Legislative Report 12/12/2018 - 2019 Legislative Preview

As I watched the funeral services of our 41st President, George H.W. Bush, this past week, I was moved by the remembrance of how this President served our country. He was a man who believed that the purpose of Government is to serve the people, to help people. His Presidency, as his life, was characterized by a concern for others and a desire to help anyone who needed help. We as a nation thank him for his service and his example.

Each of us serving in elected office does so based on the values we hold. As I begin my 5th term serving my community of Charlotte and the southwest corner of Hinesburg, I am grateful for the opportunity and hope that the work I have done and will continue to do will reflect values that make Vermont a better place. Vermont families should be able to earn a livable wage, should have access to affordable basic health care, and should live in a healthy environment. We should be able to provide a good education for our kids that will prepare them to become productive members of society, whether they go on to higher education or become skilled workers. We should be willing to help those who need extra help in coping with their disabilities or who have taken a wrong turn in life and need help in recovering. We also have to look beyond the present and take steps that will help prevent dangerous climatic changes that threaten to change life not only for our children and grandchildren but for all life on earth.

Several bills were passed by the legislature this past year that would raise the minimum wage, allow employees to take time off for family crises, and protect employees and communities from toxic exposures from industrial chemicals. Unfortunately, they did not become law. These bills are being prioritized for passage in the coming session.

Several years ago we passed legislation to clean up our lakes and rivers. A source of sustainable funding for this effort was not included, however. The poor quality issues we have been experiencing with algae blooms have had an impact on Vermont's economy, on the health of people and animals, and on Vermont's reputation as a great place to visit for recreation. The phosphorous load in Lake Champlain and other lakes and ponds have built up over decades, and it will take decades to remediate. Existing funds are running out and it is up to the incoming Legislature to find a sustainable source of funding to continue the cleanup effort over a long period of time.

Climate change is one of the most important policy areas that I will be working on in 2019. The Department of Environmental Conservation issued its report on Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) this summer that showed our emissions to be 16% higher than 1990 levels, primarily due to transportation and heating. Our goal has been to reduce emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2012 and 50% by 2028. Clearly, we are going in the wrong direction. The Legislature commissioned the Joint Fiscal Office to fund a study on how best to reduce GHGs, including the costs, benefits and impacts on Vermonters. This report will be submitted to the Legislature in January, and we will develop legislation to start reducing our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and heating based on those recommendations.

As the legislative session progresses I will again keep you informed through the articles I write. I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in person contacts.

Commentary – Two Faces of Vermont - 9/01/2018

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who gave me a vote in the recent primary election. I do not take your support for granted and I appreciate the confidence you place in me to do a good job representing you in Montpelier.

This election contained many surprises not the least of which included the above average turnout.  Almost 24% of Charlotte voters either took advantage of voting early or took the time to vote in person on election day.  Voters showed strong support for Governor Scott in the Republican Party and Christine Hallquist was the overwhelming choice among Democrats.  This speaks well for Vermonters who affirmed polls showing that a strong majority, regardless of party, favors reasonable gun regulations.  It also showed that Vermonters can look past a candidate's gender identity and vote for the person they think will do the best job.  This is Vermont at its best, continuing the tradition of championing civil rights and civil discourse.

Recent events, however, also revealed that there are dark undercurrents to Vermont's facade.  Bennington Representative Kiah Morris, one of our few Black legislators won her primary, but chose a few days later to step down as a result of the racist harassment she and her family have experienced over the last two years, which included threats and online trolling.  Kiah is a strong, intelligent woman and an effective legislator with whom I have had the pleasure of serving and working for the last four years. She was not only a leader, but also a valuable contributor on the Judiciary Committee.  No one should have to endure conditions that make them unable to perform their job or live in fear for their own or their family's safety. I am glad to see that Attorney General TJ Donovan is now investigating this case.

This speaks to the conditions that have led to increased intolerance and divisiveness not only in Vermont but across our nation.  To be sure, bigotry has existed throughout our history and continues in spite of the civil rights movement, the passage of civil unions and subsequently marriage equality, and the election of Barack Obama.  It is our collective responsibility to call bigotry out when confronted by it. What can't be excused is the permission that was explicitly given by the person holding the highest office in the land to a small but significant minority to vent their hateful rhetoric and actions. 

In contrast, our nation just lost one of the beacons of integrity and civility in Washington, Senator John McCain. He spoke courageously in the Senate against the intolerance and divisiveness coming from the top when others in his party would not.  Let us hope that his passing will jog the consciences of his colleagues and encourage them to finally do the same.

Commentary - Climate Change Demands Action Now 8/3/2018

It is not an exaggeration to say that climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today.  While there are many who still think that climate change is a hoax, we need only to look at melting polar ice caps, extreme storms with significantly heavier precipitation and flooding, rising global atmospheric temperatures, more frequent and intense heat waves not only in the U.S. but across the globe, and the devastating wildfires in the western U.S. that have increased in both frequency and scope.  This phenomenon will continue to create heavier and heavier economic and social impacts moving forward. We have to ask ourselves what we can do to combat this phenomenon; and to do that we have to consider the cause.

Indeed, there are many who will reluctantly acknowledge that climate change is happening, but attribute it to natural cycles rather than to human influence.  This uninformed view ignores the fact that today's atmospheric CO2 level of 400 parts per million is now 1.3 times higher than the average peak concentrations of about 300 ppm over the last 400,000 years as measured by ice cores. This data is known as the Keeling Curve and is recorded and maintained by the Scripps Oceanographic Institute of the University of California San Diego and can be seen online. This breakout from the historical trend has occurred during the last century as the human race extracted and burned unprecedented amounts of fossil fuels which contain the energy of the sun stored over millions of years.

