Legislative Report 9/15/2020 - House Acts on Budget and Climate




The legislature moved closer to final adjournment last week with the passage by the House of the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget.  Since all money bills, both taxation and spending, must originate in the House, the next step is for the Senate to weigh in. With a tri-partisan vote of 140 to 4, the House-passed budget (H.969) preserves services to vulnerable Vermonters while also seeking to ease the burden of pandemic impacts by appropriating federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF). It is a full-year budget that incorporates the first quarter elements that were passed in June. H.969 allocates dollars to make child care more affordable, integrates physical and mental health care funding so that health care services for Vermonters are coordinated, provides resources for existing businesses and for vulnerable Vermonters looking to start a business, and invests in public transportation and incentives to reduce the cost of electric vehicles. The bill also ensures Vermont colleges are strong by making a record investment in post-secondary education, including $23.8 million in bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges System. This is a balanced budget that ensures there are no cuts to the services Vermonters count on. At the same time, it fully funds future obligations, and keeps our reserves full to ensure we are in a strong financial position heading into the uncertain months that lie ahead.




In a separate bill, H.968, the VT House voted 129 to 15 to create a Coronavirus Economic Stimulus Equity Program that will provide $5 million in relief payments to Vermonters ineligible for federal assistance because of immigration status. Approximately 4,000 adults and 1,000 children without Social Security numbers who reside in Vermont, including Green Card holders whose spouses cannot work, will be granted one-time payments mirroring the federal economic stimulus payments that most Americans received last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic ($1,200 for adults; $500 for children under age 17). These workers, many of whom have kept the state’s dairy and vegetable farms operating seamlessly through the crisis, were declared “essential” by executive order. Governor Scott included this concept of aid to immigrant and undocumented Vermonters in his recently proposed FY21 budget. The House Appropriations Committee recommended a stand-alone bill apart from the budget to fund this program and identified additional monies to cover all potential recipients statewide. The program would be paid for with General Funds ($2 million) and monies from the 2018 Tobacco Litigation Fund ($3 million). All payments would be awarded by June 30, 2021 and any unspent funds would revert back to the Tobacco Fund.



The House also took a major step toward addressing climate change, a priority voiced by Vermonters for several years, by accepting the changes proposed by the Senate. On a vote of 102 to 45, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), H.688, was passed and sent to Governor Scott. Scott has five days to sign it, veto it, or allow it to become law without his signature.  The veto-proof votes in both the House and Senate demonstrate that Vermont takes its responsibility to fight climate change seriously. The GWSA converts Vermont’s emissions goals into achievable and realistic requirements that meet the targets in the Paris Climate Accord. The Climate Action Plan will be created by a Climate Council composed of representatives from state agencies and departments and from the business community and environmental organizations. Details of the GWSA can be found on my website at https://www.mikeyantachka.com/2020/02/legislative-report-2202020-building.html.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).  This article and others can be found at my website (www.MikeYantachka.com).


Legislative Report 9/3/2020 - Back in Session

 

The Vermont legislature returned, virtually, to Montpelier last week to complete the work of developing a budget for the last three quarters of fiscal year 2021. While this is our primary objective, we are not ignoring other important issues that require our attention.  The pandemic continues to require making adjustments, and there are a number of issues that can’t be shunted aside while we wait for a return to “normal”. 

As we got started last week, we passed two bills, S.233 and H.967.  S.233 eases the ability to transfer certain medical and trade licenses from states with similar licensing requirements.  Equivalent skills learned in the military will also qualify for Vermont licensure.  H.967 will allow a family childcare home to care for school age children for a full day when the child’s school has scheduled the child for remote instruction. Current law limits the care to four hours per day on school days.

As the state is putting the billion dollars of Coronavirus Relief Funds to work in the programs authorized by the legislature in June, the Governor presented his budget for the remaining $200 million to the legislature. With due diligence, the House Appropriations Committee with the help of other relevant committees is reviewing the proposal.  One of the Governor’s proposals for CRF money is to give every household a $150 payment that could be used for purchases from local merchants using a phone app.  While it might be a good idea, this is raising several questions. Since CRF money can’t be used for direct payments to taxpayers, is this a legitimate use? What about households that don’t have access to a smartphone? Local businesses would have to opt-in to receive payment from the app. Would everyone have reasonable access to participating merchants?  The Commerce Committee is currently taking testimony on this and will very likely propose changes.

