Legislative Report 6/24/2017 - Veto Session Summary

This report was written jointly by Vermont House Members, Jessica Brumsted, Bill Lippert, Terry Macaig, Jim McCullough, Kate Webb, and Mike Yantachka

The legislature met last week in a veto session to address the statewide budget and education property tax bills.  Although these bills are essential to fund state government and our schools, the Governor believed that the legislature had foregone an opportunity to garner savings resulting from statewide changes in health insurance coverage for school employees and vetoed them. The veto forced the legislature to go back into session to avoid a government shutdown.

By the time Senators and Representatives returned to the statehouse on June 21st, much negotiating had already taken place with the Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, and  Governor Scott's representatives.  After negotiations stalled, Governor Scott joined the negotiations on the last day prior to the veto session. An agreement was reached and a new bill combining the budget and property tax language passed on a voice vote in both the House and the Senate. While no one was particularly happy with the result, no one felt essential values had been compromised.

So what does this mean? First, the statewide property tax rate for residential property tax payers will decrease by 2 cents as passed in May, while the nonresidential rate will remain at last year’s rate of $1.535.  Second, a greater share of the statewide sales tax will be used to offset the cost of education. Only minor technical changes were made to the budget which had originally passed the House and Senate with a single dissenting vote. This was the easy part.  

The challenge came in addressing the issue of health insurance for school employees. Democratic leadership believed that savings were already built into the new plans, and these savings were best accounted for at the local level.  In contrast, the Governor believed that more savings could be obtained if these policies were negotiated at the state rather than local level, identifying savings if all schools negotiated an 80-20 premium split with teachers paying $400 per person toward out-of-pocket costs.

The compromise reached by Democratic leaders and the Governor retains bargaining for the health insurance contracts at the local level, but withholds $13 million from schools for FY 18, thereby requiring schools to reduce spending accordingly, preferably through negotiations over health insurance benefits.  It requires each school district to achieve savings in health insurance in the amount that would have been saved in FY18 if Scott's 80/20 benefit plan had been implemented.  The savings will be measured by comparing the cost of the current insurance plans against the new plans that will start on January 1, 2018.  For districts that do not achieve those savings, the difference between the target costs and the actual costs will be deducted from state Education Fund payments to the district.  To ease the effect on property taxes, 65% of the deduction will be applied to FY18 payments and 35% to FY19 payments.  At the time of this writing, we do not have information on how the Champlain Valley School district will be affected.

The bill also creates a nine-member commission that will study whether the state should implement a statewide teacher health insurance benefit, a provision that was included in the vetoed property tax bill.  This panel will “determine whether and how to establish a single statewide health benefit plan for all teachers, administrators, and other employees of supervisory unions and school districts.” 

The compromise also mandates that all school contracts, other than those districts that have already settled their school contracts, will expire in 2019 so lawmakers can implement the recommendations of the commission. Contracts negotiated by July 1, 2017, will remain in effect as negotiated.  Districts currently in impasse on health insurance negotiations are provided an opportunity to reopen negotiations.

Despite the frustration expressed by many legislators that the bill had flaws, we recognized the hard work that went into achieving this compromise.  Speaker Johnson, President Pro Tem Ashe and the Governor issued the following joint statement:
“We are pleased to announce we have reached an agreement in principle on an education savings proposal that will take an important step to make Vermont more affordable. If passed by the full legislative body, this proposal will help the state achieve significant savings in the education fund and lower property tax rates. The agreement reached upholds the principles each of us committed to during the legislative session, building on areas of agreement and our shared goal to improve the lives of Vermonters. Importantly, it ensures that we will have a budget that does not raise taxes and fees, including property tax rates.”

Before adjournment the House and Senate passed nearly identical resolutions strongly opposing the announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and recognizing Governor Phil Scott for enrolling Vermont in the US Climate Alliance.  We were all pleased to support this timely resolution.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson on the 2017 Legislative Session


The June installment of the Chittenden County Democrats Show featured an interview with Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, who reflected on the 2017 legislative session so far. The legislature will gavel back into session next week for two days, June 21st and 22nd, for an override session on the Governor's budget veto. Host Bob Hooper and Speaker Johnson discussed several topics including the impasse between the legislature and Governor over teachers' health care benefits, the future of the Windsor prison, and potential impacts of proposed federal tax cuts. The interview can be seen here.



The Word in the House 5/24/2017 - End of Session Summary

As the 2017 legislative session ended shortly before midnight on Thursday, May 18, it was with a lot of pride and a lot of disappointment. The reason for the disappointment was because we would have to go back to Montpelier on June 21 for a veto session because Governor Scott declared that he will veto both the budget (H.518) and the education bill (H.509) because of the teachers’ health insurance issue. I’ve written extensively in the last few weeks about the standoff on this issue, so if the reader wants a recap of the last day as well as a timeline of what passed as negotiations, I refer you to my website/blog at www.MikeYantachka.com. What I will do instead here is write about some highlights of the session.