So, the answer has to be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy development since the turn of the century has provided an alternative to traditional sources of energy such as coal, oil and gas. The costs of solar and wind technology, still in their relative infancy, are already on par with oil and coal. In 2011 Vermont set a goal of becoming 90% renewable over all types of energy use by 2050 and to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2025. Two years ago 189 countries, including the U.S., adopted the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce GHG emissions. Unfortunately, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement and instead has been encouraging more fossil fuel extraction. Vermont, along with hundreds of state and local governments, has resolved to continue working to achieve our own goals and those of the Paris agreement. So, how are we doing?

Sad to say, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources recently released the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Inventory and the numbers are disheartening. Instead of seeing a reduction of GHG emissions since 2011, the state has exceeded the 1990 baseline by 16%. The full report can be found at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation website.  While progress has been made in electrical energy generation, the largest GHG increases came in the transportation and heating fuel use components. The latter two components are where we need to concentrate our efforts going forward.  

Renewable electricity is now the cleanest source of energy in Vermont. Moreover, since no fossil fuel is sourced in Vermont, 80% of the cost of fossil fuels leaves the state.  It makes sense to transition as much of our energy used in transportation and heating to cleaner electric energy as we continue to develop in-state renewable electricity generation. This can be encouraged by factoring into the price of fossil fuels the social and economic costs of climate change. By putting a price on carbon pollution in a revenue-neutral way, Vermonters can actually benefit economically by driving and heating more cleanly. This is not a new idea and has been proposed by conservative leaders like George Schultz, Henry Paulson, and James Baker. In a June 20th op-ed in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/opinion/climate-change-fee-carbon-dioxide.html), former Senators Trent Lott (Republican) and John Breaux (Democrat) made the case for a climate change fee on carbon-based fuels. And Vermont would not be alone in adopting such a strategy.  In June, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill requiring the state to implement a carbon-pricing strategy by 2020. In Vermont legislators introduced a carbon-pricing proposal called the Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy EXchange (ESSEX) Plan that would channel revenues raised from the carbon fee to offset electricity costs.  To reduce the impact of the fees for low income and rural Vermonters, those consumers would get a greater share of the revenues.

It is well past the time to tackle this world-changing problem.  It is important to understand that we are not doing it alone and that we need to do our part.

Legislative Report 7/11/2018 - Session Epilogue

I hope everyone had a wonderful 4th of July and successfully survived the record-setting heat wave that accompanied the holiday. My final Legislative Report usually occurs in May. Last year, the veto session led me to write a report in June. This year, because of another budget veto, the special session of the legislature lasted until the last week of June before the budget controversy, which included two vetoes, was resolved. While still disagreeing with the fiscal policy of the legislature, which had been supported by many Republican lawmakers, Governor Scott allowed the final budget passed by the legislature to go into law without his signature. Because the Republican minority chose to uphold the Governor's vetoes rather than stand behind their original support for the budget, the special session required lawmakers on the Appropriations, Ways & Means, and Education committees to try to negotiate a compromise with the administration over several weeks. When those efforts failed in the House, the Senate Finance committee, with the unanimous support of the Senate, drafted language that incorporated essentially what the House had presented on its third attempt at compromise, but which had been again rejected by the administration. With the deadline approaching for a government shutdown on July 1, this version passed both the House and Senate giving the Governor 5 days to make a decision. Fortunately, he decided to let the budget become law without his signature rather than plunge the state into default.

While the legislature ultimately agreed to use about $30M of one-time (windfall) money to keep the residential property tax rate level and hold the non-residential rate to a 4.5 cent increase, the budget keeps Vermont on a fiscally responsible path. Revenue we can count on receiving annually is used to pay for ongoing expenses. Windfalls, like receipts from the recent tobacco settlement, are invested in paying down state debt and building our savings. This protects us from the uncertainty brewing in DC, the possibility of a recession, and ensures we can continue to make the kind of investments that support our working families.

Everyone is aware by now that the price of gasoline has increased about 50 cents/gallon during June and has remained around $3 per gallon since. In one of my reports back in January, I introduced the ESSEX (Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy EXchange) Plan, a proposal to put a price on carbon pollution to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and promote energy transformation. The plan was criticized for placing an additional burden on hard-working Vermonters. That proposal would have raised the price per gallon by 40 cents over 8 years at the rate of about 5 cents per gallon per year. 100% of the revenue raised would be returned to Vermonters as a credit on their electric bills with larger rebates aimed at low income and rural Vermonters. Now, prices have risen in a single month more than the maximum projected carbon tax, and that same amount, 40 cents, leaves the state into the pockets of the oil companies. Higher prices, whatever the cause, will probably reduce consumption. Unfortunately, the current increase will not provide any revenues to help Vermonters insulate their homes, convert to electric vehicles, or take other measures to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Perhaps we should send letters of protest to the CEOs of the oil companies. Do you think they would listen? Probably not; but, as always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com)

Legislative Report 5/30/2018 - Missed Opportunities

The legislative process is both deliberate and deliberative. Bills do not get passed without a considerable amount of testimony from stakeholders on every side of an issue and discussion among the members of a committee comprised of Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, and Independents. Bills that are introduced are often modified significantly by the time they are voted out of committee and sent to the floor for consideration by the entire body of either the House or the Senate. Once the bill gets to the other chamber, the process is repeated. So, a lot of thought goes into a bill to ensure that it is a solid piece of legislation that accomplishes the purpose intended.

