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

Legislative Report 5/24/2021 - 2021 Legislative session adjourns

 The Vermont legislature wrapped up a historic session that took place 100% remotely from January 6 to May 21. While 2020 began normally and then abruptly shifted to remote operation in reaction to the spreading coronavirus, which caused the session to run into September, the 2021 session started smoothly in January and ended on schedule in May. Per tradition, the Budget, a.k.a. H.439 "the Big Bill", was the last bill passed.  This Fiscal Year 2022 budget, a $7.34 billion package of investments that prioritizes the people of Vermont, passed unanimously 148-0.

H.439 strengthens systems and services that increase physical and mental health and well-being. It invests heavily in broadband and connectivity for rural communities. It invests in childcare to increase affordability and accessibility. It makes a massive investment in increasing affordable housing stock for low- and middle-income Vermonters. It prioritizes climate change, clean water, and begins to center racial and social equity in more of our investments. And it begins a process of resolving our public pensions crisis.

This budget incorporates state General Funds, CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal dollars in creating an equitable recovery plan that invests in people - leaving no Vermonter behind - and rebuilds the economy in all 14 counties. Of the $1.2 billion provided to Vermont by ARPA, the legislature has appropriated $581 million and reserved the remaining $600 million for future use. 

Of the many things we learned from this experience, one is that we are not only dependent on each other, but that today's society relies heavily on technology for our mutual resilience. We also learned that lack of access to that technology has left many Vermonters less secure and more dependent than they were when 2020 began. 

Last year we talked about how providing access to high-speed broadband to every Vermonter would cost upwards of $300M, and how it would take a decade or more to accomplish that. Thanks to the American Recovery Plan Act, we have been given an extraordinary opportunity to shorten that time frame by an order of magnitude. By appropriating $150M in this budget to encourage Communication Union Districts and municipalities to work cooperatively with existing Internet Service Providers, we are making the accomplishment of that goal possible in just a few years.  At the same time we will be creating many well-paying jobs and training the workforce to fill them.

With the weather turning nicer and the COVID precautions easing, I hope opportunities for in-person meetings will be increasing.  In the meantime, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).  

Legislative Report 5/17/2021 - House passes voting, health and safety measures

 

As I write this, the Vermont legislature is nearing the end of the session – we hope! Several bills passed both chambers, House and Senate, in the last two weeks and have been sent to the Governor for his signature.  Several others need to have differences resolved between the House and Senate versions before getting a final vote by both chambers.  The most significant is the fiscal year 2022 budget, a.k.a. The Big Bill. Once the budget is passed by both chambers, it is time to adjourn. Anything left unfinished will have to wait until January. Governor Scott is also weighing in with his priorities, particularly with respect to spending the $1.25 billion American Recovery Plan Act money coming to Vermont.  The legislature would prefer to spend about half of it in FY22 and hold off on the rest for future needs. States have until the end of 2024 to spend the ARPA money.

The success of last year’s general election proved the feasibility and popularity of universal vote-by-mail in Vermont. The House passed Senate bill S.15 this past week which authorizes universal vote-by-mail for all future general elections and allows the option for municipal elections as well. S.15 builds on the work that was done to help Vermonters vote safely during 2020 in several ways. It creates new provisions for town clerks to cure defective ballots by notifying voters who forget to sign the certificate envelope or fail to return unvoted primary ballots along with the voted ballot of their chosen party and allowing them to come into the office to correct the mistake. It also provides for expanded access by providing secure ballot drop boxes that are accessible 24/7 for voters to return their ballots and limits the number of ballots someone can deliver on behalf of others. Passing on a vote of 119 to 30, this legislation is in stark contrast to the prevailing trend across the U.S. where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws.

Vermonters’ health and safety were also addressed by major bills passed by the House.  The House gave final approval to a nation-leading bill, S.20, to ban toxic PFAS chemicals from food packaging, firefighting foam, ski wax, and carpets and rugs.  PFAS chemicals -- per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances -- are linked to harmful health impacts including high blood pressure, thyroid disease, kidney, and testicular cancers, and suppressed immune system function.  They are particularly dangerous because they “bioaccumulate” in our bodies and last throughout our lifetime.  PFAS is found in groundwater and drinking water across the country; it is found in the runoff (or leachate) from active and abandoned landfills in Vermont as well as in every wastewater treatment facility in Vermont. Perhaps most concerning, PFAS can be found within the blood of almost everyone in the United States. S.20 passed on a vote of 145 to 0.

With a vote of 143 to 0, the House also passed this week a bill that ensures a crime victim would know if the person accused of the crime is set free because they were found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. The legislation, S.3, is intended to make sure the crime victim knows when the accused person is released to the community. Under the bill, the state Department of Mental Health must provide at least 10 days’ notification of the accused person’s upcoming release to the prosecutor in the county where the crime took place. That prosecutor would be obligated to notify the crime victim. The same notification process would take place if an offender escaped from custody.  S.3 also funds a study to determine if a separate holding facility should be established for accused persons found to be incompetent or insane and who are considered a danger to themselves or others.