Ironically, the budget passed by the legislature on the last day achieved all the targets set by the Governor in his budget address in January. The budget does not depend on any new taxes or fees, and held to a 0.7% increase in state funds and a 1.3% increase in total funds, which include federal money. This is well below the revenue growth projections of 3.5% and reflects the steps taken in prior years to close the budget gap. While this budget originally passed both the House and Senate with only one dissenting vote, 48 House Republicans voted against it in support of the Governor’s objections on final passage.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson

For several years, Vermont has been given a grade of “F” for lack of ethical accountability in all three branches of government from The Center for Public Integrity. This year, the House and Senate finally passed an ethics bill that requires disclosure of candidates’ and legislators’ income sources and prohibits legislators from becoming a paid lobbyist for one year after leaving office. Candidates for statewide office will have to disclose their individual income tax form 1040 with their confidential information redacted. These offices include the Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Auditor, and Attorney General. Candidates for the House and Senate will have to list each source of their income that exceeds $5000, but not income totals.

The legislature also passed significant legislation supporting civil and individual rights. Senate bill S.29 prohibits the creation of a registry based on personal characteristics and gives the Governor alone, in consultation with the Vermont Attorney General, authorization over agreements in which state and local law enforcement can assist federal authorities with immigration enforcement. Another bill, S.96, provides that journalists cannot be held in contempt for not disclosing their confidential sources. In House bill H.25, not yet passed by the Senate, sexual assault survivors are guaranteed the right to a forensic medical exam, and that the “rape kit” be sent to a lab within 72 hours, and to be notified of a DNA match, or when the kit is scheduled for destruction. Since identity theft has proliferated, the legislature passed H.111 to modernize Vermont’s system of issuing birth and death certificates. Requests for a certificate will be restricted to the person and close relatives, and a statewide registration system will be created as a central repository in the Secretary of State’s office, which will enable a request for a certificate to be filed at any town clerk’s office.

The legislature also helped working families. Low-income working Vermonters eligible for food assistance and Reach Up cash assistance will be able to save up to $9,000 for retirement or their children’s education without being penalized. This will help them earn more without being discouraged by loss of benefits. Pregnant employees also benefit from a bill (H.136) that requires employers to offer accommodations that allow the employee to continue working with a minimum of discomfort. According to AARP, there are around 100,000 Vermonters who do not have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans. Part of the economic development bill (S.135) establishes the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan, which will be available on a voluntary basis to employers with 50 or fewer employees who do not offer a retirement plan, and to self-employed persons. Employees will automatically be enrolled, but can opt out if they do not want to participate.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

House Adjournment Recap 5/19/2017

The gavel came down shortly after midnight ending the 2017 session of the Vermont House pending a veto session in June and a possible callback in October.  The October date was set aside in case the passage of the federal budget later this year deals some major impacts to Vermont.  The last day was not without its hopes and tensions.  Thursday morning Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tem received word that the Governor wanted to meet over the stalled teacher health insurance issue. 

The legislators presented the agreed upon language that they would vote on which included:
1) setting up a commission to study the implications and feasibility of having a statewide teachers health insurance program;
2) setting a statewide termination of teachers health insurance contracts that have not yet been negotiated to December 31, 2018;
3) exempting from that termination any contracts negotiated prior to July 1, 2017; 
4) exempting those negotiated afterward that fit the Governor's proposed 80%-20% premium split with a $400 deductible; and
5) passing legislation in 2018 that would reflect the results of the commission's study.

This proposal would honor the dozen contracts that have already been negotiated, encourage the adoption of the terms that the Governor says will achieve the $26M savings ($13M in FY18), and allow the legislature to properly examine, with everyone's input, over the course of a regular session the pros and cons of a standard statewide health insurance program for teachers. No agreement was reached.

In the afternoon, the three parties were joined by the Dean of the House, Alice Emmons, and the Dean of the Senate, Dick Mazza, the longest serving members of each body.  After hours of discussion focusing on the points everyone agreed on, the talks once again reached an impasse as the Governor insisted that the contracts had to be negotiated at the statewide level instead of between local teachers and boards.

At around 9:30PM the House received word that the House-Senate Conference Committee agreed on language for H.509, which was passed by the Senate 20-8. The House was now ready to vote on the language described above except for points 4 and 5. H.509 also set the education tax yields for FY18, which was the original purpose of the bill. The yields, how much $1 of the property tax will raise per student based on the statewide grandlist, determine the local education tax rates.  The higher the yield, the lower the tax rate needs to be.  For residential property tax payers not income sensitized, the yield will be $10,160.  For those eligible for a property tax adjustment, the yield is $11,990.  These yields result in an average homestead property tax rate of $1.505.  The nonresidential rate will be $1.555, down from $1.59. This measure passed on a vote of 84-54.

In his remarks to the House in closing the session, Governor Scott told us he would veto the budget because we did not agree to statewide teacher negotiations. So, we will be returning on June 21 to consider overriding his veto.  What will change between now and then, I don't know. As I stated in my vote explanation after voting for H.509,  "The right of employees to enter into collective bargaining with their employer is a right that was hard-fought and won over the last century and a half. It is a right that we should not throw away. My yes vote underscores my support for this sacred principle.”

At the same time the teachers' unions would do well to ensure that their demands are reasonable when they enter negotiations so as to avoid alienating the property taxpayers whose support they need in times like this. 

