The Word in the House 2/13/2020 - Revisiting the Nineteenth Amendment

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.    - The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted August 18, 1920

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote everywhere in the United States.  The occasion is being marked in the Statehouse with a special exhibit called “Women in the Statehouse.” A display featuring the history of the evolution of Vermont state government from an all-male institution to the present where 40% of legislators are women was dedicated with a ceremony last week.  The Vermont legislature passed full suffrage for women in 1919, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Percival Clement. National adoption of the 19th amendment in 1920 had an immediate effect in Vermont where 10,000 women voted in that year’s gubernatorial election in which James Hartness, a leading voice for the ratification of the amendment, defeated Clement. Vermont quickly ratified the 19th Amendment in February of 1921, and in November Edna Louisa Beard became the first woman to be elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. Since then, Vermont has had three women Speakers of the House: Consuela Bailey (1953 – 1955), Gaye Symington (2005 – 2009), and Mitzi Johnson (2017 – Present).  Consuela Bailey was also Vermont’s first female Lieutenant Governor and was subsequently joined in that honor by Madeleine Kunin and Barbara Snelling. Madeleine Kunin became the first and only (so far) woman Governor of Vermont in 1985 and served until 1991.

If you are ever looking for something to do on a Wednesday evening between January and April, and if you don’t mind driving to Montpelier, you can attend Farmers Night at the Statehouse.  This series of programs is a longstanding tradition in which artists from around the state, in genres ranging from classical music to bluegrass to barbershop, perform in the well of the House Chamber. The performances are free and open to the public, and the schedule can be found at https://statehouse.vermont.gov/events.

In the same evening that the “Women in the Statehouse” exhibit was dedicated, I had the privilege and pleasure of taking part in the weekly Farmers Night performance that featured a musical rendition of the 19th Amendment.  The music in four parts was composed by Neely Bruce, professor of Music and American Studies at Wesleyan University. Besides several legislators and Statehouse staff, singers from Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as from Vermont performed under the direction of Neely Bruce himself. While his composition, “The Bill of Rights, Ten Amendments in Eight Motets” was also sung in the program, the night’s performance was the worldwide debut of “The Nineteenth Amendment”.  

The right to vote is a fundamental right of citizenship and is essential to our democratic form of government. Besides the 19th Amendment, three other amendments extend the right to vote to persons that had previously been excluded. The 15th amendment, adopted after the Civil War, gave the right to former slaves and people of color. The 24th amendment (1964) forbids the use of a poll tax to exclude a person from voting. The 26th amendment (1971) extended voting rights to eighteen year-olds. As Town Meeting approaches and as we move toward the general election in November, we each have not only a chance but a responsibility to make our voice heard by exercising this right.

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

Legislative Report 2/6/2020 - Affordability for Working Vermonters

Last May the 2019 legislative session ended with a sense of frustration that we couldn’t get two key bills across the finish line, not because of opposition in either the House or Senate, but because the two chambers couldn’t agree on a common version for either bill.  One of the bills, H.107, would have enacted a paid family and medical leave insurance program and the other, S.23, would have raised Vermont’s minimum wage. Both bills were high on the agenda as the 2020 session began a few weeks ago.  They were both sent to conference committees during the first week of the session to iron out a compromise. Agreement was quickly reached and the bills were passed by large majorities in both chambers and sent to the Governor.  However, despite the overwhelming support in the legislature, Governor Scott indicated that he would veto both bills and did so for the Paid Family Leave bill on January 31st.  The Senate has enough votes to override the veto but getting to 100 votes in the House is still in question since the bill passed 89 to 58.*

Affordability has been a mantra of the Governor since his election in 2016.  His approach has been to hold down spending and taxes, a reasonable approach to be sure.  However, affordability does not mean the same thing to everyone.  Those at the top end of the income scale may see taxes as the focus of unaffordability.  Those in the middle of the income spectrum worry more about childcare, housing and medical expenses as well as taxes. Those at the lower end of the income spectrum experience financial stress in every aspect of life. When we try to address affordability, it is important to think about the entire spectrum of wage earners.

The Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance bill provides up to 12 weeks each for new parents to bond with their newborn, 8 weeks for family care due to illness, and 6 weeks of optional temporary disability benefits at an additional cost for the employee’s own illness. The United States is one of only two countries that do not have a paid family leave program, the other being Papua New Guinea.  The cost of providing this insurance would be a premium of 0.2% assessed on earned income. For a worker earning $50,000 annually, the cost would be $100. The Governor recognized the need for such a program by offering a 6 week paid leave package for state employees, a pool of 8,500 workers, at about 3 times the cost and opening it up on a voluntary basis for any other employed Vermonters.  Like any insurance program, the smaller the pool of insured, the more expensive the cost. The legislature decided that all working Vermonters should have the same access to this insurance with better benefits and lower premiums.

Similarly, the Minimum Wage bill seeks to help Vermonters at the lowest end of the pay scale.  While the House proposed to get to $15 over four years, the conference committee agreed to a compromise that raises the minimum wage from the current $10.96 to $11.75 on January 1, 2021, and to $12.55 a year later.  It reflects the legislature’s commitment to supporting families and communities throughout the state by giving our lowest wage earners a much-needed raise. Increasing the minimum wage not only strengthens our families and our workforce, it boosts the greater economy by putting more spending power into the pockets of Vermonters. Forty thousand of our lowest paid workers will see increased earnings over the next 2 years. Exceptions to the minimum wage for tipped, student, and agricultural workers remain unchanged.
  
I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.  

* Note: On Wednesday, 2/5/2020, the House voted on the Governor's veto.  100 votes out of 150 members present were required to override the veto.  However, the vote fell short with 99 members voting to override and 51 members voting to sustain the veto.  The roll-call record on the vote can be found on page 239 of the House Journal of 2/5/2020

Legislative Report 1/23/2020 - The Transportation and Climate Initiative: How it works


Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Vermont at 43% of total emissions. Our neighboring states are facing the same problem with transportation being the highest GHG source. So, in 2018 Vermont joined with 12 other eastern states from Maine to Virginia and the District of Columbia
Photo from VT Agency of Natural Resources TCI website
to design a regional program called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) to reduce GHG emissions from transportation.  Details of the design were released in December, 2019, and Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources has invited public comments on the proposal.

The concept behind TCI is similar to that of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), of which Vermont is a member along with 8 other states in the northeast.  RGGI, established in 2009, is a market-based program to cut GHG emissions from electric generation.  RGGI has been successful in reducing region-wide emissions from 188 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2009 to 80 million in 2019. The revenues Vermont has received from the program have been a major reason why our electric rates have been relatively level over that period and why we have been able to transition most of our electric energy to renewable sources. TCI will operate in a similar way to reduce climate-changing emissions and invest in cleaner transportation, healthier communities, and more resilient transportation infrastructure.

All pollution reduction mechanisms have compliance costs which are eventually paid by consumers. The TCI “cap and invest” system is designed to drive down the price of compliance and lessen the cost to consumers while providing a mechanism to reduce fossil fuels used for transportation. This is how it will work.
  1. A limit, or cap, is set on the amount of CO2 that is released from vehicles using transportation fuels. The initial cap is based on a “business as usual” scenario and is reduced over time.
  2. Transportation fuel suppliers must obtain an allowance for every ton of CO2 resulting from the fuel they sell.
  3. The total number of available allowances is limited based on the cap. An auction is held to determine the price per ton of carbon to meet the cap. Transportation fuel suppliers can bid on available allowances.
  4. States receive payments based on the revenues raised from the sale of allowances. Each state then determines how to best invest proceeds to reduce transportation carbon emissions through subsidies of transportation options that emit less CO2. These might include electric and hybrid-electric vehicle and charging station incentives, mass transit improvements, park-and-ride lots, and encouraging smart development. Attention will be given to relieving the cost impact on low-income and rural Vermonters.

Although Vermont has participated in the TCI design process, Governor Scott has been less than enthusiastic about signing onto this multi-state agreement.  He has stated his opposition to any concept that includes carbon pricing.  However, we must also consider the costs of not participating. Since we are in a regional market, Vermont may be subject to the increased cost of fuel without getting any of the benefits.  We also face the costs associated with more extreme weather that damages our roads and bridges, drowns our crops, and downs our power lines. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to talk about concern for climate change without taking the steps to reduce our contributions through a more efficient transportation policy. The legislature may elect to participate only to face a veto.  It is time for our Governor to translate words and intentions into action.
  
I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.  