Finally, the month of May has been designated Asian-American and Pacific Islander month. As with any discrimination, we cannot tolerate and must condemn the violent attacks against persons of Asian or Pacific Island heritage that have been reported for several months across the country. Each and every one of us has the responsibility to actively stand against hate, discrimination, and violence aimed at anyone regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, disability status, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).  

Legislative Report 5/3/2021 - Thinking about buying a car?

 Are you in the market for a new or used automobile? Are you concerned about climate change and want to reduce your fossil fuel consumption? Have you been thinking about buying an electric vehicle (EV) but are anxious about the cost or about how far it can go on a charge? Having good information about the EV market can help you decide if an EV is right for you.

Image from VT Dept of Environmental Conservation

Transitioning from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles to help Vermont become less dependent on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation is key to our efforts to fight climate change. With the help of federal recovery assistance, this year’s budget increases the money available for EV incentive and emission repair programs. Here are some facts about the pros and cons of buying and owning an EV. 

What is an EV?  An EV is a car that uses a battery either wholly or partially to power the vehicle. It can be a plug-in hybrid EV (PHEV) that supplements the battery with a conventional gasoline engine, or it can be a purely battery powered vehicle called an All-Electric Vehicle (AEV).  PHEVs have a more limited electric range, typically around 30 to 50 miles, before switching over to gasoline.  AEVs can go much further on a charge, the distance depending on the year, make and model. Older AEVs may reach 100 miles, but new models have ranges exceeding 200 miles. Tesla AEVs can now travel up to 350 miles on a full charge. Drive Electric Vermont (DriveElectricVT.com) has all the information you need on EVs available in Vermont as well as fact sheets which list EV models and their ranges.

Why drive an EV?  Vermont has a goal of transitioning from fossil fuel energy to 90% electric energy by 2050. Vermont’s electricity is about 65% carbon-free today and is getting cleaner every year. Aside from the benefit of not burning fossil fuels that contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, there are financial benefits as well.  Not only is the cost of electricity per mile driven less than the cost of gasoline per mile, but the maintenance costs of an EV are lower.  There are no oil changes, spark plugs, catalytic converters, or emissions equipment unless it’s a PHEV, and those costs are lower for PHEVs compared to gasoline-driven vehicles.  Go to DriveelectricVT.com for a detailed cost of ownership analysis.

What incentives are available?  Available incentives depend on the year and model of the EV, whether it is new or used, and who the seller is.  There are federal, state and utility incentives available in Vermont. Federal tax credits ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 are available to buyers of qualified plug-in electric vehicles. The size of the credit is based on the battery size. Once an individual manufacturer sells 200,000 qualifying vehicles the credit is phased out for that automaker over the course of a year.  The State of Vermont provides incentives for plug-in electric vehicles sold or leased as new with a base manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $40,000 or less. Depending on a family’s adjusted gross income (AGI), rebates from $1500 to $4000 are offered for new EVs and PHEVs. Used EVs are also eligible for a rebate of 25% of the initial price of the vehicle, up to $5,000, through the Vermont Mileage Smart (MileageSmartVT.org) program administered by Capstone Community Action. Green Mountain Power, Burlington Electric Department, and other utilities also offer incentives for new EVs ranging from $1000 to $2500.

Electric vehicles are going to play a major role in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.  Their popularity is increasing at the same time range anxiety is decreasing because of the longer ranges being built into the vehicles as well as the growth of the public charging infrastructure.  And they’re fun to drive.  So, next time you decide you need a new or used set of wheels, take the time to visit DriveElectricVT.com and see if an EV makes sense for you. 

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).  

Legislative Report 4/19/2021 - Upping the Recycling Game

 Greenup Day is right around the corner - of the calendar, that is – and Vermonters will head out to the roadsides to pick up the refuse of winter. There will be bottles and cans as well as fast food containers, vehicle debris, and plastic bags based on my past experience.  The litter certainly does accumulate around here, but the number of beverage containers on roadsides in states without bottle deposit systems, like Pennsylvania, is considerably higher by my observation when I visit family there.

In 1972, Vermont passed its first bottle deposit bill as a way to clean up litter along our roads. Since then, it’s become a successful statewide recycling program that allows Vermonters to redeem beer bottles and soda cans for a nickel per container. Bottle drives provide a fundraising source for Scout troops and class trips, too. Glass liquor bottles, with the exception of wine, were added to the deposit system in 1990. In 2019 the law was changed to require the unredeemed deposits, about $1.5 million annually, to be returned to the state for deposit in the Clean Water Fund. While bills have been introduced over the last two decades to expand the deposit system, they have been unsuccessful. A step in that direction took place last week, however, with the Vermont House passing H.175 with a 99 to 46 vote. H.175 updates this landmark environmental law by expanding the redeemable list to include plastic water bottles, wine and hard cider bottles, and containers for all carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, except for dairy products, plant-based “milk” products, and non-alcoholic apple cider.