That is why, after hearing the rhetoric that he wants to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters and improve affordability, it is disappointing that the Governor has decided to veto four bills that address those issues. Two of the bills, S.103 and S.197, would protect Vermonters from misuse of toxic chemicals and hazardous materials. The first would create an Interagency Committee on Chemical Management to evaluate chemical inventories in the state, identify potential risks to human health and the environment, and propose measures to address those risks. It also would require testing for potability of new water sources used for human consumption. The second would require businesses responsible for exposing employees or the public to toxic materials through intentional or unintentional releases to cover the cost of medical monitoring of exposed individuals. The PFOA contamination of the public water supply in the Bennington area demonstrates the need for such legislation to protect the health of Vermonters.

Two other vetoed bills, S.40 and H.196, directly address affordability concerns for low and middle income Vermonters. S.40, the minimum wage bill, would gradually increase the minimum wage in Vermont to $15 per hour over six years. This bill would assist more than 25,000 minimum wage adult, non-farm workers who often have to work more than one job to make ends meet. It would also have the benefit of putting more money into the local economy at the same time. The other bill, H.196, is the paid family leave bill. This bill would create a statewide insurance program that would allow an employee to take up to 12 weeks to care for a child or other family member during critical times of need, including childbirth, prolonged illness, and emergency situations. The program would pay 70% of the employee's average weekly wage and would be financed entirely by a 0.137 percent tax on employee wages. For a full-time, minimum wage worker, this would be 58 cents per week, or about 5.5 cents per week for every dollar per hour. This is a crucial benefit that smaller employers often cannot afford to provide but guarantees that some income is available during times of crisis or family necessity. If we want to make Vermont attractive for working families, raising the minimum wage and addressing flexibility for families to take care of each other is necessary.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report /Word in the House 5/16/2018 - Not Quite the End of the Session

The last two weeks of a legislative session are a whirlwind of activity. Dozens of bills that have been worked on during the previous 16 weeks of the session in both the House and the Senate reached final stages of passage. Most traveled back and forth between the two bodies as amendments were made to reflect the different concerns of the responsible committees. Twenty-eight bills this year required a conference committee made up of three representatives and three senators to resolve disagreements in language that couldn't be settled by amendments. 

The budget is the final bill passed in a session. Any bill that was still outstanding when the budget passed would be dead. As the session ended just after midnight Sunday morning, we managed to complete all of those bills as well as many more. The bills included raising the minimum wage, providing paid family leave, establishing toxic materials responsibility, protecting sexual harassment victims, funding clean water efforts, setting appliance efficiency standards, helping Vermont manufacturers improve energy efficiency and productivity, providing free tuition for National Guard members, several consumer protection and economic development bills, and an income tax reform and education funding bill as well as the budget.

Our legislative agenda reflected in the bills we passed promote a caring economy that makes Vermont more affordable for lower and middle income families, protects all Vermonters from various social and environmental impacts, and provides opportunities for economic growth. While we did not adopt the Governor's proposal for using one-time money to keep our education property taxes from increasing, the funding changes made by the legislature will hold the residential property tax rate increase to two cents in a sustainable way that avoids the need to find one-time money again next year. One-time money is just that. There’s no guarantee that it will be there next year, which just defers a tax increase. Instead, this year's one-time money will be used to pay for one-time expenses like fully funding our reserves and paying down the teachers' retirement fund obligation saving Vermont taxpayers $100M in future budgets. Our income tax changes will return $30M in extra tax revenue generated by the federal income tax changes back to Vermonters by lowering the income tax rates for everyone. Overall state spending increased less than 1 percent, significantly lower than the rate of inflation. Here are links to the details of the tax changes and to the budget.

Unfortunately, the Governor has stated that he plans to veto the budget as well as several other bills that address affordability and the health and welfare of Vermonters. The budget passed with a tri-partisan vote of 117 – 14. If he does carry out his veto promise, he will have to call the legislature back into session. There have been plenty of opportunities for the administration to engage with the legislature to work out a compromise, but that didn't happen. Now we are faced with the additional expense of an extended session.

Finally, I would like to make a correction. It was called to my attention that in my previous article about the minimum wage bill, I reference some total wage numbers that seemed to be based on different assumptions. The $15/hour total should have been $31,200 based on the same 40 hours/week and 52 weeks/year used for $10.50/hour.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 5/2/2018 - A Case for Raising the Minimum Wage

We are now in the last weeks of the 2018 legislative session. Barring any surprise demands by the Governor or legislators, like the call for passing a taxing and regulating marijuana sales that occurred last week, we should be finished by mid-May. There are a number of important bills that we continue to deal with before we pass the budget and adjourn. One of these bills is the Minimum Wage bill (S.40), which was passed by the Senate and has been studied for several weeks by the House General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee.

The current Vermont minimum wage is $10.50/hour which became effective on January 1, 2018. The bill under consideration would continue increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2024, about a 75 cent increase per year on average, starting at 60 cents in 2019. The minimum wage exemptions would remain the same, including for students under age 18, agricultural workers, nannies/babysitters, newspaper deliverers, and employees of nonprofits that receive state funds. The bill would also adjust state child care subsidies to account for the minimum wage increases in order to maintain those benefits for low wage workers with children.