The Word in the House 1/16/2020 - Back to Work

Names have power! Remembering someone’s name can give you an edge; forgetting a name I should know always makes me feel at a disadvantage.  In my first week back at the Statehouse I experienced both sides of that coin. By the end of the week, with a little help from a notepad and the legislative website, the names of most of my colleagues bubbled up from the six-month recess of my memory. We were all back to work picking up where we left off last May.

The first week was marked by Governor Scott’s State of the State
address in which he laid out in general terms his agenda for the year. Lieutenant governor David Zuckerman presided over the combined House and Senate assembly. As Governor Scott began to speak with members of his cabinet, statewide elected officials, the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, and special guests in attendance, a group of climate activists began chanting from the gallery demanding that government act to fight climate change. They were peaceful but loud and succeeded in disrupting the occasion. To his credit, the Governor listened with the rest of us for about 5 minutes.  Then, with the chanting still continuing, he tried to continue but could not be heard. Lieutenant Governor Zuckerman then called for a recess and asked security to escort the protesters out of the gallery. No one was arrested, however, and the assembly reconvened after about 15 minutes.

“The state of the state is strong!” Scott began. He spoke of working together with the legislature respectfully while acknowledging our differences. He noted that Vermont had population declines in eleven of its fourteen counties, and also that the remote-worker brought 371 people into Vermont.  He talked about spending more money on after-school programs and after-school childcare without increasing property taxes. And he acknowledged that we need to work on climate change by continuing our transition to electric vehicles and buses and utilizing more battery storage in our electric grid. Achieving these objectives will depend a lot on the details in his budget address he will give later this month.

In the House Energy & Technology Committee we heard reports on work done by the Department of Public Service (DPS) and the Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation (FPR) regarding telecommunications, energy, and carbon sequestration. We learned that several installations of battery storage, including one in Hinesburg, are helping to reduce demand during the evening peak.  DPS is also proposing changes in legislation to provide utilities more control over storage to improve reliability. We also learned that several communities have started to take advantage of legislation we passed last year that allows municipalities to form Communication Union Districts to bring high-speed broadband to unserved and underserved parts of Vermont. FPR Commissioner Michael Snyder outlined the role our forests can play in sequestering carbon with proper forest management practices. Then at the end of the week we began our consideration of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which, if passed, will require Vermont to meet specific greenhouse gas reduction goals between now and 2050.  Vermont will be required to actively plan and take steps to reduce emissions to at least 26% of 2005 levels by 2025, 40% by 2030, and 80% by 2050 in keeping with Vermont’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan and the 2016 Paris Agreement.

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

Legislative Report 1/9/2020 - Session Preview on Climate Action

The Vermont legislature convened in Montpelier this week for the second half of the biennium, i.e. the two-year legislative term between elections. Legislative work did not stop when the session adjourned in May. Off-session work includes constituent assistance as well as study committees, oversight committees and workgroups that meet either in official capacity or to prepare for the coming session. Some of our unfinished business from 2019 will be on the agenda early in the session, including increasing the minimum wage, establishing a paid family leave insurance program and creating a tax and regulate system for cannabis sales in Vermont. I’m also looking forward to working with my colleagues once more to take significant steps to address the climate crisis through Vermont’s energy policy.

Over the last two years more and more focus has been on what effects human consumption of fossil fuels has had on the global climate.  Extracting and burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas emit enormous amounts of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) which build up in the atmosphere and increase the average global temperature.  In recent years we have seen the effects in more intense hurricanes, heavier rainfall and flooding, more persistent heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in the west. Melting glaciers and icecaps have contributed to measurable sea level rise leading to “sunny day flooding” in some coastal communities. These effects drive costs higher for everyone, including Vermonters. Climate scientists have overwhelmingly concluded that we have only a limited amount of time to act decisively to limit global warming and its effects on our environment, health and economy.  Last year Vermonters have joined people all over the world in climate demonstrations demanding that governments do something about climate change.

Several years ago, a group of legislators from the House and Senate formed the Climate Solutions Caucus.  This group, now numbering more than 60 members, is committed to take meaningful steps to reduce Vermont’s contribution to the climate crisis.  The Paris Climate Accord of 2015 calls for a 50% reduction of GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2028.  This goal was adopted by both the Shumlin and the Scott administrations. 

In contrast, however, Vermont’s emissions as measured by the Department of Environmental Conservation have instead risen by 16%. We have to bend that curve by addressing the biggest sources of GHGs in our economy: transportation and heating. This will help Vermonters save money by living in more efficient homes and driving more efficient vehicles.

