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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.