So, why do we need to keep raising the minimum wage since Vermont has one of the highest minimum wages in the northeast? The simple answer is that for a large number of people, it is simply not enough to live on. Governor Scott has talked repeatedly about making Vermont more affordable and protecting the most vulnerable. For the approximately 25,000 Vermonters who work one or more minimum wage jobs, it is still too hard to pay for the basic necessities of supporting their families. For single parents making minimum wage, there are repercussions for their children as well. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) of all minimum wage earners in Vermont, 62% work full time, 88% are at least 20 years old with an average age of 38, 56% are women, and 22% have children. On average, those with families earn 55% of their family's total income. A person working 40 hours per week at the current minimum wage makes about $21,840/year, slightly above the federal poverty level for a three person family. However, according to the EPI study, a modest but adequate standard of living in Vermont for one adult without children costs about $32,000/ year, including housing, food, transportation, taxes and health care. With children, necessitating child care, the costs are even higher. At $15/hour, the 2024 target, a full-time minimum wage job would pay $31,200*, which would no longer be a poverty-level wage.

Objections to raising the minimum wage revolve around the increased costs to business, the potential loss of jobs, and economic impacts. Most minimum jobs are in the service sector of the economy. In the first year, a full-time employee's earnings would increase $1250, a cost to the employer. This cost would presumably be passed on to consumers. However, the increased income would also be spent, thereby injecting more money into the local economy. The impact on jobs would be minimal compared to the increase in wages. Moreover, the high turnover rate seen in minimum wage jobs may be reduced thereby saving employers training costs. The EPI study estimates that while 2% of low wage jobs would be lost, 98% of low wage workers would benefit. Overall, the economy would benefit from raising the minimum wage gradually over several years while improving the affordability factor for those who need it most.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

*Note: The original publication of this article incorrectly had $26,500 as the annual income at $15/hour for a full time job.

Legislative Report 4/18/2018 - A Profile in Courage

n 1957, three years before he was elected President, Senator John F. Kennedy wrote his best-selling book Profiles in Courage. In it he described events in the lives of eight U.S. Senators who bravely cast votes in defiance of their party and public opinion, thereby jeopardizing their chances for re-election. These were acts of personal integrity that they believed were the responsible thing to do in those circumstances. I was privileged to witness a similar act of courage on the front steps of the Vermont Statehouse this past Wednesday. At 2:00 in the afternoon, Governor Scott, accompanied by his wife, stood at a podium with news cameras, legislators and members of the public both in support and against the action he was about to take: signing three bills that would impose regulations on gun sales, prohibit certain gun accessories, and provide law enforcement with the authority to confiscate guns when responding to domestic violence incidents and under court order from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.

The scene in front of the statehouse was alive with tension as opponents dressed in hunter orange and carrying signs that read “One term Governor”, “Traitor” and “See you in court” vied with signs saying “Thank you Governor Scott” and “March for our Lives.” As the Governor stood at the podium, he was greeted with chants of “Traitor! Traitor!” which were countered by chants of “Thank you! Thank you!” He began his speech over the shouting, speaking carefully, deliberately and directly to those in front of him. He endured constant interruption by opponents yelling their disagreement almost continuously during his speech while supporters clapped enthusiastically when he made points supporting his decision to sign the bills. At one point Governor Scott said, “I understand I may lose support over my decision to sign these bills today, but those are consequences I'm prepared to live with.” As I stood behind the Governor with dozens of my colleagues and members of the Governor's staff, I felt I was witnessing history in the making and an event that was clearly a profile in courage.

My positions on many issues differ from those of Governor Scott. We have different perspectives on issues like raising the minimum wage, finding a way to pay for cleaning up the waters of our state, and looking for a way to price in the true costs of fossil fuels while incentivizing conversion to renewable energy sources. On other issues, like the opioid crisis or helping businesses use energy more efficiently, the Governor and the legislature have been able to work collaboratively toward a common goal. It is my hope that differences can be overcome to achieve results that benefit Vermont and Vermonters. Governor Scott is correct in saying that “public safety is the top priority of any government.” He should not become a one-term Governor simply because he did the right thing to improve the safety of Vermont citizens.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Statement on Gun Regulation Bill Signing Ceremony of 4/12/18

I was privileged to witness the bill signing ceremony on the front steps of the Vermont Statehouse this past Wednesday for three pieces of legislation: S.55, a universal background check bill;
H.422, a domestic violence bill; and S.221, a “red flag” bill. These bills impose regulations on gun sales, prohibit certain gun accessories, and provide law enforcement with the authority to confiscate guns when responding to domestic violence incidents and under court order from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.

Governor Phil Scott, accompanied by his wife, stood at a podium before news cameras, legislators, and members of the public, both for and against the action he was about to take. He began his speech over the shouting of opponents, speaking carefully, deliberately and directly to those in front of him. Despite constant interruption by opponents, he spoke of the events and reasons for his decision to change his position regarding gun regulation in Vermont. At one point Governor Scott said, “I understand I may lose support over my decision to sign these bills today, but those are consequences I'm prepared to live with.”

I commend Governor Scott for his courage in taking this position. He is correct in saying that “public safety is the top priority of any government.” It is my hope that the Governor and the legislature will continue to work collaboratively together on the many challenges facing Vermont to achieve results that benefit Vermont and Vermonters.

Legislative Report 4/6/2018 - 2018 Doyle Poll Report

The Doyle Poll, created and still conducted by former Senator Bill Doyle, has been a tradition of Town Meetings in Vermont for decades. 113 Charlotte voters shared their opinions this year, about the same as last year's number. Of the fifteen questions, three dealt with affordability. A strong majority feel that Vermont is currently not an affordable place to live. Similar majorities believe that the minimum wage needs to increase and that employees should have paid family leave. These policies would mitigate the affordability problem for many low income Vermonters and dual income families.

