Legislative Report 5/16/2019 - E Pluribus Unum

All members of the Vermont House of Representatives meet at least once a day as a body during the legislative session to consider the bills on the day’s Calendar. These floor sessions begin with an invocation delivered most of the time by a member of the clergy. The Reverend Susan Cooke Kittredge, Associate Pastor of the Charlotte Congregational Church, has done so several times. On other occasions a musical performance by an individual or a group will be provided, and occasionally a member of the House will provide a reflection. Last week it was my privilege to offer some thoughts for consideration. The motto on the currency of the U.S., E Pluribus Unum, translates to “Out of Many, One.”  That motto and the Pledge of Allegiance inspired my thoughts and the following comments.

Every Tuesday morning we begin by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.  The last line of that pledge includes the phrase, "with Liberty and Justice for All."  What does the word "All" mean?

Some people think it means citizens of our country and nothing more.  But I would suggest that the composer of this pledge meant it to include all human beings. The pledge was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister's son from upstate New York. While there is considerable documentation about different iterations of the pledge from the original text, there is no documentation as to what Mr. Bellamy considered the word "All" to mean. What we do know is that in the post-civil war era, the idea included those who were at one time enslaved. Since then, waves of immigrants have come to America from various places - Ireland, Eastern Europe, Italy, Latin America, Asia and Africa - every corner of the globe, and each wave, other than enslaved persons who were forced to come, faced resistance from those who were already here.

Like immigrants that came before them, today's immigrants generally start out near the bottom of the economic ladder and, with hard work driven by a vision of a better life for their children, rise over generations to a place higher on the ladder. Many, perhaps most of us here today, can recognize our own grandparents or great-grandparents in today's immigrants.  This illustrates a simple fact: our differences are superficial.  At our core, we are all alike.

Those who seek to focus on the perceived differences among us - color, race, ethnicity, gender preference, religion, even politics - create division and weaken us as a society. The true cement that binds us together is love, altruistic love, agape in Greek. It is the core belief of the Judeo-Christian tradition as expressed in the Greatest Commandments to Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves. And who is our neighbor? Jesus answered the question with the parable of the Good Samaritan at a time when the Samaritans were the outcasts of the Judaic community. It is expressed in the Quran in which the Prophet states that it is the duty of believers to "show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and to the neighbor that is a stranger."

In his new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Bill McKibben states,
 “Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love that lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth and makes us okay with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die.”

So, if we really mean it when we pledge Liberty and Justice for All, it truly has to be for all, and our actions should reflect it.

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

the Word in the House 5/9/2019 - Seatbelts, Clean Water and Medications

The end of the legislative session is getting closer, and in the last week the House passed several Senate bills with amendments.  If the Senate does not concur with the House amendments to a bill, a Conference Committee will be appointed to resolve the differences. Then both chambers would have to vote on the report of the Committee without further amendment.

The Transportation Bill (S.149) had several House amendments, including a primary seat belt provision which allows law enforcement to stop a vehicle if the driver is not wearing a seat belt. While nine percent of drivers do not wear seat belts, around 50 percent of fatalities involve unbelted occupants. Stricter enforcement of seat belt use has been demonstrated to save lives.  Another amendment allows all emergency vehicles to use both red and blue lights.  Tests have shown that people respond more to blue lights than red in emergency situations.

Another Senate bill passed by the House with amendments was S.40 which authorizes testing and remediation of lead in the drinking water of schools and child care facilities. A total of $2,400,000 is appropriated to fund remediation for fixtures testing above 5 parts of lead per billion, which is also the allowed level for bottled water, although no level is really safe for kids. This is not as strict as the action level set by the Senate, 3 ppb, and may result in another Conference Committee. The state will cover the actual cost of replacing a drinking water fixtures up to $2000 for public drinking fountains and ice machines, $700 for outlets used for cooking, and $400 for all other outlets.

To better address the opioid problem, the House also passed S.43 with amendments to prohibit a health insurance plan from requiring prior authorization for medication assisted treatment as well as for counseling and behavioral therapies associated with medication-assisted treatment. If the plan provides prescription drug coverage, it must ensure that at least one medication from each drug class for the treatment of substance use disorder is available at the lowest cost level of the plan.

One bill we expect to see this week is for clean water funding.  The Ways and Means Committee is proposing to use 4 percent of the rooms and meals tax for the Clean Water Fund. This will provide a sustainable source of funding as required by the federal EPA.  The 4 percent will come out of the 25 percent of the tax allocated to the Education Fund.  However, the amount is expected to be made up by a change in the sales tax which will now apply to software program packages purchased online.  The same tax will be assessed as if it were purchased in a store. All sales taxes are allocated to the Education Fund per a law enacted last year.

