks, 9. natural gas, 11. cell & broadband, and 15. Shumlin). The opinion on marijuana legalization shifted from positive to slightly negative, but otherwise opinion is evenly divided. The opinion on taxing sugar-sweetened beverages remained unchanged from two years ago with 53% in favor. While opinions of the importance of natural gas has diminished somewhat from the previous surveys, it is still seen as important. Overwhelmingly, respondents continue to consider cell service and broadband internet to be essential to Vermont's economic growth. The big switch is in Governor Shumlin's numbers. He went from a 48% approval vs. 30% disapproval in 2013 to a 26% approval and 51% disapproval this year.

Interestingly, Shumlin's Doyle Poll numbers in Charlotte were slightly worse than those of an independent VTDigger-Castleton Polling Institute survey released this week where 47% disapproved of the job he's doing compared to 41% approving. The Charlotte Doyle Poll results for other questions also lined up with those from the VTDigger-Castleton survey within a few percentage points, including support for taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, taxing carbon, and requiring background checks on private sales of firearms. (The VTDigger polling results can be found at

Charlotters also support a sales-tax holiday and reducing the number of school districts and oppose a payroll tax to address the cost-shift in insurace premiums. There remains a lot of concern about opiate addiction and a strong recognition of the problem we face with pollution in Lake Champlain and state waters.

As your representative in Montpelier, I appreciate your input on these and other issues. Your comments help me look at issues from several perspectives, and that is a valuable opportunity for me. You can always contact me by phone at 802-233-5238 or email me at