Legislative Report 5/20/2015 - End of Session

Remember the Rubik's Cube? I always had a hard time solving that 3D, 3-axis puzzle. The last week of the legislative session seemed like trying to solve a giant Rubik's cube of legislation. Fourteen bills were assigned to Committees of Conference because the House and Senate could not agree on details in the versions each chamber passed. In addition to those bills, the Immunization bill (H.98), the Water Quality bill (H.35) and the Energy bill (H.40) still had not been settled.

Early in the week the House Health Care Committee took a couple more days of impassioned testimony on whether to retain the philosophical exemption or to remove it before finally bringing it to the full House for a vote. The hours-long debate on the floor reflected the range of opinions heard in testimony. Several amendments were offered before the House voted to remove that exemption while retaining the religious and medical exemptions. The 85 to 57 vote crossed party lines as individual legislators made up their own minds on the legislation. Following the decision on vaccine exemptions, the House voted quickly to concur with the Senate on proposed amendments to the Water Quality bill, which will put Vermont on the path to reducing phosphorous runoff into its lakes and streams.
By Friday afternoon most of the conference committees reported agreement on all but the Budget, Revenue, Health Care, and Education bills, and the Senate was still debating amendments to the Energy bill. Earlier in the afternoon we passed the very important Child Protection bill (S.9) which requires any mandated reporter who reasonably suspects abuse or neglect of a child to report it to Department of Children and Families instead of to a superior, and it improves cross-agency communication for child welfare cases. Typical of the "hurry up and wait" character of the session's final days, the House was repeatedly recessed to await updates on the status of conference committee negotiations.
Friday evening we received from the Senate its amendments to the Energy bill, and the House quickly concurred in its passage. The Senate left the provisions adopted by the House and added provisions regarding siting of solar energy projects. They include giving municipalities automatic party status in Public Service Board hearings, defining minimum setback requirements, and allowing municipalities to define screening requirements. Passage of this bill satisfies the objections Connecticut and Massachusetts had regarding Vermont's double-counting of renewable energy credits (RECs) and avoids the loss of $50M in annual revenue for our utilities, thereby avoiding a potential 6% increase in electric rates.
Saturday brought the passage of the Education bill and the Health Care bill. The Health Care bill had been trimmed back considerably because of an inability to agree on funding. What remained was a 33 cent/pack cigarette tax increase and subjecting soda to the 6% sales tax. The package contains $3.2 million in new state health care spending, which is eligible for roughly another $3 million from federal matching funds. The money will be used to level-fund Vermont Health Connect subsidies for out-of-pocket costs, target increases to Medicaid rates, and invest in initiatives to strengthen the primary care system.
As late as Saturday afternoon negotiations were still going on among the House and Senate leadership and the Governor regarding how the agreed upon budget would be funded. $53M in program cuts had been agreed upon with the expectation that $30M in additional revenues would have to be found. This represents $3M more in cuts and $5M less in revenues than originally passed by the House. Finally, around 10 PM the final agreements were made and the House gave final approval to the Budget. After the traditional speeches from the leaders of the Progressive, Republican and Democratic parties, the Speaker of the House, and the Governor, the session was gavelled to a close just before 11 PM.
I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 5/13/2015 - The Home Stretch

By the time this article is published the legislature will be within a day or two of adjourning. It's a time of hurry-up and wait for some of us who are on committees that have finished as much work as they will do this session. I spent a good part of last week in the vaccine hearings. Other committees dealing with tough issues or which are finalizing work on Senate bills are still going at it. The legislature began the week a day early on Monday in an effort to finish by this Friday or Saturday.

Some of the bills which have made it through both the House and Senate with differences that could not be resolved have been assigned to conference committees. These committees consist of three members of the House and three members of the Senate who will meet to negotiate a version of the bill that all six can agree on. This compromise version will then go before both bodies for an up or down vote. No amendments will be allowed. Two bills which must be passed before adjournment, the Budget and the Revenue bills, have been assigned to conference committees that will have to work together to come up with a balanced budget.

Several important House bills will have been voted on by the Senate this week including the Water Quality bill (H.35) and the Energy RESET bill (H.40). I consider these must-pass bills because the first is necessary to begin effectively controlling the phosphorous pollution going into Lake Champlain and the second is necessary to avoid a 6% increase in electric rates that will result from policy changes by Connecticut and Massachusetts if the bill doesn't pass. I have written articles, which can be found on my website, on both of these bills.

Last week saw the passage of several bills by the House. S.44 establishes a Universal Children’s Savings Account Program in Vermont. The bill creates a special fund that would provide every Vermont child with college savings account funded with $250 at birth. VSAC will administer and manage the program, including working with private foundations, philanthropists and other donors to fund the accounts. VSAC will also work with families and children to provide financial counseling, education, and support. Children of low-income families may receive additional initial deposits if the money is available. Families will be invited to match contributions and participate in savings programs. 

Another bill, H.355, establishes a licensing requirement for professional Foresters. Some landowners have been harmed as a result of their dealings with persons claiming to be foresters. Currently, Vermont and Rhode Island are the only New England states that do not have forester licensing. By licensing the profession through the Secretary of State's office, this measure will help landowners by ensuring that foresters have a minimum level of education and qualification for practicing forestry in Vermont, will promote continuing education in the forestry field, and will provide a basic level of credibility and accountability for the profession.

Finding money unexpectedly is always a nice surprise. So, let me once again note that there are hundreds of listings for Charlotters at the State Treasurer's Unclaimed Property database which can be accessed at http://www.vermonttreasurer.gov/unclaimed-property. Check it out and see if you might be among the lucky listings. Other states have similar lists, so if you've ever lived someplace other than Vermont, you might try those places as well.