Clearly, most people think we need to do a lot more to address the opiate crisis, water quality, and finding alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. A question not answered is whether this translates to a willingness to increase spending tax dollars on these problems?

There's a strong consensus that we rely too heavily on property taxes for education, but respondents are also quite satisfied with the quality of education our district provides. The bill H.911, recently passed by the House, takes steps to relieve some of the burden on property tax by relying more on income and consumption taxes.

Governor Scott's approval rate exceeds his negative rating by 34%, which bodes well for his re-election at this time. About 34% also had no opinion on the question. About 2/3 of respondents favor a four-year term for the office of Governor. This would require a change to the Vermont Constitution, however.

There is also strong support among respondents for increasing the scope of the bottle deposit system. There are many ways to expand it including adding non-carbonated beverages such as bottled juice, water and tea, as well as adding a deposit on wine bottles. I would favor this if the law were also changed to have the state collect and manage the system. This way the deposits for unredeemed containers would accrue to the state rather than the beverage distributors.
Here are all the results of the poll in Charlotte.

Q# Question Yes No Not Sure
1 Are you concerned about the Vermont opiate crisis? 95% 3% 2%
2 Do you believe water quality is a major issue in Vermont? 79% 12% 9%
3 Should Vermont increase the minimum wage? 60% 26% 14%
4 Do you believe Vermont is an affordable place to live? 9% 65% 26%
5 Are you concerned about the decrease in Vermont's population? 60% 34% 6%
6 Should Vermont have a four year term for Governor? 65% 16% 19%
7 Should Vermont's bottle deposit law be expanded? 72% 15% 13%
8 Do you believe Governor Scott is doing a good job? 50% 16% 34%
9 Should Vermont have paid family sick leave? 61% 24% 15%
10 Does Vermont rely too heavily on property taxes to fund education? 79% 9% 12%
11 Are you satisfied with Vermont's health care? 45% 32% 23%
12 Are you optimistic about Vermont's economy? 35% 35% 30%
13 Do you think that Vermont values are a reason that many people live in Vermont? 75% 12% 13%
14 Should we reduce Vermont's prison population by using alternatives for non-violent offenders? 90% 5% 5%
15 Are you satisfied with the quality of education in your local school district? 69% 12% 19%

As your representative in Montpelier, I appreciate your input on these and other issues. Your comments help me look at issues from several perspectives, and that is a valuable opportunity for me. You can always contact me by phone at 802-425-3960 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

The Word in the House 3/25/2018 - Pursuing Common Sense Gun Regulations

Very few issues have generated as much emotion on both sides as the issue of gun regulation. After 10 hours of debate last Friday, the House amended Senate bill S.55 dealing with firearms regulations. S.55 passed the Senate with
  • a provision related to the disposition of firearms that have been seized by law enforcement, and
  • an expanded background check requirement for unlicensed (private) firearm sales, with exceptions for law enforcement, military and immediate family members.

The House Judiciary Committee after weeks of testimony voted 6 to 5 to include
  • a 21-year old age requirement for purchase of long guns (the purchase of handguns to those under 21 is already barred by federal law), with an exception for law enforcement, military and 18 to 20 yearolds who have taken a hunter safety course,
  • a ban on bump stocks, and
  • a ban on high-capacity magazines (more than 10 shot capacity).

The provisions of S.55 help protect the safety of the general public. Expanding background checks makes sense because it is too easy for criminals to get their hands on guns if they can bypass the background check system in place for federally licensed firearms dealers. Responsible gun owners who want to sell one of their guns now have the backup to ask the purchaser to go through a background check. Transfers of firearms between immediate family members are not affected.

The rationale for prohibiting sales to under-21-year-olds is based on data showing that almost all completed teen suicides involve the use of guns. Teens are more likely to be impulsive when dealing with adversity. There have been many instances of Vermont teens taking their own lives that way including a Charlotte teen, a classmate of one of my daughters, who committed suicide by handgun. If we at least require the consent of a parent or the taking of a safety course, we can reduce the impulsivity factor in cases like these.

The bill does not ban any types of firearms, but does address accessories that can make semi-automatic firearms, like the AR-15 used so notoriously in the mass shootings we have become too familiar with since the Columbine High School massacre, more lethal. One of the most notorious was the Las Vegas massacre where a bump stock device was used to effectively turn a semi-automatic rifle into a virtual automatic rifle. In combination with high capacity magazines, hundreds of rounds were able to be fired into the crowd of concert-goers, killing 52 and wounding hundreds of others. If such weapons are to be available, then we have to move the odds of survival in favor of potential victims. The ban of bump stocks and limiting magazines to 10 shots does this. The bill prohibits the sale, purchase, import and transfer of these items going forward. The primary goal of this bill is to save lives. Will it prevent all future shootings? No, but it will put a few more barriers in place and provide a few more opportunities to short-circuit attempts.

None of these provisions violate the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These provisions have been in place in other states for years and have withstood challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I recognize the right of citizens to own firearms for legitimate purposes like hunting, sport shooting, and self-defense. However, some opponents of S.55 that I spoke to feel they need the ability to resist a future dictatorship by our national government. When the Second Amendment was passed, our country did not have a standing army and the defense of our country relied on every able-bodied man being “all-in”, ready to be called up to form “well regulated” citizen militias. Today we have our armed forces and a national guard of citizen soldiers, all sworn to uphold the Constitution. We have the ballot box which is and has been the most effective bulwark of our democracy. I am much more inclined to put my trust in our democratic institutions than in the idea that we need to rely on guns to protect ourselves from a rogue government. While some may differ with this philosophy, it is the one that I choose to embrace.