Impasse on Teachers' Health Insurance Plans

The Legislature reached an impasse in negotiations with Governor Scott on his plan to use $26 M in potential savings from the new VEHI health insurance plans for teachers.  After 12 days of negotiations with the Governor and his staff, the Governor was unwilling to compromise according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe who held a joint news conference on /Wednesday, May 17th. The goalposts kept moving from one meeting to the next, according to Johnson. The Governor would not move from his position to short-circuit the collective bargaining process, so there was no point in continuing to negotiate.  The legislature will now convene a Committee of Conference between the House and Senate to come up with a joint proposal that will address the potential savings in a way that will preserve the bargaining process and allow the savings to reduce property taxes.  The collective bargaining process is a hard-fought and won right of workers to negotiate directly with their employer.  We should not allow Vermont to become a state which devalues this right.  I recommend reading the editorial by David Moats, editor of the Times Argus newspaper, which can be found at this website: 

Legislative report 5/17/2017 - Stuck in Session

As I write this late Friday afternoon on May 12th, I should be home in Charlotte. Instead, I am in a holding pattern in Montpelier. There are a number of bills that are still under negotiation, all of which deal in some way with money. The Budget cannot be passed until all the constituent parts are finalized. These parts include the capital bill that deals with the overhead required to run the state government, the fee bill that covers the expense of administering regulations and licenses, the transportation bill that maintains our transportation infrastructure, and the education tax bill that determines what the statewide property taxes will be. While the capital, fee and transportation bills, have already passed both the House and Senate, the education bill has become the sticking point over how to deal with the new health care plans being proposed for public school teachers.

The education tax bill, H.509, was close to being finalized until Governor Scott proposed his teachers' health insurance plan to capture an alleged $26M savings within days of adjournment. The fact that only $13M would apply to the FY18 budget, since the new insurance plans don't start until January 1, has not stopped him from repeating the $26M figure. The Governor insists that the only way the savings can be achieved is with negotiations between the administration and the statewide union. This runs counter to the right of workers, the teachers, to negotiate directly with their employer, the school board. With the backing of the Republican caucus, he has refused to compromise on this point. He also has proposed that only 30% of the savings should go for property tax reduction.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate have been working toward a way to realize the estimated savings while maintaining the integrity of the employer-employee relationship of teachers and school boards. The latest amendment passed by the Senate would require $13M to be saved in the second half of FY18 which would reduce the statewide homestead property tax by 3 cents. Based on the number of employees, each school district would be allocated a proportion of the savings which would be achieved by negotiations between the school board and its teachers, a process that is already taking place across the state, by the way. Any difference between what the district actually saves and the allocated amount would reduce the state's payment to the district. Since each action on a bill requires a 24 hour waiting period, the failure of the Governor to work with the legislature to find a solution guarantees that the session will run beyond the budgeted 18 weeks.

A couple of weeks ago the 2017 session seemed to be moving along nicely with no new taxes and a budget that got nearly unanimous support. Yet, here we are. Despite agreement on what could potentially be saved, the issue has boiled down to labor relations and how much should be applied to reducing property taxes. I hope that by the time you read this we'll have a solution and a budget that won't be vetoed.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Who wouldn't want to save $26 million? (Front Porch Forum Issue No. 2767 May 10, 2017 )


I submitted a commentary on this topic that will be published in The Citizen this week and on my website (www.MikeYantachka.com).  However, I would like to add a few more thoughts here for your consideration since I have received many emails on the subject.

Sound bites are very simplistic. "Save the taxpayers $26M!"  Very easy to say, but another saying that applies is that "the devil is in the details."  The Governor's proposal relates to a change happening to teacher health plans throughout the State. This change is not dependent upon, nor due to the Governor in any way. It is the result of a redesign of the teachers' health plans by VEHI that offerss two high deductible and two regular plans that teachers may choose from, and that have lower premiums than the current plans.

The new plans are cheaper because they are less generous plans. The statewide savings estimate is $75 million. Of that, $48 million is anticipated to be needed to pay for the increased copay and deductible costs in the new plan. The remainder, if you believe the estimates, would be the $26 million which the Governor keeps talking about.

The Governor's plan, as embodied in the Beck amendment to H.509, was to return $8 million of the $26 million to property tax payers and to use the other 70% for other purposes, namely the General Fund and to cover the transfer of the liability for the state portion of current teacher retirement obligations to the Education Fund.  This transfer would lead to higher property taxes in the long run.
The issue of statewide bargaining has no impact on whether the savings occur.

What the House passed instead, the Webb amendment, was a provision that makes no change in bargaining, but directs 100% of the savings that actually occur in teacher healthcare to be returned directly to local communities in the form of reduced property taxes.  The money saved would be returned to a local school district only after a budget was voted upon and approved. It can go to only one place, and that is to directly reduce property taxes. All of the savings, rather than just the 30% in the Governor’s plan would come back to your property taxes. This is what property taxpayers want, and why I voted against the Beck amendment and for the Webb amendment.