The protests this summer in response to the many tragic killings of black men and women by police and by individuals acting as vigilantes has awakened the American consciousness to the systemic racism and societal bias present in our nation.  National politics has fueled the divisiveness as people choose sides between supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and respect for police.  There is a danger in viewing this issue in either/or terms as well as ignoring its implications in Vermont. Choosing sides is akin to tribalism. Neither side should be painted with a broad brush.  Instead, we should be looking at the conditions which create bias in policing and correct them. We also need to be respectful of protestors and their right to protest peacefully. There must be room for dialog.  Only then can the problem be solved. There are several bills that are currently under consideration in the House that will clarify the policy on use of force by police and training requirements in unbiased policing.  A recent study by UVM has indicated that black drivers in Vermont are significantly more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers yet have a significantly less incidence of possessing contraband than white drivers. Recognition of a problem is the first step toward change.

Climate change hasn’t stopped because of COVID-19.  When we went into lockdown in March, there was a noticeable decrease in driving for a couple of months.  This probably resulted in a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions during that time. The new phenomenon of “Zooming” has also decreased the need to jump in the car for meetings and work, but people are becoming Zoomed-out and yearn to get back to face-to-face meetings. If you’ve been out recently, you probably noticed that traffic is almost back to pre-COVID levels. We need to keep our attention on our efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWAS) with minor changes, and the House is expected to concur with the Senate’s amendments and send the bill to Governor Scott for his signature. You can find my article explaining the GWSA on my website.  As we head into winter, we also want to be sure that funds for weatherization are available for low- and moderate-income families.  A Senate bill (S.337) that will allow Efficiency Vermont to increase assistance for weatherization has passed in the House this week.

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

9/2/2020 Senate's Energy Efficiency Bill Is Passed by the House

The House has passed a bill that allows Vermont's Energy Efficiency

utilities, Efficiency Vermont and Burlington Electric Department, to expand the money-saving services they deliver to Vermonters. It broadens their energy efficiency mandate to include helping Vermonters save on their heating and transportation costs, not just electricity bills. As such, it allows the testing and development of new strategies to achieve our climate goals while saving Vermont families and businesses money.

These strategies will be tested in small pilot programs for 3 years, and funded out of existing revenues with no increase in electric rates.  


Details

Program funding is limited to no more than $2 million (less than 5%) of existing revenues — in fact the overall electric efficiency budget for the three-year pilot period is required to stay at or below the current three-year period, or else the pilot programs will be discontinued.  Though targeting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the bill, S.337, stipulates that programs must have a nexus to electricity — essentially this means encouraging "beneficial electrification," or replacing high-GHG fossil fuel use with low-GHG electricity.  


Efficiency Vermont and Burlington Electric Department must consult with State agencies to avoid duplicating programs.  They must also cooperate with other utilities, and the pilot programs must complement and not replace or compete with utility programs.  The programs must maximize cost-effective GHG reductions, and must be delivered statewide and reasonably proportional to electric efficiency charges collected in each utility territory.  


Front Porch Forum Post: Trouble with Poor Internet Service at Home?


Mike Yantachka • State Representative, Chittenden-4-1                                         8/2/2020

Announcement

HAVING TROUBLE WORKING, LEARNING, OR ACCESSING NEEDED HEALTH SERVICES FROM HOME BECAUSE OF POOR INTERNET?

Act 137 recently passed by the legislature provides for assistance to Vermont residents and businesses to improve internet access speeds using Coronavirus Relief Funds. This assistance is being administered by the Department of Public Service. If you work from home or have kids that need to learn remotely, DPS may be able to help. The web site is https://publicservice.vermont.gov/content/having-trouble-working-learning-or-accessing-needed-health-services-home-because-poor.

Tell the Department of Public Service about your need for high-speed internet by completing a quick survey at https://publicservice.vermont.gov/content/interactive-broadband-map. NOTE that you have to enter your address in the upper left search field of the map to access the survey.

