Legislative Report 1/25/2017 - Vermonters Rally for Universal Background Checks

The Vermont statehouse in Montpelier is nicknamed "The People's House". For one thing, it is where legislators do "the people's business." Furthermore, unlike many other statehouses around the country, the public has complete access to both the building and their legislators when the legislature is in session, usually January through early May. In fact, the statehouse functions as a living museum, with free access and free tours all year long. Those Vermonters who let their representative know they will be visiting during the session are often introduced to and welcomed by the assembly during the announcements.

This accessibility is a hallmark of democracy in Vermont and is most apparent when groups of citizens, advocating for one issue or another, converge on the building en masse. The place becomes a beehive of bodies and voices. Press conferences by legislators or organizations are often held in the Cedar Creek Room which features a huge mural of the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek in which the First Vermont Brigade played a key role in the Union victory.

It was such a press conference organized by Gun Sense Vermont on January 10th that saw more than a hundred Vermont citizens from across the state pack the room in support of background checks for all firearms sales. Senator Phil Baruth introduced a bill (S.6) that would extend the federal requirement of a background check for firearm purchases from a licensed firearms dealer in Vermont to include private and internet purchases as well. A companion bill, which I plan to co-sponsor, is being drafted for introduction in the House. These bills would close the so-called "gun show loophole" which today allows a prohibited person to obtain a gun without going through a background check. The definition of a prohibited person includes anyone convicted of a violent felony, anyone with a restraining order resulting from domestic abuse, and anyone judged in a court of law to be mentally ill and considered a danger to themselves or others.

Vermont is considered to be one of the safest states for gun violence per capita, so why do we need such a law? Governor Scott, as did his predecessor Governor Shumlin, has stated that he does not see a need for any more gun laws in Vermont. It is true that most gun owners in Vermont are responsible individuals and would pass a background check without any problems. However, we still read and hear about gun violence in Vermont, often perpetrated by individuals who fall into the prohibited category. According to the Gun Sense VT website, in the states that require criminal background checks on unlicensed handgun sales, there are 38% fewer women killed by guns than in the states that do not have this requirement. In Vermont in 2013, there were more than 1,000 final relief from abuse orders issued, and 1,457 violent crimes that involved violence against intimate partners or family members. And of the 13 homicides in Vermont in 2013, eight (62%) were deemed domestic violence-related, and of these, four were committed with a firearm.

Gun trafficking is another problem fueled by the ubiquitous opiate crisis that results in guns being traded for drugs. I-91 has become known as the "iron pipeline" because drug dealers and criminals find it easier to buy a gun in Vermont than in southern New England or New York, states which have stronger gun laws. Without a federal universal background check law, state laws are like Swiss cheese with Vermont being one of the holes. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a report last October that showed 74% of firearms used in New York crimes were bought in states with weak gun laws, and that 489 of those were traced back to Vermont. While this was only 1% of the total, it illustrates that Vermont is a source. Every gun sale prevented by a background check has the potential of saving a life. A VPR-Castleton Polling Institute poll found that 84% of Vermonters, including more than 70% of gun owners, approve of universal background checks. Common sense dictates that the hole should be plugged, and I hope that Governor Scott will eventually agree.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com)

The Word in the House 1/19/2017 - New Beginnings

As I drove to Montpelier last week, I felt excited by the prospect of the changes that would be taking place in Vermont's government, changes that would offer new challenges as well as new opportunities. The 2016 election produced a sweeping change of leadership in Montpelier from the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the House and Senate leadership.  Both House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell decided not to run for re-election to their respective seats. With the election of Lt. Governor Phil Scott as Governor, and Senator David Zuckerman as Lt. Governor, the state of Vermont is in new hands. The change extended to the Legislature with the election of Representative Mitzi Johnson (D-North Hero) as Speaker of the House and Chittenden County Senator Tim Ashe (D/P) as President Pro Tempore. Johnson previously served as Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

The first week of the 2017 legislative session was filled with the pomp and circumstance of the departure of the old administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and the inauguration of the new administration of Governor Phil Scott.  But before those events took place, the House and Senate had to convene and elect their own leadership.

In her acceptance speech Speaker Johnson reminded us that “The campaign process tends to herd us toward simple sound bites-like those that you see on campaign literature - but the answers are not as simple.” She admonished us to “take time to understand the problem we’re trying to solve.” Johnson raised the challenge for the Legislature to address the problems of the uneven distribution of jobs throughout the state despite having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country; building ladders out of poverty that do not come with built-in disincentives; climate change that poses challenges to our agriculture, public health, tourism base and ecology as well our state infrastructure and budget; and the many challenges of building a strong, healthy future, in a way we can afford. She asked the House to evaluate state government and prioritize what Vermonters most need, "so that we may preserve the long-term health and wellness of our state", and she committed to working with the administration to achieve this goal.

The following day newly elected Governor Phil Scott was sworn in and, in his inaugural speech, laid out his vision of the future he hopes we would build together.  He said he would ask every state agency to work toward three goals: improve economic opportunity, make Vermont more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable Vermonters. These are goals we can all agree on as we start our work this year.