The Word in the House 5/11/2017 - Teachers' Health Care Proposal

In the final week of the legislature bills move at a fairly rapid pace between the House and Senate as differences are resolved and agreement is reached. Some legislation, however, deals with highly controversial issues such as marijuana legalization, paid family leave, and education issues. These bills often generate much floor debate and take hours, if not days, to bring to completion. On two different days of the expected final week, legislators remained on the floor until nearly midnight before completing business.
One of the most contentious bills was the education financing bill, H.509. This bill was being amended to include the Governor's proposal that would create a statewide health insurance contract for teachers. While the proposal sounds like a good idea, it was offered so late in the session the legislature was not able to properly investigate the assumptions, tax implications and labor policy implications in the way the legislature conscientiously approaches all legislation. Issues like this are not black and white and require getting input from many sources and affected parties..

With that in mind, the House Ways & Means Committee did examine the proposal and determined that there may be up to $26M of savings to be realized, but only half of that in FY18. It is important to note also that the $26M figure is a “guesstimate” based on a presumed decreased use of health care services by teachers under the new plans. Furthermore, the Governor's proposal would direct much of the savings to be used for other purposes than reducing the property tax. Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne offered an alternative proposal as an amendment that would use the same expected savings from the lower premiums of the new teachers' health insurance plans to go to the Education Fund and be funneled back to the individual districts according to the savings realized by the district.

The right of employees to unionize and bargain collectively with their employer is a fundamental right of American workers that was hard fought for and won over the last century and a half. Without unions we would not have a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, safety standards, workers' compensation, a minimum wage, and other employee rights we take for granted. The Governor's proposal would take the negotiation of health care contracts out of the hands of local bargaining units and districts and give it to a statewide union and the Department of Education. Since teachers are employees of individual districts and not of the state, the proposed arrangement takes both the employees and the districts out of the process. And if negotiations broke down and teachers went on strike, it would affect the entire state instead of being localized to a single district. This would not be good for Vermonters.

The Webb amendment keeps the negotiations local and guarantees that the savings will come back to the local districts. As a practical matter, since about 25% of teachers’ compensation comes in the form of health insurance, removing that huge piece from the local negotiation of teachers’ contracts takes a big piece off the table as the negotiators balance pay increases against health insurance benefits.

As you probably have heard, the vote ended in a tie, 74 - 74, on the Beck amendment, and the Webb amendment was subsequently passed. The bill went to the Senate, which will have its own say. Our hope is that the Governor and the legislature will come to some compromise agreement that will accomplish the savings in a mutually satisfactory manner and avoid a potential veto session. The expected May 6th adjournment has been postponed as those negotiations take place and will resume the following Wednesday.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 5/10/2017 - Laws & Sausage

By the time you read this, the Vermont legislature will be within days of adjournment. You've probably heard the saying that legislating is a lot like making sausage. This is never more true than in the last couple of weeks of Vermont's legislative session. An example of how this works can be illustrated by Senate bill S.52.

S.52 was originally crafted to make some changes to the Public Service Board process for conducting CPG (Certificate of Public Good) hearings. As you may remember from previous articles, most bills have to be passed out of the House or Senate by a certain date called “crossover”, usually a week or two after Town Meeting, to be considered by the other body. There are exceptions, but these are limited to certain types of bills like money bills and municipal charter bills. However, there are ways to get around this limitation, as S.52 demonstrates.

As it came over from the Senate, the bill gives municipal and regional planning commissions a little more control over the 45 day pre-application period when a developer notifies the local commission of its intention to site an energy generation project. It allows the commission to require the Department of Public Service to attend a local hearing and to hire an expert at the applicant's expense to evaluate the project. It also extends by a few days the time for the commission to make recommendations to the PSB regarding the project. In addition, the bill standardizes the comment periods for energy, meteorological stations, and telecommunication facilities CPG applications to 30 days from their current periods ranging from 21 to 30 days. It gives the Department of Public Service authority to investigate complaints regarding noncompliance with CPG terms and conditions and to issue administrative citations and penalties up to $5000 for violations. Finally, the bill would change the name of the Public Service Board to the Public Utility Commission, the name used by most other states. The last provision would help alleviate the public's confusion between the Department and the Board.

Here's where the art of legislative scheduling becomes creative. Since the Energy & Technology Committee passed a number of bills earlier in the session that were not yet acted upon by the Senate, we decided to add them to S.52. These bills included the telecommunication facility siting process renewal bill (H.50), the ten year telecommunication planning bill (H.347), and the appliance energy efficiency standards bill (H.411). If by the end of the session the Senate never got around to acting on them, their language would be included in S.52. Also, since we were unable to finish a bill to have the Department of Public Service study the feasibility and benefits of energy storage technology, e.g. batteries, on the electric grid, we added this language as well.

