Legislative Report 5/30/2019 - It's a Wrap for 2019!

The legislative session went into overtime last week with expectations that we would be able to not only finish a number of must-pass legislation like the budget and revenue bills, the Transportation bill, and the Clean Water funding bill, but also two bills that were on the high priority list for Democrats: paid family leave and increasing the minimum wage.  One thing that’s true of every legislative session I’ve experienced is that when it ends, we can look at a lot of legislative accomplishments as well as some significant disappointments.

The inability to pass paid family leave and a path to a $15 minimum wage, two separate issues that became linked as they moved between the House and Senate, came down to a failure to agree between the two chambers.  Both bills stalled in conference committees as the Senate refused to move on the House-passed family leave bill unless the House agreed to the faster schedule of minimum wage increases in the Senate bill.  Attempts to reach a compromise agreement failed on Friday after House Speaker Johnson offered to the Senate negotiators a menu of six possible solutions that the House could accept. Even with a decision on Friday, the House would have to come back the next week because the Republican caucus would not agree to suspend rules to allow immediate action on those bills.  Without a positive response from the Senate, Johnson asked the Senate to send the budget and revenue bills, which had been agreed to in conference, back to the House for consideration. The House passed those bills as amended, and she asked for a motion to adjourn. Both bills will remain in conference and can be worked on over the summer to be taken up in January.

To end on a positive note, here’s a recap of some of the important legislation that did pass this year.
 Economy
  • Broadband expansion – H.513 increases funding for the Connectivity Initiative and authorizes Communication Union Districts and municipalities to form partnerships with pole-owning utilities to build fiber-optic networks in rural areas.
  • Workforce Development – H.533 promotes training opportunities for small businesses and adult workforce development, creates weatherization training programs, decreases barriers for new Americans to enter the workforce, and creates a program to encourage members of the Armed Forces separating from active duty to relocate to Vermont.
  • Child care – included in the budget is $7.4M for child care assistance for both families and providers.
Climate Change
  • Weatherization – H.63 creates an all-fuels efficiency program to target low and moderate-income households for weatherization assistance.
  • Transportation efficiency – Transportation bills H.529 and S.149 create a $1.2M incentive program for electric vehicle purchases and assistance for Vermonters to fix vehicles that fail emissions tests, allocates $500,000 for state fleet EV purchases, and provides money for EV charging stations and Park & Ride expansion.
Environment
  • Clean Water – S.96 funds $50M for the clean water initiative.
  • Plastic Bags – S.113 bans merchants from providing plastic bags at points of sale and also bans styrofoam containers, plastic straws and plastic stirrers.
Health
  • Tobacco –S.86, H.47 and H.26 combine to raise the age of buying tobacco products to 21, tax e-cigarettes and accessories at the same rate as tobacco and prohibit internet sales of e-cigarettes.
  • Toxic chemicals – S.49 sets limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water and monitoring standards for public water supplies. S.55 requires a business responsible for a release of toxic chemicals to pay for medical monitoring of exposed individuals.
  •  Lead in Schools - S.40 provides funds to test and remediate lead in school drinking water fixtures.

These are some of the major pieces of legislation that will stimulate economic development, help Vermonters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to the health of Vermont children and families.

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

The Word in the House 5/23/2019 - It Ain't Over Til It's Over!

"It ain't over til it's over!" - Yogi Berra

The plan was to finish the legislative session by Saturday, May 18th, even working close to midnight again as we did the last couple of years. Alas, it was not to be. By Friday afternoon there were still about a dozen Committees of Conference working to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of bills, including the budget, transportation and tax bills. Speaker Mitzi Johnson recessed the House until the following Wednesday to allow the conference committees to finish their work in the interim.

Dozens of bills completed their ping-pong journeys through both the House and the Senate this week. Several bills engendered considerable debate on the House floor before the final vote including bills increasing the minimum wage (S.23), requiring a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases (S.169), and requiring businesses to cover medical monitoring for persons exposed to releases of toxic chemicals (S.37).
After a brief negotiation with the Senate in a Committee of Conference, the broadband expansion bill (H.513) received final approval as well.

This week was also marked by an interruption of the debate on S.37 by climate crisis protestors.  The House was startled when several protestors in the balcony started speaking loudly about the failure of the legislature to do more about the climate crisis, unfurled a banner, and tossed hundreds of index card messages into the chamber.  Speaker Johnson gaveled the House to Order and asked the Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol police to remove the protestors to restore order. When that didn’t stop the protestors, she ordered the legislators to leave the floor. All but two members complied.