Right now, the bottle bill covers only 46 percent of the beverage containers sold in our state. Plastic water bottles are the second-most littered piece of trash in Vermont. Furthermore, broken and contaminated glass contributes to contamination of recycled paper and cardboard, is difficult to handle and expensive to dispose of, which can lead to dumping. Containers redeemed under the bottle bill are more valuable for recycling because they are cleaner and far more likely to be remade into new containers. By passing H.175, we will increase the number of recycled containers in Vermont by an estimated 375 million per year.

According to a recent poll, 88 percent of Vermonters support the bottle bill and 83 percent support updating it to include more containers. Expanding the bottle bill makes sense because it

  • increases recycling rates and reduces litter;
  • supports the closed-loop economy by making more bottles back into bottles;
  • reduces costs to solid waste management districts by reducing the volume of glass in our recycling bins;
  • increases the handling fee for redemption centers to cover the added work associated with sorting these products;
  • boosts the economy by creating more jobs than curbside recycling; and
  • generates more revenue for the Clean Water Fund.

·     Getting back to Greenup Day, Saturday, May 1, this year.  You can help by joining your neighbors and adopting a section of Charlotte’s roads. Sign up at the Greenup Charlotte web site (https://sites.google.com/view/charlotte-vt-green-up-day/home) and pick up a few green bags to fill.


I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).  

Legislative Report 4/5/2021 - The Intractable Problem of Underfunded Pensions

 

The announcement in January by State Treasurer Beth Pearce that the state pension funds for teachers and state employees were grossly underfunded and that action had to be taken to make the plans sustainable alarmed all Vermonters, but most especially teachers and state employees who are counting on those funds for their retirement. Her recommendations for plan changes included painful changes to pension benefits, including increasing the retirement age, increasing employee contributions, and lowering the payouts. Teachers and state employees reacted immediately to protect the benefits they had earned by contacting legislators to plead their case. This issue quickly became the dominant topic rivaling and intertwining with the budget in legislative deliberations. As such, it touches all Vermonters and deserves a closer look at the facts and figures.

In the 1990s the legislature cut back on the appropriations to the pension funds under the assumption that investment returns would continue to exceed the actuarial predictions. Over the years this contributed to about a third of the current $3 billion unfunded liability in the pension funds for teachers and state employees. Other contributing factors include an aging workforce with the number of active teachers/employees roughly equal to the number of retirees, increased longevity of retirees, and the consistently low returns on investment experienced since the “great recession” of 2009. The revised actuarial estimate this year added another $600 million to the pension system’s unfunded liabilities in this year alone.

The legislature does not manage the pensions or dictate the investment strategy, but we are taking the lead to bring stakeholders to the table to come up with a solution. Vermonters need the unions representing employees, the Governor, and the Treasurer to come to the table as well. Between 2016 and 2020 the annual contributions from the taxpayer-supported state General Fund to the pension funds increased from $184M to $303M while the teacher/employee contributions increased from $59M to $76M. The House Government Operations Committee has been considering not only the recommendations of the Treasurer but also alternative approaches to save the defined benefit model.

The legislature has already stepped up with a significant increase in funding for pensions this year. The FY22 budget that was recently passed by the House contains an appropriation of over $300 million for the pension funds. This represents an increase of roughly $100 million over the actuarial required contribution last year. While federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds cannot be used or applied to the pension system directly, they can be used to free up General Fund dollars to make a significant pension investment. Another $150 million in general fund dollars have been set aside for this purpose, for a total FY22 contribution approaching half a billion dollars.

Late last week Speaker Jill Krowinski announced that the House Government Operations Committee would push forward with much-needed pension governance reforms and create a task force to work over the summer to gather stakeholder input and recommend structural reform to the pension systems. The governance changes are key to solving the pension crisis. These reforms will increase the level of professional expertise of those managing the pension funds and take the politics out of decision-making at the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC), which consists of employer and employee representatives. They will streamline the decision-making process around changes to actuarial assumptions, require more frequent experience studies, and enhance transparency around investment fees. Both the new governance structure and the pension task force need to maintain representation and participation from key employee and employer stakeholders.

Defined benefit public pension plans, when properly designed and managed, are the most affordable way to provide secure income in retirement. The legislature is working to ensure the sustainability of the plans in a way that protects not only the benefits that employees and retirees earned but also the Vermonters whose taxes contribute to the pension funds and are increasingly under pressure to shore up the funds each year.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).