The House passed these amendments to S.52, which was then returned to the Senate. The Senate can accept the amendments, thereby enacting it and sending it to the Governor. Or, it can make further amendments and send it back to the House. Or, it can decide not to concur and ask for a Committee of Conference between the House and Senate to iron out the differences. In the meantime, if any of the bills that were added passed the Senate before S.52 was finalized, the language corresponding to the enacted bill could be removed from S.52. Thus, from a variety of ingredients, a final bill can emerge. This “sausage-making” process occurs frequently as the House and Senate work to come to a consensus on various pieces of legislation before time runs out. I hope the “sausage” will taste good, or at least be in good taste.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 4/26/2017 - Help for First Responders

Vermont has seen its share of tragic automobile accidents and fatal fires over the years. Accidents like the one on I-89 in Williston caused by a wrong-way driver that killed 5 teens on their way home from a concert or the recent accident on Route 7 in Charlotte that killed a young man require first responders to confront pretty gruesome scenes that can leave a lasting traumatic impression on them, which can cause nightmares, depression and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While PTSD is recognized as a serious mental health condition, counseling and treatment is often not covered by private health insurance or workers compensation. Under current law, if a first responder breaks an ankle while responding to a vehicle collision they would have health care and wage replacement while they are unable to work through their workers compensation coverage. However, if they respond to a particularly horrific scene and suffer a PTSD injury, they would not be covered for mental health treatment or replacement wages while they recover. The current criterion for work-related PTSD requires a worker to show that the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in his or her occupation. Insurers often use this standard to argue that first responders commonly encounter such stressful situations, and it is therefore a normal hazard of the occupation and not covered. The House Health Care Committee recognized that this fundamental unfairness flies in the face of Vermont's mental health parity law and created legislation that corrects it.

House bill H.197 creates a presumption that PTSD suffered by a police officer, rescue or ambulance worker, or firefighter that was incurred during service in the line of duty will be covered by workers compensation. The presumption would apply to PTSD that is diagnosed by a mental health professional up to three years after the last date of employment as a police officer, rescue or ambulance worker, or firefighter. However, that presumption could be overcome by evidence showing that the injury was more likely caused by a risk factor or exposure outside of the line of duty.

H.197 provides that a mental condition resulting from a work-related event or work-related stress is compensable if the worker can show that the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by the average employee across all occupations. In other words, first responders are human and subject to the same emotional stresses as the rest of us. This provision still requires that an injured worker be able to demonstrate the injury came from work and not some other occurrence. In particular it would not permit a worker to receive compensation for a mental condition resulting from a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, layoff, demotion, termination, or similar action taken in good faith by his or her employer.

This bill has been sent to the Senate Rules Committee which will decide whether to act on it in the remaining weeks of this session or to leave it rest until next January. First responders perform an invaluable service for our communities. They are there when we need them, and they are willing to put their own lives on the line when called to duty. The least we can do is make sure that they get help when they need it.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 4/19/2017 - Three Executive Orders, Three Results

Our new President's use of executive orders to try to fulfill some of his campaign promises, particularly regarding immigration, quickly ran into trouble. Executive orders are a way to bypass Congress to establish rules and policies by edict. The President can usually make the order stick if Congress does not have a veto-proof majority, as was the case for President Obama. But if the order is made late in the President's term, a new administration can more easily reverse the order than it can for those made years before. This is why President Trump has been able to reverse several of President Obama's orders issued within the last year.

In Vermont the Governor can also issue executive orders An order will take effect unless the legislature disapproves it within 90 days of issuance. Disapproval by either body of the legislature, either the House or the Senate, will invalidate an executive order. Governor Scott issued three executive orders in January to expedite a reorganization of the executive branch of government. One would move the Department of Labor (DoL) into the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD). A second order would merge the Department of Liquor Control and the Lottery Commission. A third order would create a new Agency of Digital Services which would have responsibility for all IT services in the executive branch.

The Senate took action to disapprove the first order several weeks ago based on the different missions of the two organizations and the possibility of conflicts of interest that might arise if the order took effect. The ACCD is a business-oriented agency that promotes commerce and business interests. It focuses on broad economic development issues. The DoL on the other hand uses a case management system focusing on individuals and provides job search and job training opportunities for employees, administers Vermont OSHA rules, and advocates employee claims against unfair labor practices. The latter two responsibilities can be in conflict with the mission of ACCD since the final appeal of cases would transfer from the Commissioner of Labor to the Secretary of ACCD.

The second executive order merging liquor and lottery was considered by the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. The committee was unable to adequately assess the consequences of such a merger because the Scott Administration failed to demonstrate how the merger would result in significant savings or improvement in customer service. The committee found the order to be vague and broad and had questions about how it would affect jobs and revenue. Because the committee was unable to get adequate testimony from the Administration, it felt required to reject the order and instead has introduced a bill, H.525, that would establish a working group to fully explore the advantages of merging these departments. The resolution passed after considerable debate and over the objections of the Governor, and the order will not take effect.

Finally, the third order creating the Agency of Digital Services (ADS) was assigned to the House Energy and Technology Committee. During our consideration of the order, we were able to work collaboratively with the Administration as both entities reviewed past successes and failures in the creation and administration of the state's IT resources and services. Since most of the IT is currently distributed throughout the various agencies of government, an inventory is being taken of all of the state's technology programs, personnel, and equipment. To avoid disruption of the current work environment and maintain continuity of service, the personnel will report to ADS while remaining embedded within the agencies they support. Our committee has asked the Administration to provide a timeline of the fiscal impact, when and how savings will occur, and to be kept updated regularly on progress throughout the year. The members of our committee were unanimously satisfied that the Administration is on the right track with this plan and believe that it will lead to improved cross-agency collaboration and more efficient, effective and successful administration of the state's IT resources. By not taking action, we have allowed this executive order to go into effect as of April 17, 2017.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

State Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe Discusses Budget

Vermont State Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden County) appeared on the Chittenden County Democrats Show on April 5, 2017, with co-hosts Bob Hooper and State Representative Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte-Hinesburg). The trio discussed the state budget recently passed by the Vermont House on a 143 - 1 vote. Ashe gave his perspective on what changes if any might be made by the Senate and the potential effects the Trump administration in Washington might have on Vermont's fiscal situation.  Vermont's spending is significantly funded by federal dollars.  See the program here.

