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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.

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The Vermont Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688) this afternoon (6/26/2020) with minor amendments. The legislature adjourned this evening until August 25th after passing $1B in Coronavirus Relief Funding provided by the federal CARES Act to help Vermonters and the Vermont economy respond to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature will reconvene on August 25th to complete the FY21 budget with updated financial data. I predict that the House will concur with the Senate's amendments and send the bill to the Governor. The GWSA will form the foundation of Vermont's response to the other existential crisis of climate change. Thanks to the many citizens, including students, who kept the pressure on last year by rallying, testifying and persisting at the statehouse to drive the message home that action is necessary. This is a beginning, not the end of the action we must take to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing.

Legislative Report 6/25/2020 -The House Appropriates $1 Billion of Coronavirus Relief Funds

Ever since Vermont received $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) as a result of the federal CARES Act, Governor Scott and the Legislature have been trying to decide how to allocate those funds to relieve the economic distress caused by the “stay home, stay safe” response to the virus. More than $90M was used almost immediately to help unemployed Vermonters and small Violating the guidelines would put Vermont at risk of having to return the money to the U.S. Treasury next year.  To be eligible for CRF, the spending must: 1) be necessary expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 emergency; 2) not have been accounted for in the budget most recently approved before March 27, 2020; and 3) be incurred between March 1 and December 30, 2020. 
businesses. The Governor subsequently called for $400M more to be released for assistance to businesses, many of which are in danger of closing completely.  While the objective is clear and uncontested, the Legislature, specifically the House where money bills must originate, has had the task of discerning how and where to allocate CRF money within the guidelines of the CARES Act.

Over the three-month period since the emergency went into effect, House committees, with stakeholder input, have been looking for eligible avenues within their areas of jurisdiction that would help all aspects of the Vermont economy, including individuals, businesses, non-profits, and those in need of social services.
With the goal that no Vermonter or Vermont community should be left behind because of COVID-19 impacts, several bills were passed during the last two months of the session that allocated $1.04B of CRF money to help Vermont and its citizens get back on their feet.  The appropriations include:

  • $356M to stabilize our health care system, including $257M for provider stabilization, as well as funding for mental health, childcare, senior services, and suicide prevention;
  • $196M for assistance to businesses, including restart grants, marketing and tourism, public safety, and the Arts;
  • $170M for pandemic frontline workers, including $20M for hazard pay;
  • $91M for housing assistance including eviction and foreclosure prevention and homelessness assistance;
  • $73M for higher education;
  • $50M for Pre-K education;
  • $43M for broadband connectivity assistance both for residential affordability and network expansion, E-911 system expenses, and to cover utility accounts that were 90+ days in arrears due to the pandemic;
  • $35M for agriculture and forestry relief;
  • $16M for the judicial system; and
  • $13M for municipalities.

This is the largest emergency recovery program ever passed by the Vermont legislature and reflects an enormous amount of work by the members of the House and Senate, our legislative staff, the administration, and the Joint Fiscal Office. While there still may be some changes as agreement on the details of the bills by the House and Senate are negotiated, we expect to finish our work by the end of this week and recess for the month of July.  We will be back together in August to complete the final three-quarters of the FY21 budget.

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

The Word in the House 6/5/2020 - House Passes Major Bills in Prolonged Session

As the lockdown of the Vermont economy continues to ease, the legislature has continued its work remotely via video-conferencing.  Meeting as an All-House Caucus each week on Tuesday, briefings are provided to all members on bills that will be coming up for a vote in the Wednesday and Friday floor sessions.  Members hear the reports of the committees that prepared the bills with an opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Those bills are then debated during the floor sessions, amendments are considered, and votes are taken.  During a normal session, this process is open to anyone who comes to the statehouse or who might tune into VPR’s live stream of the proceedings. Our virtual sessions, however, open up the proceedings to anyone with an internet-capable device at https://legislature.vermont.gov/. There you can find the links to the House or Senate sessions as well as to scheduled committee meetings that take place during the week. Click on the Announcements link to find the times for the proceedings.