An opinion piece by the President of the conservative Ethan Allen Institute in last week’s Citizen called out Democrats in the legislature for being “ideological”.  The EAI is on the record of believing climate change is not happening, but if it is, we can’t do anything about it, so we shouldn’t try.  Well, I must disagree, and will continue to advocate for policies that will help Vermonters reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money by reducing their use of fossil fuels.  Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment and bad for our wallets.  Did you notice that gasoline prices jumped from $2.58 in March to $2.83 this week?  Are you getting more mileage from that gas? If we had a 2 cent per gallon tax that would be dedicated to helping Vermonters purchase more fuel efficient all-electric and hybrid electric vehicles, Vermont drivers would save both money and the environment. As for my statement that legislators need to be leaders and not just followers, there are times when we need to take bold steps.  Climate change is just such a situation. We must have the political will to pay a little more today and invest it in measures to prevent a greater cost for our children,  grandchildren, and future generations.

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

Legislative Report 5/3/2019 - Constitutional Questions

I’ve heard the last two weeks of the legislative session described as a log-jam of bills just waiting for the dam to burst.  While House committees continue to work on bills already passed by the Senate, one significant bill came a step closer to final approval. After years of attempts to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco and related products to 21, the House passed the Senate’s “Tobacco 21” bill (S.86) on a vote of 124 to 14. The only change the House made to the Senate version was to move the effective date from July 1, 2019, to September 1, 2019. The Senate should quickly approve this minor change and send the bill to the Governor. (On April 30th the Senate approved the House amendment and passed S.86.) 

While it is unusual for proposals to amend Vermont’s Constitution to be considered, several have been proposed since 2010.  Five were introduced in the 2011-2012 biennium and six in the 2015-2016 biennium, none of which actually made it to a vote. This year six proposals of amendment have been introduced, and two were passed by the Senate. Proposal 2 would amend the Constitution to prohibit slavery and indentured servitude, and Proposal 5 would guarantee personal reproductive liberty. Without going into detail on these proposals which have surmounted the first hurdle in the Senate, here is an explanation of what is required to amend our Vermont Constitution.

All amendments must originate in the Senate and can be proposed only in every other biennium, which explains the lack of proposals in 2013 and 2017. A proposal must be adopted by both chambers during the biennium in which it is proposed, and then again in the next biennium. The chamber vote requirements are higher in the proposing biennium than in the subsequent one. In the first biennium the Senate must approve the proposal by a 2/3 vote of all the members, i.e. 20 Senators. If approved, the proposal is sent to the House, where it is referred to the appropriate committee of jurisdiction. If the committee decides to consider the proposal, it must hold a public hearing prior to voting on it. No amendments are allowed. If it is voted out of committee, the proposal must pass in the House by a majority of all the members of the House, i.e. 76 Representatives. Then within 90 days of approval by the House, the Secretary of State must publish the proposal in at least two newspapers having general circulation in the state.

In the following biennium (2021-2022 for these proposals), the Senate must again approve the proposal, but only by a majority of the members this time, i.e. 16 Senators. If the Senate approves the proposal for a second time, the House committee of jurisdiction is once again required to hold a public hearing before it can vote the proposal out of committee for consideration by the whole House. Then, at least 76 members of the House must be present to vote on the proposal. Of those present, a simple majority is required to pass it.

If the proposal passes both chambers in both biennia, the Governor provides public notice by proclamation and the Secretary of State must publish the proposal in two major newspapers once a week for three weeks. The proposal is then submitted to the voters of the state in the general election for ratification. If a majority of the voters approve, the Constitution is amended.

Readers can view Proposals 2 and 5 and track their status by going to https://legislature.vermont.gov/ and entering “PR2” or “PR5” in the Search for Bills and Resolutions.

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

The Word in the House 4/25/2019 - Legislative Timeline Is Getting Short

The time has come where we’re nearing the end of the legislative session and work needs to be completed on bills if they have any chance of being enacted in this session. For the House, this includes many Senate bills now under consideration.  These include bills for taxing and regulating recreational cannabis sales (S.54), increasing the minimum wage (S.23), requiring a 24-hour waiting period for handgun sales (S.169), and raising the age for buying tobacco products to 21 (S.86).  House bills waiting for similar action in the Senate include broadband development, taxing e-cigarettes, increasing weatherization assistance, increasing child care assistance, and paid family leave, not to mention the major money bills for capital spending, fees, transportation and the budget. Bills that were not passed before crossover (March 15th) can have a second chance if their provisions are added to a bill that was passed by the other body and deals with the same topic.