Legislative Report 4/5/2017 - Marijuana Legalization

Any issue under consideration by the legislature that is controversial will generate a lot of emails and phone calls from constituents and from advocates, both pro and con. Marijuana legalization is the controversial issue of this session, and I heard from many of you as well as from organizations advocating for and against legalization. I have taken the time to read the emails and listen to the phone calls, and I have tried to answer most of them. I also discussed the issue with fellow legislators, with doctors, police, attorneys, and teens. I found people in all those categories on both sides of the issue.

My two major concerns about marijuana have to do with driving under the influence and its use by youth. Anything that alters perceptions and slows reactions is dangerous when combined with driving. This is true of marijuana and equally true of alcohol. Young people, whose brains continue to develop well into their twenties, risk their futures with heavy use of marijuana which dulls ambition as addiction takes over. And while tobacco is more of a stimulant, it can do considerable damage to a person's physical health. All of these have greater effects on young people than on adults.

So, any of these substances can be abused with terrible consequences. Prohibition did not work for alcohol and, so far, hasn't worked for marijuana, either. However, education and regulation can minimize abuse even if it doesn't eliminate use. The fact is, marijuana has been easy to get whether we want to recognize it or not. Ask a high school student and they'll probably tell you that it is easier to obtain marijuana than alcohol. Those that want to use it will use it with or without legalization, and those that recognize the danger will avoid it. There will be irresponsible people who get behind a wheel while high just as there are irresponsible people who get behind a wheel after drinking. We should not tolerate either behavior, whether or not the substances are legal.

Another concern is whether marijuana is a gateway drug, leading a user to try more dangerous drugs. Data does not substantiate that, and we are now seeing that over-prescription of pain killer drugs to treat injuries or pain after surgery has been a much greater precursor to opiate addiction.

H.170 eliminates all penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for a person 21 years old or older while retaining civil and criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana. It also allows up to two mature marijuana plants to be cultivated by a person 21 or older with a limit of two plants per dwelling. The bill retains civil penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21, the same as for alcohol, and exacts heavy penalties on anyone who furnishes marijuana to a person under 21 and on anyone, regardless of age, who drives under the influence. Consumption of marijuana in public places is also forbidden. The bill was presented on the floor of the House, but before much debate took place, the body voted to send the bill to the Human Resources Committee for further consideration.

As one doctor told me, “accepting that there are potential dangers associated with the use of marijuana should not automatically lead one to favor continued criminalization. The policy of criminalization also has serious adverse effects for individuals and for society. These include impacts on the criminal justice system, how citizens view the law, and high rates of incarceration. Criminalization will not stop people from using marijuana. … It may even be beneficial to go further and legalize sale so that marijuana users could be protected from illegal dealers who may adulterate marijuana with dangerous substances.” I agree with this assessment and will vote for H.170 when it comes to the floor again.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 3/29/2017 - Safety and Accommodation

Every year hundreds of bills are introduced in the Vermont House of Representatives. Each is assigned to one of the 15 standing committees for consideration. Relatively few are actually voted out of committee and brought to the floor for consideration by the full House. Those that are must be voted out of committee by “crossover”, which fell on March 17th this year, so that the Senate has time to consider them. The same crossover date holds for Senate bills as well.

Dozens of bills were voted on and passed by the House without major opposition during the week following crossover. However, two bills engendered considerable debate. One dealt with domestic violence and guns and the other addressed accommodations in the workplace for pregnant women.

Domestic violence continues to be a problem in Vermont. In 2015, six of Vermont’s 16 homicides were domestic violence related, and all six were committed with a firearm. Between 1994 and 2015, 131 domestic violence-related homicides were committed, and 77 of them (59%) were committed with firearms. While current law allows for the confiscation of firearms when the court orders the removal at the point of a final relief from abuse order or following a conviction for a violent crime, more protection of victims is needed when police first respond to an incident. Statistics show that the most dangerous time for a victim is when they reach out for help. After two days of debate, the House passed H.422, which provides that after an individual has been arrested or cited for domestic assault, law enforcement can remove any firearms in the perpetrator's possession or in plain view. It is important to note that these provisions would only apply when probable cause has been found to arrest or cite someone for domestic assault. If there is no further court order, the guns would be returned within 5 days. The concern was raised that this legislation is about gun control. It is not. It is a precautionary measure to protect the lives of victims of domestic assault.