Legislative Report 3/21/2018 - Workforce Development through Education

At the CVSD (Champlain Valley School District) budget presentation the evening before Town Meeting, Board member Lynne Jaunich was describing the district's intent to help students connect with employers through internships for skill development. Moe Harvey, who owns Patterson Fuels, stated that he had positions in his company, well-paying jobs with benefits, that he had a hard time filling because he could not find people with the skills or the willingness to learn. He was unaware of programs matching students with employers, which to me sounded like a communications problem between our educational system and our business communities.

Growing Vermont's economy is a goal we can all agree on. It is a key to affordability, to maintaining a sustainable tax base, and to keeping Vermont an attractive place to live and work. A skilled and productive workforce is critical for the economic vitality of Vermont, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. However, our state currently faces several key labor market challenges.

Employers throughout our state have been telling the legislature that it is difficult to fill job openings due to the lack of qualified workers even though there is a wide range of job openings across multiple sectors. At the same time many Vermonters are underemployed and require training to update their skills and find job opportunities that match their interests. A lack of skills presents a significant barrier to those who would like to improve their work situation but are not qualified for the available jobs.

Vermont's educational system can play an important role in addressing this problem. While Vermont has an excellent high school graduation rate, we have the lowest rate in New England of youth accessing post-secondary education including college and technical education. By focusing on aligning learning opportunities with workforce needs, we can maximize the potential of every Vermonter to participate in a robust labor market.

The Vermont House last week passed H.919, a workforce development bill, to do just that. It commits the state to a redesign of Vermont’s workforce development and training system through a concerted three-year effort led by the Commissioner of Labor in collaboration with key administration partners, the education and training communities, and others from business and government. This system will allow all Vermonters who want to work and all employers who want workers to connect, through education and training, allowing both business and individuals to thrive. It will seek to promote employer-driven workforce education and training opportunities and equitable access to employment and training opportunities for women and underrepresented populations in Vermont. The bill will require the Agency of Education, in partnership with the Workforce Development Board, to set up a pilot program called Career Pathways. This program will promote collaboration among middle schools and regional technical education centers that, in partnership with business and industry, will integrate the academic and technical skills required for post-secondary success. The bill now moves to the Senate for further consideration.

To bring this back to the local level, it was satisfying to hear that our small group discussion at the CVSD school budget presentation led to contacts between Patterson Fuels and CVU's Nexus program, a flexible learning program that allows interested students to partner with business to apply academic learning to the world beyond school. These types of programs have the potential to benefit both employers and students and, hopefully, all of Vermont.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 3/1/2018 - Proposed Education Funding Changes

As we approach Town Meeting Day the issue of how to fund our K-12 education system is once again in the news. The fact that we continue to have the discussion from one year to the next indicates that it is not easy to address all the concerns regarding property taxes, budgets and services that are needed. Moreover, the current funding system is nearly impossible for the average Vermonter to understand and for most legislators to explain. At a briefing I attended, the remark was made that the system could be simple or fair, but not both. This year the House Ways & Means Committee decided to take a fresh look at how we fund education with an eye toward making it easier to understand while maintaining fairness in application.

Before describing the proposed changes, it is important to review the roles of the municipalities and school districts, the voters and taxpayers, and the state. School districts decide what is needed to educate their children and put together a budget, with taxpayer input, to meet those needs. The budget is presented to the taxpayers who then either approve or disapprove it. The state, on the other hand, is responsible for raising the money to fund all the budgets passed across the state. Today, that funding consist of 36% of the sales tax revenues, 100% of the lottery revenues, a transfer from the General Fund, federal dollars, and a statewide property tax. The burden on taxpayers is reduced by adjustments to the property tax assessments based on household income, and a fixed rate is assessed on all non-residential property.

The new proposal, which has not yet been finalized, would keep the non-residential rate the same, but would change the other allocations significantly. The General Fund transfer would be eliminated, but 100% of the sales and use tax revenue as well as 25% of the rooms and meals tax would go to the Education Fund. The income sensitivity adjustment would be eliminated and be replaced by a direct school income tax based on adjusted gross income. Low income residents and property owners would continue to be assisted by creating a homestead exemption, by exempting the first $47,000 of income from the school income tax, and by retaining the renter rebate program. Also, responsibility for several programs that do not go directly to K-12 education will be moved to the General Fund. Together, these changes would reduce reliance on the residential property tax by moving to a tax that is more closely related to ability to pay and would more closely link decisions on school budgets to the actual homestead tax paid.

Finally, while the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) adjustment would continue to be a factor on the local level, the per-pupil property tax yield would be reduced from $13,000 to about $5,000. Since the base statewide property tax would be reduced from $1.00 to $0.25, the Champlain Valley School District, which spends about $15,000 per pupil, would see an effective tax rate of $0.75, three times the base rate.

Final details remain to be worked out, as well as a decision as to whether the new funding system will go into effect this year or next. The legislature will continue to look for a fair, easy to understand funding formula that provides a quality education for all the children of Vermont. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 2/22/2018 - Gun Violence Op-ed

It was only after the senseless massacre of 17 students and teachers in Lakeland, Florida, last week that I learned that 17 other school shootings had occurred in just the first seven weeks of 2018. How could I have not known that there were so many? Has it become so common that we don't even notice?