If your Internet speeds are too low for you to easily load the map and survey, call 1-800-622-4496 for help filling them out. The Department is developing programs to bring high-speed internet to areas where there is need.

Financial assistance to help consumers who live just beyond the reach of existing broadband services is also available. For details about this program go to https://publicservice.vermont.gov/content/vermont-covid-19-line-extension-customer-assistance-program.

Additionally please help the Department improve internet availability in your school district or catchment area by providing your physical (E911) address where you do not have adequate high-speed internet service. The Department will use this information to seek funding and coordinate service providers to bring high-speed internet to areas where it currently isn't available. If you've already filled out the map and survey, thank you. Your efforts will help secure additional resources.

GOOD NEWS! THE VERMONT SENATE PASSED THE GLOBAL WARMING SOLUTIONS ACT



The Vermont Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688) this afternoon (6/26/2020) with minor amendments. The legislature adjourned this evening until August 25th after passing $1B in Coronavirus Relief Funding provided by the federal CARES Act to help Vermonters and the Vermont economy respond to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature will reconvene on August 25th to complete the FY21 budget with updated financial data. I predict that the House will concur with the Senate's amendments and send the bill to the Governor. The GWSA will form the foundation of Vermont's response to the other existential crisis of climate change. Thanks to the many citizens, including students, who kept the pressure on last year by rallying, testifying and persisting at the statehouse to drive the message home that action is necessary. This is a beginning, not the end of the action we must take to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing.
https://www.mikeyantachka.com/…/legislative-report-2202020-…

Legislative Report 6/25/2020 -The House Appropriates $1 Billion of Coronavirus Relief Funds


Ever since Vermont received $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) as a result of the federal CARES Act, Governor Scott and the Legislature have been trying to decide how to allocate those funds to relieve the economic distress caused by the “stay home, stay safe” response to the virus. More than $90M was used almost immediately to help unemployed Vermonters and small Violating the guidelines would put Vermont at risk of having to return the money to the U.S. Treasury next year.  To be eligible for CRF, the spending must: 1) be necessary expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 emergency; 2) not have been accounted for in the budget most recently approved before March 27, 2020; and 3) be incurred between March 1 and December 30, 2020. 
businesses. The Governor subsequently called for $400M more to be released for assistance to businesses, many of which are in danger of closing completely.  While the objective is clear and uncontested, the Legislature, specifically the House where money bills must originate, has had the task of discerning how and where to allocate CRF money within the guidelines of the CARES Act.

Over the three-month period since the emergency went into effect, House committees, with stakeholder input, have been looking for eligible avenues within their areas of jurisdiction that would help all aspects of the Vermont economy, including individuals, businesses, non-profits, and those in need of social services.
With the goal that no Vermonter or Vermont community should be left behind because of COVID-19 impacts, several bills were passed during the last two months of the session that allocated $1.04B of CRF money to help Vermont and its citizens get back on their feet.  The appropriations include:

  • $356M to stabilize our health care system, including $257M for provider stabilization, as well as funding for mental health, childcare, senior services, and suicide prevention;
  • $196M for assistance to businesses, including restart grants, marketing and tourism, public safety, and the Arts;
  • $170M for pandemic frontline workers, including $20M for hazard pay;
  • $91M for housing assistance including eviction and foreclosure prevention and homelessness assistance;
  • $73M for higher education;
  • $50M for Pre-K education;
  • $43M for broadband connectivity assistance both for residential affordability and network expansion, E-911 system expenses, and to cover utility accounts that were 90+ days in arrears due to the pandemic;
  • $35M for agriculture and forestry relief;
  • $16M for the judicial system; and
  • $13M for municipalities.

This is the largest emergency recovery program ever passed by the Vermont legislature and reflects an enormous amount of work by the members of the House and Senate, our legislative staff, the administration, and the Joint Fiscal Office. While there still may be some changes as agreement on the details of the bills by the House and Senate are negotiated, we expect to finish our work by the end of this week and recess for the month of July.  We will be back together in August to complete the final three-quarters of the FY21 budget.