In recent weeks, the House has passed several  major bills to keep the state on an even keel during the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supplemental Budget Adjustment (SBA) bill will take us through the rest of the 2020 fiscal year which ends on June 30th. With the deferral of the income tax filing deadline to July 15th as well as certain other tax payments, revenues expected in this fiscal year will not be received until the first quarter of FY21 and are anticipated to be lower than was expected in January.  The SBA bill adjusts spending but also allows borrowing from funds controlled by the State Treasurer until the deferred revenues are received.  It sets a date certain for repayment of those loans with interest. The SBA bill is now under consideration by the Senate.

At the same time, the House has been working on the “Skinny Budget” bill for the first quarter of FY21. The plan is to map out the first quarter, see where we are with respect to the economy, federal assistance and revenues at the end of August and then reconvene to create a budget for the rest of the fiscal year. The major components of the budget consist of the Capital Bill (H.955), the Transportation Bill (H.942), and the Yield Bill (H.959). These will be folded into the Appropriations Bill that defines the budget.  The Capital Bill addresses the spending needed to administer and maintain state properties and infrastructure including correctional facilities, office buildings, state parks, etc. The Transportation Bill does the same for the Vermont Agency of Transportation and includes roads and bridges, aid to municipalities, rail, mass transit, etc. The Yield Bill sets education tax rates based on the budgets approved by school districts in March.  However, some districts have not yet voted on school budgets, and less money is expected from the sales and use tax, which goes entirely into the Education Fund. Those reasons and the uncertainty of federal education assistance due to the pandemic led the Ways & Means Committee to set the property tax rates at the same level as was expected prior to the pandemic in order to provide municipalities firm numbers to work with for local tax rates.  Legislation later this summer will adjust these expectations as necessary. The bill also allows towns to borrow money for the education tax payments due the state with the interest covered by federal CARES Act money. All these bills will require passage by the Senate.

The legislature will continue to work until the “Skinny Budget” has passed in concurrence with the Senate. As always, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).

Legislative Report 5/28/2020 - Ensuring Our Right to Vote

Note: This article was also published as a Word in the House article in The Citizen.

Our United States Constitution guarantees American citizens many rights, most notably those contained in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. The right of every eligible citizen to vote is fundamental to our democracy and ensures that our other rights are protected by holding government accountable. While originally reserved only for free male citizens of age 21 or older, the right to vote was extended over time by subsequent amendments to freed male slaves, women, and citizens of age 18 and older.  In fact, this year is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.

After the Civil War and up until the 1960s African Americans’ right to vote was suppressed by southern states through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated those measures in those states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, and any changes to their voting laws required federal oversight (preclearance). However, in 2013 a divided Supreme Court struck down the preclearance clause of the act. This allowed a wave of measures enacted by many conservative states to make it harder to vote or skewed the vote by redrawing districts, a practice known as gerrymandering.  Requiring voter IDs, reducing the number of polling places in minority-heavy districts, and mass purges of names from voter lists have all eroded this fundamental element of our democracy.

On the other hand, many states, including Vermont, have made it easier for eligible citizens to vote. Five states conduct all elections by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Vermont allows people to register to vote right up to voting day.  We maintain a statewide voter database to reduce duplication of registration. We allow absentee and early voting to begin 45 days before the election. Several weeks ago, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin voters had to risk their health by standing in line to vote in person because the Wisconsin Supreme Court would not allow absentee voting without a valid excuse. Subsequently, a University of Wisconsin study found a “statistically and economically significant association” between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 after the election.

We don’t know at this time whether COVID-19 will still be widespread at the time of the primary election in  August and the general election in November. Vermont has been relatively successful in suppressing the spread of the virus.  As the restrictions on social participation are relaxed, we hope that we will not see a second wave of infections.  However, we can’t take that for granted.  We should be preparing now for both elections to be held primarily by mail. House bill H.681, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Scott, gives the Secretary of State temporary authority to change the way we hold elections during the COVID-19 emergency.