The cannabis tax-and-regulate bill is now assigned to the House Government Operations Committee. Recently, Governor Scott stated that he would not sign the bill if it didn’t allow for roadside saliva sampling for THC levels.  The Senate did not include such testing because of the concerns that the results do not conclusively indicate impairment and because saliva testing impacts privacy. The House Judiciary Committee has been asked to review the appropriateness of including saliva testing before Gov Ops bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

The imposition of a 24-hour waiting period for handgun sales is also in House Judiciary.  About half of suicides are by gun and result in fatality 90% of the time compared to other methods.  Failed suicides by other means allow a victim to get counseling and treatment. A 24-hour delay can short-circuit an impulsive act that is irreversible. This bill passed the Senate as a compromise from the first draft requiring a 72-hour waiting period. Concerns about how a longer waiting period would impact gun shows led to the compromise since gun shows are usually held on weekends. One possible amendment being considered is to include long guns (rifles) in the waiting period.

Raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 has been passed by the House in previous years only to die in the Senate.  This year the Senate passed a Tobacco-21 bill and sent it to the House. A lot of progress has been made over the years in reducing smoking, especially among our youth. However, with the advent of vaping, addiction to nicotine is on the rise not only in high school but even in middle school. Raising the age for tobacco products would also apply to e-cigarettes and accessories. There is a long list of supporters of this bill, including the leadership of the Vermont National Guard, and the bill is likely to pass on a floor vote.

The House Energy and Technology Committee has possession of Senate bill S.95 which will allow municipal electric utilities like Washington Electric Co-op or the Stowe Town Electric Department to borrow amounts up to 50% of their assets without requiring a vote of their members. This provides our committee an opportunity to add language that will increase the allowable net metering capacity for school districts that have merged from 500 kW to 1,000 kW. This will provide merged school districts the ability to offset a greater amount of their electrical needs with renewable energy while saving taxpayers money.

And a quick note on the weatherization bill that would raise heating fuel prices by 2 cents per gallon. The Senate considers the fuel tax increase too onerous and is considering raising money for low-income weatherization another way.  Meanwhile, fuel oil prices went up 5 cents per gallon in the past month, two and a half times the fuel tax increase, and Vermonters are not getting any additional benefit from it. Did anyone notice? Just sayin’.

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

The Word in the House 4/11/2019 - Paid Family Leave Supports Working Families

The need of parents to bond with a newborn, or a son or daughter to tend to an ill elderly parent, or any number of similar situations can have an impact on a person’s ability to stay on the job.  These situations not only impact our work-life balance but can also cause significant financial impacts as well.  Providing Vermonters with the ability to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones will support people when they need it most and build a foundation for future generations to thrive.

The Federal Family Medical Leave Act ensures certain rights for workers to take time off to care for family members when necessary but does not provide for financial assistance to do so. However, there is a need in today’s economy for such a benefit. A majority of Vermont businesses are small and employ a significant percentage of the workforce. Yet these are the very businesses that struggle to provide robust benefit packages to their employees and struggle to retain the workers who leave to work for larger companies that can.  Vermont small businesses overwhelmingly support the creation of a strong, universal family and medical leave insurance program. Recognizing this, the Vermont House passed the Paid Family Leave Insurance (PFLI) bill (H.107) last week on a 92 to 52 vote.

Governor Scott supported a PFLI program in partnership with New Hampshire that would apply to state employees and to any employers that chose to opt into the program. However, the legislature considered this option and concluded that there were several drawbacks. First, a voluntary program would not cover all employees unless their employers opted in. Second, fewer participating individuals would mean higher premiums and higher risk. Third, the wage replacement benefit of 60% would represent a substantial pay cut.

As passed H.107 is an insurance program that allows an employee to take time off for an eligible reason without a significant loss of income. A person is eligible for the benefit if 
a) they earned wages during six months of the last 12 months; and
b) they earned an amount equal to 1,040 hours times the minimum wage. 
The benefit would be 90% of an employee’s average weekly wage up to $533 per week and 50% of the excess above that amount up to a maximum of $1,334 per week. The leave duration would be up to 12 weeks for parental bonding or up to 8 weeks of their own medical leave or family care leave with no more than 12 weeks in a 12 month period.