While I don’t condone the actions of the protestors, I understand their frustration. For all the ominous science-based reports on what we are doing to the global climate, all the peaceful marches and lobbying by students and activists including the march from Middlebury to Montpelier, the legislature took only small steps to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The $1.5M EV incentive program has been cut to $1M. The two-cent increase of the heating fuel tax to raise $4.6M for weatherization of Vermont’s old housing stock has been replaced by the Senate with a transfer of one-time money from Efficiency Vermont surplus funds. In the Senate version, the number of low-income families benefitting will be the same as the House version for the next fiscal year, about 1300, but falls back to the current number, about 850, for future years. Efficiency Vermont will continue to help moderate-income families with weatherization assistance.  

However, if we are going to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner electricity in both the transportation and heating sectors of our economy in the next decade, we’ll need to make an investment to accelerate adoption of those technologies. This can be done in a way that grows jobs, reduces use of fossil fuels and saves Vermonters money. What we’ve done this year does not accomplish this in a sustainable way. Our Climate Solutions Caucus made up of concerned Representatives and Senators will be meeting between now and January to define a strategy to move forward in 2020.  Last year the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that we have 12 years to reverse the buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to prevent a rise of 2 degrees-C (4 degrees-F) in global temperatures. We must act as soon as possible with our regional partners to do our part for the sake of our children, grandchildren, and future generations.

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

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

The Word in the House 3/28/2019 - The People's House

There are quite a number of museums in Vermont, including the Statehouse itself in Montpelier.  For 12 months of the year it is open to the public free of charge and includes guided tours. However, from January through the middle of May it functions as an active workplace as well. Besides the 180 members of the House and Senate, there is a full-time staff of lawyers and clerks who assist the members in researching and drafting bills, the Sergeant at Arms and her staff, the Capitol Police, and 30 young people (8th graders), divided into three groups, who serve as Pages for six weeks at a time.

Visitors to the Statehouse during the legislative session will also find dozens of professional lobbyists who are paid to represent the interests of the companies and organizations they represent.  They serve a purpose in bringing essential information to the legislative committees during hearings. This information is balanced by agency and department representatives and private citizens who have an active interest in issues under consideration. Most days there are one or more organizations that set up informational displays in the cafeteria or in the Card Room adjacent to the House chamber or in the Cedar Creek Room, named after the Civil War battle depicted in the mural that occupies an entire wall.

Most legislative work is done in the 14 standing committees of the House and the 11 standing committees of the Senate. This work takes place generally in the committee rooms.  Visitors to the statehouse are welcome to sit in on the committees at any time, no invitation necessary. Many non-legislators take advantage of these open meetings, and it can get pretty crowded in the committee rooms, especially when there is a topic of great interest.

I especially like when young people visit. Many of the high school championship teams come to hear a resolution read in their honor on the floor of the House. Not too long ago, the CVU Boys Volleyball team celebrated their third consecutive championship with a resolution sponsored by the six Representatives from the towns in the Champlain Valley School District. Although they may not yet be old enough to vote, students have also been making themselves heard on many important issues of the day, like gun safety, climate change, and equal rights. Last week a group of elementary school students from Shelburne and Richmond visited the statehouse to advocate for a ban on the sale of animal parts like ivory and rhino horns in the United States and in Vermont. They are to be commended for their participation in our democracy even without the right to vote. In fact, they have the most to lose if we adults in the legislature fail to do our jobs well, because they are the future. As Abraham Lincoln said, we “cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

I am delighted whenever someone from Charlotte visits the Statehouse, Your House, in session Tuesday through Friday. If you decide to visit, have one of the Pages, the youngsters in the green jackets, let me know you’re there.  I’ll be happy to meet with you. And, if you can’t make it to Montpelier, I will again hold “office hours” for anyone who wants to talk to me in person here in Charlotte this Saturday, March 30, from 10 a.m. until noon, at the Charlotte Library. Of course, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238) as well.

Legislative Report 3/20/2019 - Your Opinion Matters


Since former Senator Bill Doyle is no longer able to conduct the Doyle Poll, a tradition of Town Meetings in Vermont, I decided to create a survey that would help me gauge the opinion of my constituents with respect to some of the issues currently under consideration by the legislature. About the same number of people as last year took the survey, so I want to thank the 120 folks who shared their opinions this year.