While we took some steps in 2019 to help reduce Vermont’s emissions, including starting an EV incentive program, and increasing funding of low- and moderate-income residential weatherization, we know we have to do more. The Climate Caucus held several workgroup sessions over the summer to identify further steps we can take. Converting our renewable energy and energy transformation goals from the 2017 Comprehensive Energy Plan into statutory requirements by passing the Global Warming Solutions Act is the first step. To make our older housing stock more efficient for heating and cooling we’ll have to accelerate weatherization assistance to homeowners and landlords. Changing Efficiency Vermont’s mission to include using funds for moderate-income weatherization through the All Fuels Initiative will be part of the solution.

Transportation is the largest GHG contributor at 43% of emissions. We must continue to reduce transportation emissions by supporting EV purchases, electrification and expansion of mass transit options, expanding park-and-ride facilities, and promoting transportation alternatives like bicycling and walkways. We also know that Vermont can’t combat climate change alone. Alone our emissions are relatively small, but we have a responsibility to do our part. With the approval of Governor Scott, Vermont joined with 12 other eastern states from Maine to Virginia and the District of Columbia to consider a regional program to reduce GHG emissions from transportation.  This program, called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), would be a “cap and invest” system.  Details of the design were released this December and the legislature and administration will be working together to integrate this effort into Vermont policy. Reducing emissions will not only benefit the climate but will also reduce carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and asthma aggravating particulates in the air we breathe.

I plan to write more about these actions in the future as they develop. I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.  

Commentary: Democracy Is Our Responsibility - 7/11/2019

Celebrating our nation’s birthday on July 4th reminds us how lucky we are to live in a country built on democracy. We must also remember that our democracy was formed and is maintained by active participation of the governed, namely us. When we see that our government is taking us in a wrong direction, it requires us to speak out and take action to affect change. Peaceful protest is one kind of action.

We are all familiar with the situation on the southern border of the United States where thousands of hopeful immigrants from Central America either wait to enter the U.S. or risk crossing the border between checkpoints to seek asylum. Thousands of asylum-seekers have been arrested and are being held in overcrowded detention centers.  Children have been separated from their families or caregivers and whisked away to separate holding facilities.  We’ve seen the pictures on the news of children and adults crowded into chain-link cages with nothing more than a mylar sheet for sleeping on the floor. Social workers, lawyers and members of Congress report that these detainees are not given even the basic necessities of soap, toothbrushes, changes of clothing, or even the ability to wash their clothes.  These facilities, despite the objections of the Border Patrol, the Trump administration and Trump himself, fit the dictionary definition of concentration camps.

This is why I joined a protest last week in Burlington in front of the offices of Senators Sanders and Leahy to demand the close of the detention-center-concentration-camps.  Hundreds of Vermont citizens including many from Charlotte showed up for the march from the top of Church Street to the corner of Main and South Willard Street.  We marchers were determined to raise our voices against these policies of this administration, an administration that took an immigration policy that has been broken for decades and exacerbated it to the crisis of the present day.

I believe that America is better than this. Instead of walls to keep people of color out, we need changes to our immigration system that allow human beings who want to make a better life for themselves and their children into our great country.  When my grandparents came over at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were not educated, wealthy people.  Nor were the immigrants that preceded them from whom most of us are descended. But they came and worked at the hard labor jobs like coal mining, steel smelting, house cleaning or whatever menial jobs were available that allowed them to provide for their families. Some started their own businesses like my grandmother did after her husband’s back was broken in the mines. Rather than being a drag on the economy, they helped grow the economy.

This has been the history of this country, and it is just as true today. The migrant farm worker in Vermont is a benefit to our economy and should not be the target of ICE as so many in the last three years have been. Three young men were arrested a few weeks ago in St. Albans as they were shopping and using Western Union to send money back home to their families. Shamefully, they were turned in by a “concerned citizen” who apparently observed them and heard them speaking Spanish. They are just the latest in a series of arrests by ICE in Vermont of those who dare to take jobs that no one else wants in this country.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that as a result of our current immigration policy our country has reached a nadir with respect to its moral authority, but we have begun to swing back to a higher moral ground as evidenced by the 2018 election.  It is up to us to make sure it does not falter as a result of our inattention and inaction.

This commentary was published in The Charlotte News on 7/11/2019 and in The Citizen on 7/12/2019.