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

The Word in the House 6/5/2020 - House Passes Major Bills in Prolonged Session


As the lockdown of the Vermont economy continues to ease, the legislature has continued its work remotely via video-conferencing.  Meeting as an All-House Caucus each week on Tuesday, briefings are provided to all members on bills that will be coming up for a vote in the Wednesday and Friday floor sessions.  Members hear the reports of the committees that prepared the bills with an opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Those bills are then debated during the floor sessions, amendments are considered, and votes are taken.  During a normal session, this process is open to anyone who comes to the statehouse or who might tune into VPR’s live stream of the proceedings. Our virtual sessions, however, open up the proceedings to anyone with an internet-capable device at https://legislature.vermont.gov/. There you can find the links to the House or Senate sessions as well as to scheduled committee meetings that take place during the week. Click on the Announcements link to find the times for the proceedings.

In recent weeks, the House has passed several  major bills to keep the state on an even keel during the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supplemental Budget Adjustment (SBA) bill will take us through the rest of the 2020 fiscal year which ends on June 30th. With the deferral of the income tax filing deadline to July 15th as well as certain other tax payments, revenues expected in this fiscal year will not be received until the first quarter of FY21 and are anticipated to be lower than was expected in January.  The SBA bill adjusts spending but also allows borrowing from funds controlled by the State Treasurer until the deferred revenues are received.  It sets a date certain for repayment of those loans with interest. The SBA bill is now under consideration by the Senate.

At the same time, the House has been working on the “Skinny Budget” bill for the first quarter of FY21. The plan is to map out the first quarter, see where we are with respect to the economy, federal assistance and revenues at the end of August and then reconvene to create a budget for the rest of the fiscal year. The major components of the budget consist of the Capital Bill (H.955), the Transportation Bill (H.942), and the Yield Bill (H.959). These will be folded into the Appropriations Bill that defines the budget.  The Capital Bill addresses the spending needed to administer and maintain state properties and infrastructure including correctional facilities, office buildings, state parks, etc. The Transportation Bill does the same for the Vermont Agency of Transportation and includes roads and bridges, aid to municipalities, rail, mass transit, etc. The Yield Bill sets education tax rates based on the budgets approved by school districts in March.  However, some districts have not yet voted on school budgets, and less money is expected from the sales and use tax, which goes entirely into the Education Fund. Those reasons and the uncertainty of federal education assistance due to the pandemic led the Ways & Means Committee to set the property tax rates at the same level as was expected prior to the pandemic in order to provide municipalities firm numbers to work with for local tax rates.  Legislation later this summer will adjust these expectations as necessary. The bill also allows towns to borrow money for the education tax payments due the state with the interest covered by federal CARES Act money. All these bills will require passage by the Senate.

The legislature will continue to work until the “Skinny Budget” has passed in concurrence with the Senate. As always, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).

Legislative Report 5/28/2020 - Ensuring Our Right to Vote

Note: This article was also published as a Word in the House article in The Citizen.

Our United States Constitution guarantees American citizens many rights, most notably those contained in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. The right of every eligible citizen to vote is fundamental to our democracy and ensures that our other rights are protected by holding government accountable. While originally reserved only for free male citizens of age 21 or older, the right to vote was extended over time by subsequent amendments to freed male slaves, women, and citizens of age 18 and older.  In fact, this year is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.

After the Civil War and up until the 1960s African Americans’ right to vote was suppressed by southern states through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated those measures in those states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, and any changes to their voting laws required federal oversight (preclearance). However, in 2013 a divided Supreme Court struck down the preclearance clause of the act. This allowed a wave of measures enacted by many conservative states to make it harder to vote or skewed the vote by redrawing districts, a practice known as gerrymandering.  Requiring voter IDs, reducing the number of polling places in minority-heavy districts, and mass purges of names from voter lists have all eroded this fundamental element of our democracy.

On the other hand, many states, including Vermont, have made it easier for eligible citizens to vote. Five states conduct all elections by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Vermont allows people to register to vote right up to voting day.  We maintain a statewide voter database to reduce duplication of registration. We allow absentee and early voting to begin 45 days before the election. Several weeks ago, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin voters had to risk their health by standing in line to vote in person because the Wisconsin Supreme Court would not allow absentee voting without a valid excuse. Subsequently, a University of Wisconsin study found a “statistically and economically significant association” between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 after the election.