The second bill, H.136, which requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation in the workplace that might be needed by a pregnant woman, was passed after several hours of debate. A Supreme Court decision from 2006 segregated pregnancy from portions of the existing discrimination law and determined that simply being pregnant, or having an issue with one’s pregnancy, isn’t enough to ask for different tasks that accommodate that pregnancy. H.136 will make it possible for a pregnant woman to ask for a temporary accommodation such as a restriction on heavy lifting, or exposure to certain chemicals, or standing for prolonged periods. The bill makes it unlawful for an employer to refuse to provide an accommodation at the request of a pregnant employee unless it proves to be an undue hardship for the business.“Undue hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or
expense to the employer and can depend on the employer's size. This bill encourages communication between the employer and the employee and should help to provide a safe workplace environment for everyone.

A word on the budget is in order. At the time of this writing, the House Appropriations Committee has moved from a $70M shortfall in the Governor's proposed budget to around $4M. The committee members are still working to resolve that difference, hopefully with cooperation from Governor Scott's administration. The committee is trying to squeeze every dollar out of the budget while maintaining the necessary programs and service that keep Vermonters safe, healthy and productive, and the economy working for all.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 3/22/2017 - The Doyle Poll 2017


The Doyle Poll, created and still conducted by former Senator Bill Doyle, has been a tradition of Town Meetings in Vermont for decades. Only 109 Charlotte voters shared their opinions this year, about half of last year's number. Of the fifteen questions, ten seemed to me to be either obvious or too ambiguous to allow a clear interpretation of the results.

Clearly, most people think we need to do a lot more to address the opiate crisis, abuse and neglect of children, and identification of water pollution sources. Identifying pollution sources is important, but what is the willingness of people to spend tax dollars on cleanup? Whether or not one is satisfied with Vermont's health care does not address why. Is the price too high? Does VT Health Connect still not work?

The questions and answers I found helpful were numbers 3, 5, 8, 10, and 11. 60% of respondents felt that Vermont should increase funding for state colleges (#3). This is a worthy goal which I share. However increasing funding for college means cutting back somewhere else or raising taxes. If we were to follow Governor Scott's recommendation, the increase would come from the Education Fund which would raise property taxes. Transferring money from the General Fund would mean shortchanging other needed programs because the Governor wants to hold the line on taxes.

There also seems to be overwhelming support for affordable housing (#5). This is an area where the state and municipalities and the business community can work and are working together to increase affordable housing. Legislation passed in previous years has made it easier to permit and build housing in designated downtowns and village centers. The business community in Chittenden County has joined with municipalities in housing planning as part of the Building Homes Together campaign.

Pretty much everyone, myself included, feels that we rely too heavily on property taxes to fund education. While there do not seem to be a lot of other alternatives to funding, controlling costs will be key to slowing the growth of property taxes. Consolidation under Act 46 has had an immediate positive effect on Charlotte's education property tax rate this year since our cost per pupil has gone down and the 10 cent property tax reduction incentive has kicked in.

Last year the legislature took steps to give towns more say in renewable energy siting (#10). The Regional Planning Commissions are working hard to generate the guidelines that towns can comply with to get “substantial deference”, which means that the Public Service Board would have to comply with the town's land use regulations if they meet the criteria in the guidelines.

Question 11 is closely related to question 5 discussed above. Vermont clearly needs to focus on improving its housing stock so that young people seeking to move to Vermont can afford to do so. Another key factor in this equation that was not addressed by the poll is the need for child care resources. Both of these critical needs are recognized by the Democratic majority in the legislature, and we hope with our Republican colleagues to move legislation addressing them in this session.
Here are all the results of the poll in Charlotte.

Q#
Question
Yes
No
Not Sure
1
Do you think Vermont is having success with the opiate crisis?
5%
65%
30%
2
Are you satisfied with Vermont's health care?
36%
46%
18%
3
Should Vermont increase funding for our state colleges?
60%
20%
20%
4
Does generating energy from renewable sources lead to economic development?
65%
17%
18%
5
Should we encourage affordable housing in Vermont?
81%
11%
8%
6
Should Vermont schools be applauded for advances in creative initiatives?
55%
17%
28%
7
Are you satisfied with the quality of education in your local school district?
61%
23%
16%
8
Does Vermont rely too heavily on property taxes to fund education?
77%
10%
13%
9
Are you optimistic about Vermont's economy?
30%
38%
32%
10
Should Vermont's communities have a voice in siting industrial energy projects?
86%
7%
7%
11
Should Vermont find ways to expand availability of homes for working families and young professionals?
82%
9%
9%
12
Do you think that Vermont values is a reason that many people live in Vermont?
69%
17%
14%
13
Should Vermont continue to address the issue of abuse and neglect of children?
93%
0%
7%
14
Do you support regulations that help to identify major sources of water pollution?
87%
4%
9%
15
Should Vermont create a lending program to provide capital for start-up businesses?
63%
17%
20%

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 802-425-3960 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

The Word in the House 3/16/2017 - Towards a Better Bottle Bill

Back in 1971 there was a lot of concern about littering Vermont's highways and byways. A major component of the litter was discarded beverage bottles that were tossed from moving cars. Governor Deane C. Davis and the legislature addressed the problem by passing the “Bottle Bill” in 1972 which established a 5 cent refundable deposit on bottles and eventually cans. This system has worked effectively ever since to promote recycling of these items. According to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), more than 80% of returnable bottles and cans are redeemed today. However, 45 years later beverage container recycling is still a subject in the legislature.