I continue to welcome your feedback on issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 5/6/2015 - Difficult Decisions

Statue of Gov. Thomas Chittenden,
Vermont's 1st Governor
The legislature is in the final stretch of the session and instead of winding down, we seem to be winding up as bills dealing with some of the more difficult issues reach the floor. Differences of opinion seem to become more pronounced even as everyone strives to adhere to the rules of civil debate. Contention instead turns to use of parliamentary strategies such as amendments, roll call votes, and sometimes interminably long floor speeches. The work on the floor ran into the evening on both Thursday and Friday as numerous amendments and 16 roll calls were requested on the Senate health care bill, S.139. Moreover, many of the bills passed earlier by the House will be coming back from the Senate with changes. Several of these will have to be resolved by a conference committee, including the budget.

Two bills this session generated a large volume of emails and constituent contacts: the firearms regulation bill which strengthens enforcement capabilities for illegal use of guns, and the bill passed by the Senate with a provision to eliminate the philosophical exemption from vaccinating children. The vaccine issue came up very late in the session with a Senate amendment to a House bill that was passed earlier, so it is not certain whether the House will actually take action on the floor before the session ends sometime in the next two weeks. However, having passed the health care bill on Friday, the House Health Care Committee decided to begin to consider S.98, the vaccine bill on Tuesday. The Vermont House rarely takes up a bill without exhaustive testimony from all sides of an issue, and this will give the public an opportunity to weigh in.

Existing law allows three types of exemptions from the immunization requirements for children to attend school: a medical exemption, a religious exemption, and a philosophical exemption. The use of the philosophical exemption by parents who believe that vaccines pose a higher risk than the diseases they are supposed to prevent is opposed by the medical community who see it as a threat to the health of the general public. Vaccines are important and have been successful in practically eliminating many diseases and reducing the incidence of many others in the general population. Recently I have heard many first person accounts of adverse reactions to vaccines, which give me pause when faced with the question of whether the philosophical exemption should be eliminated. Supporters of keeping the exemption are concerned that if a child has an adverse reaction to a vaccine, or if there is a possibility that such a reaction occurred, that it should not be dismissed automatically as having nothing to do with the vaccine. This is probably a rare occurrence, but it does become the overriding concern for parents who are faced with it. Parents need to be reassured that they are heard and listened to when they have serious concerns.

While each side is convinced that their position is right, we in the legislature take our responsibility seriously to allow testimony from all sides of any issue before taking a firm position to change or not change a law. We need to let the process work before we make such a decision. I am looking forward to an open process that will lead to the correct decision.

I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 4/29/2015 - Promoting Healthy Workplaces

A couple sits down in a restaurant. A waitress comes over to take their order. They notice that she is all stuffed up, and as she recites the specials she turns away to cough. Who can blame them if they are more than a bit uncomfortable when she delivers their food? A meeting at the office is punctuated by sneezing and nose-blowing by a co-worker around the table. A week later several people have called in sick or are spreading their own cold germs around the office. A mother wakes up her 9-year old one morning and discovers that he has a 101 deg-F temperature. If she calls in to work to stay home and care for her son, she'll lose $80 from her next paycheck. She's already behind in her bills and can't afford to lose that money. But she has to stay home for her child's sake. You get the picture.

There are about 60,000 working Vermonters who do not get paid time off if they or a member of their family are ill. They face a choice of losing critical wages or, in some cases, losing their job, or putting others at risk of getting sick. Last year a similar bill had been introduced but failed to gain enough support to make it out of committee. Over the summer legislators, businesses, worker representatives and advocates got together and reworked the proposal to make it more acceptable to employers while providing a modest but needed benefit to employees. As a result, this past week the Vermont House of Representatives passed the Healthy Workplaces bill, H.187, to address this situation. Passage of the bill did not come without a great deal of controversy and floor debate. When the final vote was taken, the bill passed 72 to 63.

So, what does the bill actually do? H.187 guarantees that working Vermonters will be able to accrue up to three paid sick days each year. For every 40 hours worked, employees earn one hour of earned sick time. Eligibility includes all permanent workers, whether full time or part time. These hours can be used for personal illness, the illness of a family member, or seeking protection from domestic and sexual violence. While the accrual of time begins in 2016, employees would have to wait until they have worked 1400 hours or one year - whichever comes first - before they could access this benefit. Working full time, the 1400 hours would be equivalent to eight months of work. Starting in 2018 the amount of annual paid time that employees can earn would increase to five days. Certain workers are exempt from this rule. Seasonal workers, such as gardeners, ski area temps, and students who work during the summer or vacations are not covered. Nor are persons with guest worker visas, nor proprietors, partner-owners, managers or executives of a business. If the sick days are not used, they can be carried over, but an employer does not have to pay an employee for time not taken.

Opponents have suggested that this legislation will result in drastic increases in payroll costs. However, calculations suggest a one-time 1% increase in payroll in 2016 for employers currently providing no paid time off to any employees, followed in 2018 by a one-time 0.5% increase. Employers who currently offer any type of paid leave will be minimally affected as long as this time off can be used for unscheduled illness or safety concerns for themselves or their family. For example, if an employer offers five days of vacation time, reclassifying it to five days of combined time off (CTO) will put them in compliance. A separate sick time policy is not required. The bill is a minimum standard and employers are free to offer additional paid time off as part of their existing benefit package. This bill will positively affect thousands of working Vermonters, and businesses will gain by the improved loyalty and health of their employees.

I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).