We don’t know at this time whether COVID-19 will still be widespread at the time of the primary election in  August and the general election in November. Vermont has been relatively successful in suppressing the spread of the virus.  As the restrictions on social participation are relaxed, we hope that we will not see a second wave of infections.  However, we can’t take that for granted.  We should be preparing now for both elections to be held primarily by mail. House bill H.681, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Scott, gives the Secretary of State temporary authority to change the way we hold elections during the COVID-19 emergency.

Secretary of State Jim Condos in consultation with Governor Scott is exploring options for the primary and general elections. This will certainly include an expansion of Vermont’s existing early and absentee voting system. It’s a safe and secure process that allows any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail and is the method recommended for Charlotte’s budget and trails vote on June 23rd. (You can vote now!) The polls will still be open on election day in some safe, modified way for people who prefer to vote in person.

As individuals we can prepare now for whatever form future elections take. The first step is to visit the “My Voter Page” (https://mvp.vermont.gov/) of the Secretary of State’s website. You’ll see two green buttons where you can register to vote or confirm that you’re registered to vote. If you know you’re registered to vote, but the site says you’re not, then check with our Town Clerk.  I was unable to find my record and called the Town Clerk’s office. I learned that my birth date was set to 1/1/1900 in the database, which was easily corrected.  Then I was able to confirm my registration on the website.  You can also verify that your address is correct, which is important if ballots will be mailed. Finally, you can always ask for a mail-in ballot by calling our Town Clerk.

Vermont has a better record of voter turnout than most states, ranking 11th in 2018 with a 56% showing. Absentee ballots accounted for about 30% of votes cast in both the 2016 and 2018 general elections. Vermonters take their commitment to democracy seriously.  We will not let even a pandemic get between us and that commitment.

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

Legislative Report 5/14/2020 - Navigating the Unemployment System Jungle

We are now two months into the societal shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it honestly feels much longer.  It’s seems hard to remember when we nonchalantly shook hands, greeted others with hugs and pats on the back, and could see the faces of folks we encountered in a grocery store. It isn’t bad enough that the pandemic economy shutdown has caused unprecedented job losses, but help for many of those who lost jobs or their businesses or had their hours cut back has been tangled up in a jungle of bureaucracy compounded by a 50-year old, antiquated computer system.  Because of the success of Vermont’s response to the pandemic in flattening the curve and avoiding an overwhelmed health care system, Governor Scott is gradually “opening the spigot,” as he puts it, to allow some businesses to reopen while maintaining proper hygienic measures.


However, the problems with unemployment assistance continue to plague many Vermonters who are having trouble obtaining the benefits they are owed and are running out of money.  There are several reasons for this situation that amounted to a perfect storm for the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL). (It should be noted that most other states are having similar issues.)  Take the age of the computer system that handles unemployment claims.  It is running on a mainframe computer that was state of the art in the 1970s but is woefully outdated now.  It is programmed in a language called COBOL. Programmers familiar with COBOL are long-retired or about to retire.  Large scale updates to the software are not feasible or practical.  Two attempts over the last decade to replace the system, both of which were part of a consortium of several states to share the cost of development, have not been successful.

So, now we’re stuck with an inadequate system that was working fine when there were 200 to 400 applications per week but can’t handle the 87,000 that were generated en masse since mid-March. The 65 regular VDOL employees who input and process claims were overwhelmed.  Calling into the department became virtually impossible. Since the initial flood of claims, 200 additional personnel were hired, including a call center firm called Maximus.  At the same time, the federal CARES Act allowed self-employed persons, who don’t qualify under the regular system because they don’t contribute to the unemployment insurance (UI) fund, to sign up for benefits. As a result, a new, unfamiliar Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) system had to be set up alongside the UI system to handle an additional 17,000 claims.  To complicate things further the relaxed rules for claiming unemployment were relaxed were not reflected in the programming which caused some applicants to be incorrectly disqualified.