Clearly, there is strong support for a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases, for gradually raising the minimum wage, for a fee to support clean water initiatives, and for a tax and regulate system for marijuana sales. The question about whether affordable child care is an issue was answered by respondents of all ages including many who no longer require child care for their children. Comments from some of the respondents spoke to the cost of childcare and the impact of having to stop working to stay at home. Several persons who answered “No” commented that their grown children find it difficult to afford child care.

Establishing a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program for employees was favored by a 2 to 1 margin, but almost 20% were not sure. There are three different proposals under consideration, including a voluntary program favored by the Governor, each with different coverage and costs for employees and employers. This week the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee voted out H.107, which is now being reviewed by the Ways and Means Committee.

While 60% of respondents are satisfied with their internet speed at home, the 30% who are not indicates a need for improvement. It was surprising that even some fiber customers were dissatisfied. Checking internet speed with a speed test application like www.highspeedinternet.com/tools/speed-test and conferring with your Internet Service Provider may help identify a problem with your connection.

Questions 5, 8 and 9 were interesting as a group. Four cents per gallon of gasoline is well within the price differences seen on Shelburne Road, and much smaller than price shifts we can see over a few weeks. Heating oil prices ranged from $2.75/gal to $3/gal this winter. Respondents were much more accepting of a 4 cent increase to raise revenue for maintaining municipal roads than they were for helping Vermonters reduce fossil fuel consumption in home heating and transportation. At the same time many of the “No” votes on question 9 voted “Yes” on question 8, supporting efforts to address climate change.  It may be easier to relate to the damage being done to our vehicles by potholes and to spend money to fix them in the short term than it is to relate to future economic impacts of a changing climate and spend the same amount. Unfortunately, we are already seeing those impacts in extreme weather events, increasing insurance premiums, longer and hotter summers, and invasive plants and insects in our environment.

Here are all the results of the poll in Charlotte.

Q#
Question
Yes %
No %
Not Sure %
1
Are you satisfied with your internet speed at home?
60
30
10
2
Should Vermont establish a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program for all employees?
54
28
18
3*
Do you support gradually increasing the minimum wage from the current $10.67/hr to $15/hr over the next 5 years?
73
18
9
4
Do you think there should be a 48-hour waiting period to purchase a gun?
82
16
2
5
Would you be willing to pay 4 cents more per gallon of gasoline to maintain municipal roads?
62
24
14
6
Would you support a fee based on the size of development to fund cleaning up our lakes and rivers?
73
17
10
7
Do you support a tax and regulate system for recreational marijuana sales?
71
18
11
8
Do you support efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to address climate change?
75
17
8
9
Would you support an increase of 4 cents per gallon on gasoline and home heating oil to fund incentives for electric vehicle purchases and home weatherization assistance?
51
36
13
10
Is lack of affordable child care an issue for your family?
13
79
8

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 802-233-5238 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

* Note: The Vermont minimum wage is currently $10.78/hour, not $10.67/hour. Author's mistake. 

Greta Thunberg's TED Talk a "Must See" (11 minutes)

This TED Talk video makes one of the best cases I have heard for taking ACTION to reduce our use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions because of climate change.  A small investment today can save ... well, it can - it has to - save the future, which is ... priceless!


https://www.ted.com/speakers/greta_thunberg

The Word in the House 2/28/2019 - Navigating the Abortion Issue

For members of the Vermont legislature who work diligently to craft legislation that will address problems, protect rights, and generally keep our “brave little state” as a great place to live and work, there comes along in every biennium one or two very controversial issues.  Last year it was gun regulation. A few years ago it was removing the philosophical exemption for vaccines. In my first term it was the single-payer health care system. This year, as a result of the recent appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court by President Trump and efforts in many states to make it much harder for women to obtain contraceptive and abortion services, efforts to protect reproductive choice for women flared up early in the session.

There is no doubt that, even before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, the abortion issue had been divisive because it involves deeply held beliefs on both sides. While the arguments are usually presented in black and white terms, the issue has many shades of gray.  At one extreme is the belief that as soon as conception occurs a new human being is created and deserves the full protection of the law.  At the other extreme is the position that the fetus does not attain the status of a human being with rights and protections until birth.  The reality of the human condition, however, includes a great many different circumstances in between such as rape, incest, non-viability of the fetus, the health of the woman, reproductive freedom of choice, and other considerations.