Secretary of State Jim Condos in consultation with Governor Scott is exploring options for the primary and general elections. This will certainly include an expansion of Vermont’s existing early and absentee voting system. It’s a safe and secure process that allows any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail and is the method recommended for Charlotte’s budget and trails vote on June 23rd. (You can vote now!) The polls will still be open on election day in some safe, modified way for people who prefer to vote in person.

As individuals we can prepare now for whatever form future elections take. The first step is to visit the “My Voter Page” (https://mvp.vermont.gov/) of the Secretary of State’s website. You’ll see two green buttons where you can register to vote or confirm that you’re registered to vote. If you know you’re registered to vote, but the site says you’re not, then check with our Town Clerk.  I was unable to find my record and called the Town Clerk’s office. I learned that my birth date was set to 1/1/1900 in the database, which was easily corrected.  Then I was able to confirm my registration on the website.  You can also verify that your address is correct, which is important if ballots will be mailed. Finally, you can always ask for a mail-in ballot by calling our Town Clerk.

Vermont has a better record of voter turnout than most states, ranking 11th in 2018 with a 56% showing. Absentee ballots accounted for about 30% of votes cast in both the 2016 and 2018 general elections. Vermonters take their commitment to democracy seriously.  We will not let even a pandemic get between us and that commitment.

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

Legislative Report 5/14/2020 - Navigating the Unemployment System Jungle

We are now two months into the societal shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it honestly feels much longer.  It’s seems hard to remember when we nonchalantly shook hands, greeted others with hugs and pats on the back, and could see the faces of folks we encountered in a grocery store. It isn’t bad enough that the pandemic economy shutdown has caused unprecedented job losses, but help for many of those who lost jobs or their businesses or had their hours cut back has been tangled up in a jungle of bureaucracy compounded by a 50-year old, antiquated computer system.  Because of the success of Vermont’s response to the pandemic in flattening the curve and avoiding an overwhelmed health care system, Governor Scott is gradually “opening the spigot,” as he puts it, to allow some businesses to reopen while maintaining proper hygienic measures.

However, the problems with unemployment assistance continue to plague many Vermonters who are having trouble obtaining the benefits they are owed and are running out of money.  There are several reasons for this situation that amounted to a perfect storm for the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL). (It should be noted that most other states are having similar issues.)  Take the age of the computer system that handles unemployment claims.  It is running on a mainframe computer that was state of the art in the 1970s but is woefully outdated now.  It is programmed in a language called COBOL. Programmers familiar with COBOL are long-retired or about to retire.  Large scale updates to the software are not feasible or practical.  Two attempts over the last decade to replace the system, both of which were part of a consortium of several states to share the cost of development, have not been successful.

So, now we’re stuck with an inadequate system that was working fine when there were 200 to 400 applications per week but can’t handle the 87,000 that were generated en masse since mid-March. The 65 regular VDOL employees who input and process claims were overwhelmed.  Calling into the department became virtually impossible. Since the initial flood of claims, 200 additional personnel were hired, including a call center firm called Maximus.  At the same time, the federal CARES Act allowed self-employed persons, who don’t qualify under the regular system because they don’t contribute to the unemployment insurance (UI) fund, to sign up for benefits. As a result, a new, unfamiliar Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) system had to be set up alongside the UI system to handle an additional 17,000 claims.  To complicate things further the relaxed rules for claiming unemployment were relaxed were not reflected in the programming which caused some applicants to be incorrectly disqualified.

Every one of the 180 members of the Vermont House and Senate have heard from constituents who are rightly frustrated at their inability to navigate the jungle that is currently the state’s unemployment system.  After hearing from constituents for weeks, the House created a spreadsheet to allow legislators to record the complaints and situations of their constituents for referral to a special Labor Department team.  In addition, 24 legislators have volunteered to assist in connecting claimants on that list to appropriate department employees. The Labor Department has also taken steps to reverse negative eligibility codes received by many applicants. As of May 10th, 54,000 of the 61,000 UI claimants determined to be eligible have been paid, and 8,600 of the 17,000 PUA claimants have received payment. Both the administration and the legislature know that more must be done, and we are working cooperatively to achieve that for our constituents.  Be well, stay safe, and persist.

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