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 ( 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 (, 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 (, phone calls (802-233-5238), or in person contacts.