 This year a bill, H.57, was introduced in the Vermont House to place in statute a woman’s right to access abortion services even if Roe v. Wade is reversed. Weeks of testimony, including a heavily attended public hearing with pro and con testimony from Vermont citizens, were heard by two House committees, Human Services and Judiciary. This was followed by two days of debate on the floor with about a dozen amendments offered.

In making my decision to vote for the bill, which passed on a vote of 106 to 37, I learned as much as I could from advocates of both sides and from medical sources and considered my responsibilities as a legislator.  First, it is not the job of the legislature to legislate religious beliefs.  Our decisions must be evidence-based. It is, however, the responsibility of government to protect human beings. Second, we know from biology that a fertilized egg initiates a new human life with unique DNA. One can legitimately argue, however, that a fertilized egg or an embryo in the early stages of fetal development is not quite a “human being” yet.

Third, again from a biological perspective, a fetus immediately before birth is the same human organism as it is after birth except for location and is, therefore, a human being. It then follows that the fetus attains the status of a human being at some point before birth. The Supreme court recognized as much in Roe v. Wade but declined to define that point other than the viability of the fetus. Fourth, by today’s medical capabilities, 23 weeks of gestation is the currently recognized point of viability of a normal fetus.  Medical practice in Vermont does not allow elective abortions to be performed after 22 weeks and six days without a prior consultation of the physician with the Medical Ethics Board of the hospital to determine if the abortion is medically necessary, such as a non-viable fetus or a danger to the life of the mother. Almost all unwanted pregnancies are terminated within the first 12 weeks. When abortions take place late in pregnancy, it is at great emotional expense for the parents who wanted the child. Finally, government should respect a woman’s autonomy over her reproductive decisions.

When confronted with controversial and emotional issues such as abortion, it is a legislator’s duty to listen with an open mind, to educate himself or herself as to facts, to weigh the facts carefully and logically before making a decision, and then to vote without fear or favor according to his or her conscience. This is what I try to do.

I will again hold “office hours” for anyone who wants to talk to me in person this Saturday, March 2, from 10 a.m. until noon, at the Charlotte Library. Drop by for a chat. Of course, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238) as well. 

Legislative Report 2/20/2019 - Broadband Key to Economic Development

Vermont's economic growth has been nearly stagnant pretty much since the turn of the century.  Looking at employment statistics since 1999 we can see that Vermont's employment numbers have remained fairly level at roughly 340,000 even during the 2008-2010 recession. On the other hand, they haven't grown since the recession either. While Chittenden County has experienced growth, the rest of Vermont has not.


The factors affecting the overall economy in Vermont are many, and the interaction among them is complex.  I am not attempting to address the issue comprehensively here. However, the House Committee on Energy & Technology is looking at one aspect of the challenge -- how the limited access to high speed internet affects Vermont's economy.  For the past two weeks we have heard testimony from Vermont's telephone companies, cable providers, community broadband companies, small businesses, municipalities, and the farming community which utilizes access to the internet for GPS controlled tilling, fertilizing and harvesting. One thing is clear: outside of Chittenden County and city centers, Vermonters' internet speeds are slo-o-ow. While most Vermonters are able to get DSL with speeds of 4 Mbps (Megabits per second), many in more remote locations have only dial-up. The federal standard for satisfactory speeds is 100 Mbps, which requires cable or fiber connectivity. As we become more of an information-based economy, access to high-speed internet is essential for economic growth. So, the question becomes, how do we achieve this in Vermont?

The limiting factor when it comes to building high-speed broadband is cost per connection.  In rural areas where customers are relatively far apart, the investment required to run miles of cable for few connections is prohibitive. Wireless connection is possible, but the wireless transmitters require a fiber or cable connection, and Vermont's terrain often limits the effectiveness of those devices. Some communities have formed organizations called Connectivity Union Districts (CUDs) that are non-profit entities that aggregate investments from several municipalities to build independent fiber networks to serve the member communities.  There are several in Vermont including EC Fiber in the Connecticut River Valley and Kingdom Community Fiber (KCF) in the Northeast Kingdom.  KCF has been given permission from the state of Vermont to connect to an existing fiber network owned by the state. State connectivity funds will be used to install the connection interfaces at various locations that will be leased to KCF to build fiber networks in communities running from St. Johnsbury north and west to Highgate.
  