Once again we hear public officials offer condolences, thoughts and prayers, sincerely I'm sure, for the victims and their families and their friends. Yet these expressions of empathy are just platitudes without a commitment to act to prevent these tragedies. Over and over and over again, even after the worst mass killing last Fall in Las Vegas, no action at all on any federal or state level has been taken to do anything about this cancer affecting our country.

We're told that it's “too soon” to talk about solutions. We're told that we “shouldn't politicize tragedy.” So, what happens? Nothing!

The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms. But with rights come responsibilities. What kinds of arms are appropriate for private ownership? In this gun-worshipping culture we have, it seems that no one at the federal or state level is willing to take the responsibility to keep weapons designed for military use in war out of the public domain. The AR-15, the weapon of choice for mass murder in the U.S., is one such weapon.

Since the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in 2012 more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings. Since that time more than 150,000 people lost their lives in the U.S. due to gun violence. (Google “gun violence in the U.S.”) Since Sandy Hook, 14 bills were introduced in the Vermont legislature to set reasonable regulations for firearms. With the least restrictive gun laws in the country, only minor changes have been made in the last six years in Vermont. Last year the House passed a Domestic Violence bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate guns from a household when responding to a domestic violence incident. This would offer some protection for domestic violence victims during a critical period in a bad situation. That bill sits in the Senate waiting for action. As usual, a very vocal minority of gun owners turned out in force at a Senate hearing to oppose it.

I am willing to acknowledge that we have a lower level of gun violence in Vermont than elsewhere. However, looking at the characteristics of mass shootings, it can happen here. It's only a matter of time. We are fortunate that a potential school shooting in Vermont was thwarted just days ago due to swift law enforcement action as a result of a report by a concerned citizen of the threat seen on social media.

It's time we took action in Vermont on the bills currently under consideration to protect domestic violence victims (H.422), to ban “bump stocks” (H.876), and to require background checks for the sale or transfer of firearms (H.151, S.6). This will only happen, however, if good people demand it by calling their legislators in the House and Senate with the same sense of purpose as those who oppose regulation. Failure to speak up equals complicity when a similar tragedy occurs in the future on Vermont soil.

Legislative Report 2/21/2018 - Energy & Technology

The Energy & Technology Committee (E&T) on which I serve has three areas of responsibility over Vermont's infrastructure: energy, telecommunications, and information technology (IT). In the six weeks of this session, we've been pretty active in each of these areas.

The House has already passed two of our bills dealing with energy this session. H.410 extends Vermont's appliance efficiency standards. A similar bill enacted last year adopts the current federal appliance efficiency standards for Vermont if the current federal Environmental Protection Agency decides to rescind them. Those standards have saved consumers billions of dollars in energy costs and offset millions of tons of CO2 emissions. With H.410 Vermont will adopt additional standards for products like commercial kitchen items, air compressors, computers and computer monitors, and water appliances like faucets, showerheads and toilets. These include standards developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, those adopted by the Energy Star program and other industry standards that manufacturers have already adopted.

The second bill, H.616, authorizes the Burlington Electric Department to use the waste heat from the McNeil biomass electric generation facility for a district heat project that will pump hot water through highly efficient pipes to the UVM Medical Center, the UVM campus and the new Burlington Center redevelopment project. This project will not only increase the plant's efficiency but will offset greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels used for heating.

E&T also voted to require that the Agency of Natural Resources use the $18.7M from the Volkswagen settlement solely for electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and for conversion from fossil fuel vehicles to EVs as allowed under the terms of the settlement.

Again, two of our bills dealing with telecommunications were passed by the House. Both seek to get high speed broadband out to rural areas where population density is too low to justify private investment. H.581 specifies that Connectivity Initiative grants funded by the Vermont Universal Service Fund (USF) can only be used for new broadband infrastructure projects and not for ongoing operational expenses. H.582 would increase the USF fee from 2% today to 2.5% starting in 2018 and ending in 2022. While this will increase the cost of a $100 phone bill by 50 cents per month, it will raise $1.5M annually and will be allocated to the Connectivity Initiative to expand broadband in rural areas.

Information Technology
Last year the Agency of Digital Services (ADS) was created to consolidate the state government's IT infrastructure and services which were distributed throughout the agencies. Our committee has been reviewing the status of the reorganization and the IT projects the agency now oversees as well as the forward focus of the agency. To date, the reorganization is proceeding well with development personnel working in the same agencies and departments as before while reporting directly to ADS. The highest priority of ADS now is cybersecurity. In the last 12 months more than 4 million cyber attacks on state systems were detected. Plans are in place to partner with Norwich University to identify weaknesses and strengthen monitoring and remediation.

E&T has also been investigating steps the state can take to enforce net neutrality within our borders. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to reverse Obama administration rules ensuring net neutrality puts content providers in the position of having to pay tolls to allow users to access their products thereby disadvantaging smaller content providers. While the Governor recently issued an executive order requiring state agencies and departments to write net neutrality into contracts with ISPs, E&T will continue investigating this subject in hopes of developing even stronger net neutrality rules for consumer protection.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 2/8/2018 - Vision Reflects Values

The President's State of the Union address is a tradition of our democracy that allows the head of the executive branch of the government to express his vision for America. It usually addresses a broad range of issues at a high level and is short on detail. Whether or not you agree with what is said, at least you get a pretty good idea of where the speaker is coming from. This got me thinking about my own communications, so I thought I'd try to deliver my own vision of what I try to accomplish as I serve as your Representative in Montpelier.