The insurance premium would be a payroll deduction on wages up to the Social Security maximum ($132,900 in 2019) at a rate of 0.10% of wages for the first six months and 0.55% afterward. For a worker making minimum wage, the premium would be about a penny an hour rising to 5 and a half cents per hour after six months. For someone making $50,000 per year, the cost would be $50 rising to $275 for the year. The employer has the option of paying none, some, or all of the premium for the employee. The state will seek to contract with an insurance carrier to run the program, which is similar to the Governor’s proposal.  Several insurance carriers have expressed an interest in doing so.  Companies that offer similar benefits that are as good or better than the state program can opt out, and their employees will not be subject to the premium withholding; or they can opt in and replace their program with the state program. The bill now moves to the Senate for review and possible amendment.

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

Legislative Report 4/3/2019 - Steps to Address Climate Change

This past week in the Vermont House saw several major bills passed with significant floor debate. They included Broadband Deployment (H.513), Childcare (H.531), Workforce Development (H.533), and the major money bills including Transportation (H.529), Revenue (H.541), and the Budget (H.542) plus a controversial Weatherization bill (H.439) that increases the Fuel Tax by 2 cents per gallon.  After many weeks of long hours and input from all the policy committees, the administration, and individual legislators, the House Appropriations Committee presented a balanced budget, which passed 139 to 1, that is 2.6% higher than last year’s but less than the 3.1% increase proposed by the Governor.  These bills, now headed to the Senate, are significant and deserve describing in more detail than this article will allow.  Instead I will focus on elements of the budget that address climate change.

Three reports that were issued last year highlighted the importance of addressing climate change during this session: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on global Warming, the Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Update.  The IPCC report noted that we are already seeing the effects of a 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperature and gave a dire warning that we have to reduce global CO2 emissions 45% by 2030 to avoid a 1.5 degree increase which would have catastrophic geologic and demographic results worldwide. The Vermont DEC reported that Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased 16% over 1990 levels, mainly from transportation (43%) and heating (24%). We have a global problem which will require global action, including Vermont’s, to solve.

The House has taken a number of steps in this direction with the passage of the budget and revenue bills. The budget includes $1.5M for an electric vehicle (EV) incentive program, $300,000 for public charging stations, $500,000 for EVs and charging stations for state government, $250,000 to Efficiency Vermont for weatherization assistance for moderate income families, and $350,000 for weatherization workforce training.  While the budget passed almost unanimously, The Weatherization bill with the fuel tax increase was the most controversial.

We currently pay 2 cents per gallon on heating oil, propane, and dyed diesel fuel and 0.75% on natural gas. The revenues fund the Weatherization Assistance Program for families below 80% of median family income to reduce the amount of fuel needed to heat their homes.  Combined with federal funds, the program benefited 860 families in 2018. The need is much greater, however.  Because of the understandable prioritization to serve the lowest income families first, many eligible, low income Vermonters are waiting years to be served while thermal energy continues to be wasted, unnecessary amounts of fossil fuels are burned, and Vermonters continue to live in cold, unhealthy and dangerous conditions. By increasing the tax from 2 cents to 4 cents on liquid fuels and from 0.75% to 1% on natural gas, an additional 400 families can be assisted.

This tax increase was debated over two days with several amendments offered.  Opposition centered on the additional cost to the low-income families it’s supposed to help as well as the additional cost to farmers and loggers who use large amounts of dyed diesel. One amendment was passed to exempt farmers and loggers not only from the increase but also from the existing 2 cents per gallon. (The House earlier also approved an exemption from the sales tax for logging equipment.) This bill, which passed by voice vote, is beneficial for the following reasons:
1) The weatherization program, in existence from the 1970s, has been very successful in helping low income families reduce their heating bills, live healthier, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
2) The additional cost is minimal. A typical household using 750 gals of heating oil a year will have an additional cost of $15 over the entire heating season.
3) The price of fuel oil varies ten times as much during the heating season.  This year my deliveries ranged from $2.75/gallon to $3.00/gallon.  A 2 cent increase adds only $2 more on a 100 gallon delivery which today costs $290.
4) The savings are huge. Weatherization typically saves 29% of fuel use resulting in $500 to $600 savings per season and results in cumulative savings over time instead of cumulative wasted fuel and money heating a leaky house.  This is money that stays in Vermont compared to 80% of fuel dollars which leave Vermont.
5) It reduces dependence on LIHEAP and other fuel assistance which lasts only for the season.
6) It creates more construction jobs in the weatherization field.

I see this as a win for low-income families, a win for the economy, and a win for the environment!

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

Addendum: While I normally don't link to other publications within articles I write, I want to link to this VTDigger column which speaks to the same topic for reasons you will find obvious.
Margolis: In the legislative arena, worthy goals can sometimes conflict