The Energy & Technology Committee is now working on legislation that will encourage further development of fiber networks throughout rural Vermont. The 2 percent VT USF charge on our phone bills supports the E-911 system, the Lifeline phone access program for seniors, and the TTY service for hearing impaired persons. What is left over from those revenues is used to support the Connectivity Initiative Fund.  Governor Scott has proposed a $1M infusion to the fund to increase broadband.  We believe that we can do better. We are working on a bill that, in addition to the Governor's proposal, will increase the USF charge to 2.5 percent with the additional revenues dedicated to connectivity.  This would amount to a 50 cent increase on a $100 phone bill.  We also hope to benefit from additional federal dollars as a result of the recently passed federal Farm Bill.  Back in the 1950s Vermont made a concerted investment in getting electricity out to the last mile. Broadband is the 21st century equivalent to that effort.  It's a key ingredient necessary for growing Vermont's economy.

I am very happy to have been able to meet with constituents during my “office hours” at the Charlotte Library and most recently at Spear's Store in East Charlotte. My thanks to both venues for their hospitality. The next “office hours” opportunity will be announced on Front Porch Forum.   I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.

Legislative Report 2/6/2019 - Decarbonization: Options for Climate Change Action



The 2019 State Budget passed last June included money for a study on the costs and benefits of various options to reduce Vermont's carbon emissions in response to climate change. Vermont has several targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction that have been set during the Douglas, Shumlin and Scott administrations. In 2005 Vermont passed a law setting a target of 37% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012. In 2015 Vermont joined the conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in setting a target of reducing regional GHGs by 45% from 2005 levels by 2030. In 2017 Governor Scott joined the U.S. Climate Alliance which set a taget of GHG reduction of 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. A report from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation released last July showed that Vermont's GHG emissions are currently 16% above 1990 levels, mainly due to transportation and heating. Our electric generation emissions, however, have decreased extensively to the point that they are now about 60% carbon-free and will improve even more in years to come. Transforming our energy use from fossil fuels to electricity will reduce total GHG emissions.

Vermont's Joint Fiscal Office commissioned the firm Resources for the Future (RFF), a non-profit research institution in Washington, DC, to conduct the study. RFF looked at four options: the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) cap-and-trade system, the ESSEX Plan introduced in Vermont last year ($.05/gallon to $.40/g after 8 years), a medium carbon pricing plan ($.30/g to $.50/g by 2030), and a high carbon pricing plan ($.60/g to $1.00/g by 2030). All of the options were assumed to be revenue neutral in their model, that is, all revenues would be returned to taxpayers either through a dividend or through tax relief. Their models took into account the cost/benefit to consumers, the cost to business, estimates of carbon reduction, and the net benefits of revenue allocation and associated health benefits. The impact on consumers was also differentiated by income and geography.

A major conclusion of the study is that transportation and heating fuel uses are relatively insensitive to moderate changes in pricing. People changed their driving habits and paid more attention to their thermostats when fuel was close to $4.00/gallon a couple of years ago. Last year's increase of $.50/gallon for gasoline back in May did little to change driving habits; most people just absorbed the increase. The conclusion was that carbon pricing alone at the levels being considered would not be enough to reduce emissions. However, if carbon pricing were combined with non-pricing policies such as financial assistance for weatherizing homes and incentives for purchasing electric vehicles (used and new), then the targets were achievable.

None of the options would negatively affect Vermont's economy more than a few tenths of a percent overall. However, fuel-intensive businesses would suffer reductions while service related businesses would grow. The economic welfare of families varied by income under all the plans with the lowest 40% benefiting (60% for the ESSEX Plan) and the upper 40% of income earners losing from $15 to $250 per year. Urban dwellers would also be better off than rural folks.

The study looked at carbon pricing in Vermont alone, not at a regional level. Governor Scott has agreed to join other New England and Mid-Atlantic states in studying a regional cap-and-trade plan called the Transportation Climate Initiative. The plan will be designed by the end of the year, after which Vermont can decide whether to join TCI. Scott also has included some money for weatherization and electric vehicle rebates in his 2020 budget. It is imperative that we take concrete steps sooner than later to drive down GHG emissions in Vermont because it will only get more expensive the longer we wait.

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