Let me start by saying that, as wonderful as Vermont is, we all want to help make our state a better place to live, work and play. We want Vermont to be affordable, not just for those at the top of the income bracket, but for everyone. Every family should have the opportunity to thrive, to be able to earn a living wage. While our minimum wage is above average, I believe that it should continue to rise gradually over time until it becomes a livable wage. Likewise, no employee should have to worry about losing their pay or even their job if they have to take time off to care for a sick child or elderly parent. That is why I voted for paid family leave last year, a bill that is awaiting action in the Senate. For those who are stuck in low wage jobs, we need to continue to increase access to training, career and technical education so that every Vermonter has a fair shot at success.

We have a great education system, but the cost of education continues to place a heavy burden on property taxes. With the additional demands placed on our schools from addiction, mental illness, and poverty, great public schools in all our communities are more important than ever in giving all children a bright future. During this session we are proposing a system of education funding that is simpler, still progressive, still subject to local control, and that will significantly reduce property tax burdens. Nor can we forget about the need to support pre-K and post high school educational opportunities.

Another core value is healthy families in healthy communities. The cost of health insurance and housing are the biggest challenges faced by many Vermonters. While Republicans in Washington are dismantling the Affordable Care Act and cutting funding for Medicare and Medicaid we need to make health insurance more affordable and ensure that Vermonters have access to treatment without barriers for drug addiction and mental health. A key to maintaining individual health is affordable housing, We need to support affordable housing development in downtowns and in village centers that also provides access to jobs, shopping and public transportation.

Finally, we need a healthy environment. We can't put off efforts to clean our lakes and streams. We have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels which has become a major contributor to climate change. Extreme weather events as well as adverse health effects. Lyme disease, algae blooms, heat waves, and extreme cold are the result. We can't afford to do nothing,

These are some of the values that frame my work in the legislature. I hope that my work will lead to a better Vermont for us and for our children and grandchildren.

I'll end by reminding you that I will be hosting an informational forum on the topic of Pricing Carbon Pollution at the Charlotte Senior Center on Monday. February 12, at 7:00 p.m. I hope to see you there.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 1/24/2018 - A Practical Approach to Pricing Carbon Pollution

Most people recognize that climate change is happening, that it is caused by burning fossil fuels, and that it has serious environmental and health consequences. The challenge to our generation is how to counter the trend of increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The most obvious action is to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Our economy and lifestyle depends heavily on fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation. We successfully continue to transform our electric generation to renewable, clean sources, making Vermont's electric supply among the cleanest in the country while keeping our electric rates the second lowest in New England. However, despite our goal of reducing Vermont's GHG emissions by 25% compared to 1990 levels, our GHG levels have instead increased by 4%. We cannot be successful unless we address fossil fuel consumption in heating and transportation.

A proposal currently being considered called the ESSEX Plan, an Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy EXchange, was developed by a group of environmental advocates, business people and legislators over the last summer and has been introduced as Senate bill S.284. The goal of the plan is to move dependence on dirty fossil fuels to Vermont's clean electric energy by discouraging use of fossil fuels and encouraging a transition to electricity for heating and transportation. Here is how the plan works.

The EPA during the Obama administration calculated the “social cost of carbon pollution” to health and the economy to be $40/ton. Based on this number the plan starts at $5/ton of CO2 (5 cents/gallon) and rises steadily to $40/ton (40 cents/gallon) over an 8 year period. The revenue generated goes back to Vermonters in the form of a rebate on electric bills. About $30M would be raised the first year and grows to $240M when the price tops out in eight years. This money would go into a special fund which would be drawn on for the rebates. Each month the amount collected would be allocated to each utility based on its electricity consumed for that month. That share would then be allocated based on whether the revenues came from the commercial, industrial or residential side of fossil fuel consumption. The rebates would be based on the amount of a customer's electricity usage. The revenues from the commercial and industrial customers would be rebated to them. The revenues from the residential customers would be divided based on income and geography.

Of the residential revenue 50% would be rebated to all residential customers, 25% would be rebated to customers in rural areas, and another 25% would be rebated to low income customers. Low income Vermonters in rural areas would get both bonus rebates. This formula is in recognition that Vermont is a rural state that requires longer commutes for rural residents and that low income residents pay a proportionally higher share of their income on energy costs. This strategy should encourage Vermonters to use less fossil fuel by transitioning to technologies like cold climate heat pumps, electric vehicles, mass transit, carpools and other strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.

So, how does this strengthen the state's economy? First of all, it makes Vermont more affordable. While electric rates themselves won't be affected, the carbon rebates, itemized on consumers' electric bills, will significantly decrease the net cost of electricity. Vermont's already low rates relative to our neighboring states will be even more attractive to businesses. Secondly, Vermont is not a source of fossil fuels, so 80 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels leaves Vermont. On the other hand, Vermont's electricity is increasingly sourced within the state or region, keeping millions of dollars of energy spending in Vermont. Third, transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity will add more well-paying green jobs to the 17,500 already created in Vermont. Finally, we are not alone. Vermont's New England neighbors and New York are poised to introduce their own carbon pricing legislation in the coming weeks making this a regional effort.

This method of carbon pricing is innovative and environmentally and economically beneficial. I look forward to a productive dialog about this plan and will host an informational forum on the topic at the Charlotte Senior Center on February 12 at 7:00 PM. I hope to see you there.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).