Speaker Johnson also announced some significant changes to the work of House committees.  First, there were many changes to committee assignments as 33 new legislators joined our ranks.  Some committees had a larger turnover than others and a balance of veteran legislators and freshmen had to take place on all committees.  Several committees saw significant changes to their responsibilities.  In particular, the Natural Resources and Energy committee, on which I served for the last six years, was totally reorganized. Responsibility for natural resources, land management and Act 250 was reassigned to the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee. Forestry oversight was moved to the Agriculture and Forests committee, and a brand new committee – Energy and Technology – was formed to take over responsibilities for energy, telecommunications, and IT infrastructure, including the IT systems of state government. 

I will be serving along with seven other veteran Representatives on this new committee. I am looking forward to continue working on energy policy while learning more about how we can expand high-speed broadband throughout the state. Both energy and telecom are key components to economic development in Chittenden County and beyond.  Since no single committee had oversight of Vermont's many complex computer systems, our committee will be taking a deep look into the various systems, how they interact, the software platforms they are built on, what they cost, and the security measures used to protect vital data and the systems themselves. 

As the session develops, I will continue to keep you informed about the work my colleagues and I are doing. I also invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Forum on Refugee Resettlement Held in Charlotte

Note: This essay appeared as an article in the December 6, 2016, issue of The Charlotte News.

In the aftermath of a contentious national election that raised strong feelings regarding immigrants, minorities and religion, there continues to be significant opposition to the prospect of Rutland becoming a haven for Syrian refugee families. The images of people desperate to escape from the Syrian civil war and ISIL persecution landing on the shores of Greece in fragile boats as well as the reports of the thousands that drown trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea are part of the contemporary news cycle. Once they reach asylum in the first country of their destination, they are relegated to refugee camps where they wait with hope to be relocated to a more permanent location through the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). As aware of this situation we might be, we may not be familiar with the subsequent process that leads to resettlement.

A week after the election more than 60 people from Charlotte and surrounding communities gathered at the Charlotte Senior Center on November 15th to hear a presentation by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) and the accounts of refugees who are now new Vermonters. The idea behind the forum organized by Charlotte Representative Mike Yantachka with the help of VRRP was to increase public knowledge of the refugee experience: what caused them to become refugees, what process did they have to go through to enter the U.S., what challenges they face when they arrive and what their obligations are now that they are here.

According to the UNHCR there are currently 65.3 million refugees worldwide. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. Between 2013 and 2015 about 70,000 refugees per year were admitted to the United States according to the State Department. President Obama stated that 85,000 would be admitted in 2016 and another 100,000 in 2017. With the recent election, the latter number may change.

VRRP representatives Kristen Rengo and Sophia Kimball introduced the program at the Senior Center with two videos featuring first person accounts of refugees who resettled in Vermont from Somalia, Bhutan and Bosnia. Before entering the U.S. refugees undergo an intensive screening process by multiple agencies including the FBI, Department of Defense, National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security, and the State Department. According to VRRP, this vetting process takes 1,000 days on average to complete. Prior to arrival, they also undergo medical screenings for both communicable diseases and mental disorders. Once they are accepted, they are assigned to one of nine resettlement agencies that are affiliated with 250 offices spread out over 49 states. Vermont was designated a refugee resettlement center in 1980.

Refugees receive assistance including housing, mentoring and a stipend for six months after they arrive in the U.S. The housing is provided at market rates, and it is up to the refugees to support themselves after six months. This means that to afford housing in Vermont, it is often necessary for large family groups to occupy rental housing. VRRP works with landlords to make these arrangements work and with employers who can provide jobs.

The Senior Center audience also heard from Yvonne Nigena from Burundi who currently lives in Burlington and from Puspa Luitel from Bhutan who is a Charlotte resident and serves on the Town Planning Commission. Yvonne described her family's flight from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and their stay in Tanzanian refugee camps where she was born before being granted asylum in the U.S. She attended Burlington High School along with refugees from many other countries. She said that their different customs and clothing set them apart, sometimes uncomfortably, from the other kids. One thing that Yvonne is really passionate about is dance, and she plays a strong leadership role in keeping the art of traditional dance alive. She also announced that her dance group would be performing at the VT International Festival December 2nd through 4th in Essex Junction. After graduating from BHS she attended Community College of Vermont and will start at Castleton University in January.

Puspa Luitel spoke of the expulsion of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan in the 1990s, who were stripped of their citizenship. After fleeing to Nepal, Puspa attended school in the refugee camp up to 10th grade and went to India for 11th and 12th grade. In India Puspa completed four years of a five year law program. Then his family applied for resettlement in the US and came to Vermont in 2008. He resumed his undergraduate studies at Champlain College and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. Since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2014, he graduated from Vermont Law School and is very interested in practicing law in Vermont. Through the affordable housing program he had the opportunity to purchase a home in Charlotte where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is active in advocating for the refugee community and received an appreciation award from the City of Winooski in recognition of his outstanding service to the community. Puspa serves on the Planning Commission as a way to give back to his Charlotte community.

More information about the Refugee Resettlement Program can be found at refugees.org/Vermont and at www.embracerefugees.org.
Puspa Luitel speaks to a Senior Center audience on November 15, 2016, about his experiences as a former refugee. – Photo by Janet Yantachka