Here's how the system currently works. The beverage industry manages the deposit system. Consumers pay the retailer a 5 cent deposit which they get back when the container is redeemed. The beverage distributor(s) then pay the redemption location 8.5 cents per container. The deposits for the 15% of containers that are never redeemed are retained by the distributors to the tune of about $2M per year. The distributors also recycle the aluminum, plastic and glass for their value as raw materials. While aluminum and plastic are valuable materials, it costs money to collect, transport and recycle the glass.

There are currently two bills that have been introduced this year dealing with beverage containers, H.67 and H.173. H.67 would extend the current deposit system to water bottles and all other beverage containers except for milk and milk substitutes, and it would require the unclaimed deposits to be remitted to the state to support our solid waste system. Wine and liquor as well as uncarbonated beverages would be included.

On the other hand H.173, which I introduced, takes a different approach. I proposed H.173 primarily for discussion purposes to re-examine our 45 year old bottle recycling strategy. The committee process of the Vermont legislature allows for a pretty detailed examination of proposals with an opportunity to hear from many perspectives. Because Act 148 of 2012 mandates recycling throughout Vermont, H.173 would eliminate the deposit system entirely and place a 5 cent non-refundable fee on all glass beverage containers. My reasoning is fourfold:
1. Since the valuable aluminum and plastic are diverted from our solid waste stream by the deposit system, a significant revenue source for our solid waste districts is eliminated.
2. Glass recycling already imposes a loss on our solid waste districts because the value of the glass is lower than the cost of collecting, transporting and processing it.
3. The extra 3.5 cents that the beverage distributors pay the redemption centers as well as the cost to handle and transport the containers is built into the price of the beverage. This additional cost is somewhat mitigated by the $2M left with the beverage distributors. This complex handling system would be simplified by my bill.
4. The 5 cent fee on glass containers in H.173 would be remitted directly from the retailer to the state's Solid Waste Assistance Fund which supports certain programs of the solid waste districts. This would also eliminate the middleman, the distributors, from the recycling stream.

Both bills are in the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee which will consider their merits based on testimony from solid waste districts, the beverage industry, environmental organizations such as VPIRG, and groups that rely on the deposit system for fundraising. With changing times, the greater acceptance of recycling, and the positive effects of Act 148, I think it is worth revisiting the strategy for recycling beverage containers. I will support either bill or a hybrid that the Committee might approve.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 3/2/2017 - The Long and Short of Legislating

Hundreds of bills are introduced in the Vermont House each year. Some are very long bills that create new laws or make major modifications to existing law. A major rewrite of the liquor control laws that were first enacted in 1934 was recently undertaken by the General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee. All of the changes were technical including removal of outdated regulations and bringing others in compliance with current practices and relevant laws. This 179 page bill took over two hours to summarize on the House floor. Other than an amendment to legalize “happy hours”, which was defeated on a close vote because it would require more testimony, there was little controversy and the bill was passed on a voice vote. The committee indicated it would revisit the popular “happy hours” as a separate bill.

On the flip side of bill complexity, the Energy & Technology Committee considered a one-page bill, H.50, that would have simply extended a sunset clause on a section of law regarding telecommunications from July of this year to July of 2020, but generated a great deal of controversy This provision, known as Section 248a, provides an expedited process for getting a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the Public Service Board (PSB) for siting of telecommunication equipment such as antennae, wifi transmitters, and cell towers. Telecom facility siting would then have to go through either Act 250 permitting when applicable, local zoning, or both. Cell phone and internet access have been seen as essential for economic development, safety, education, health care, and consumer service. Section 248a has been a key factor in developing this infrastructure since the Douglas administration. The House Energy and Technology Committee took many weeks of testimony from all the stakeholders, including the PSB, the Department of Public Service, telecom providers, and municipalities and Regional Planning Commissions.

The extension of the sunset clause had been passed three times since 2007. Over this time several cases of cell tower siting have been contentious, pitting local zoning and residents against developers. Almost all of these had occurred more than a year ago. As a result of these issues coming to light, the legislature made modifications to 248a in 2015 which requires the PSB to give "substantial deference" to local plans, regulations and recommendations unless there is "good cause" to find otherwise. Substantial deference means that the plans and recommendations of municipal bodies are presumed correct, valid, and reasonable. The modifications also included strong language for co-locating new equipment on existing structures whenever possible. These modifications to 248a took effect on 7/1/2016, a mere eight months ago. After taking weeks of testimony and concluding that the concerns of the towns had been addressed in previous legislation, the committee decided to make 248a permanent by repealing the sunset clause.

As H.50 was brought to the floor for consideration by the VT House, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) sent a letter of opposition to repealing the sunset clause. This generated a lot of emails to legislators from municipal officials, and the Energy & Technology Committee decided to pull the bill back. We subsequently had more discussion with VLCT as well as other affected parties and restored the language extending the sunset for three years and added language to require the CPG applicants to include in the 60 day pre-application notice a list of existing options available to the municipalities, including reference to the substantial deference clause. This amendment to H.50 was satisfactory to VLCT as well as to the telecom providers, and the bill was once again voted out of committee for consideration by the full House and is expected to pass. The takeaway is that even the simplest bill can generate a lot of work and turmoil.

As always, I invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).