Every one of the 180 members of the Vermont House and Senate have heard from constituents who are rightly frustrated at their inability to navigate the jungle that is currently the state’s unemployment system.  After hearing from constituents for weeks, the House created a spreadsheet to allow legislators to record the complaints and situations of their constituents for referral to a special Labor Department team.  In addition, 24 legislators have volunteered to assist in connecting claimants on that list to appropriate department employees. The Labor Department has also taken steps to reverse negative eligibility codes received by many applicants. As of May 10th, 54,000 of the 61,000 UI claimants determined to be eligible have been paid, and 8,600 of the 17,000 PUA claimants have received payment. Both the administration and the legislature know that more must be done, and we are working cooperatively to achieve that for our constituents.  Be well, stay safe, and persist.

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

Legislative Report 4/30/2020 - The Legislature Continues Its Work Remotely



The daffodils and hyacinths are finally blooming in the yard, the ground isn’t quite as soggy as it was last week, and May is upon us. Ironically, unemployment is at depression-level highs around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Vermont, the infection and hospitalization levels have been well-controlled as a result of steps taken early by Governor Scott under the direction of Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso.  The curve has been flattened, allowing some easing of restrictions on outdoor work like landscaping and construction if social distancing and hygienic guidelines are observed. And the difficulty many Vermonters who tried to apply for unemployment benefits experienced should now be easing with additional personnel staffing the Department of Labor. Anyone still having a problem should contact me to see if I can help.

The legislature finally met in session using Zoom to approve the change to House Rules allowing us to vote remotely and to pass several key bills related to the health crisis. The change of rules required a 3/4 majority approval to take effect, and the vote was unanimous by the 147 legislators in attendance. With that approval, the House took up four bills pertaining to changes in the law for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.  These bills provide for the administration of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program which relates directly to independent contractors and others who are self-employed, permit remote execution of a will and notarization of documents without having to be in direct contact with other people, and provide our State Treasurer with tools to proactively manage State and local cash flow needs. We expect to hold more floor sessions in the weeks ahead. You can watch recordings of House meetings, and live floor sessions, by following our legislative page on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC1w34Iyg1vB_HT6dt_4eMA

This is an unusual session for many reasons, not the least of which is the uncertainty of the financial future.  The economic fallout will certainly reduce revenues coming into the state from income and corporate taxes, sales and use taxes, and transportation fuel taxes. Since all sales and use taxes now go into the Education Fund, there will be less money to support the school budgets that have been passed. There is also a lot of uncertainty about what aid the federal government will provide to the states.  As the legislature adapts to all this uncertainty, we will work to pass an interim budget that will get Vermont through the first quarter of the next fiscal year (FY21). The plan is to adjourn in late May or early June and return in August to pass a more complete budget for FY21.

In the meantime, the proposed closure of three Vermont State College campuses last week surprised everyone and created an immediate backlash. While the legislature in recent years provided less funding for the VSC system than requested, its costs have mounted, and the current crisis has exacerbated the deficit,  The backlash by students, faculty, the public, the Governor and legislators caused the proposal to be withdrawn. The legislative leadership of the House and Senate have committed to taking a serious look at VSC configuration as well as funding. VSC must provide an affordable and accessible opportunity for post-secondary students across Vermont to get a college degree.  

I will be hosting a Virtual Town Hall via Zoom this Friday, May 1, at 6:00 p.m.* Send me an email if you want to participate. I am happy to help in any way I can if you are having difficulty accessing state services. I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238). 

* This meeting notice was published prior to May 1.

Legislative Report 4/16/2020 - 2020 Town Meeting Survey Results



It’s been more than a month since Town Meeting, and oh, what a month!  In past years I published the results of the Legislative Survey, which 140 Charlotters filled out this year, within a week or two of the meeting.  This year we have all been preoccupied with something else called COVID-19. Unfortunately, that little problem has sucked all the oxygen out of the legislative chamber and reset our priorities for the rest of the session, rightfully so. Nevertheless, I appreciate everyone who took the time to fill out the survey.

While we are now focused on one existential crisis, the novel Coronavirus pandemic which is an immediate threat, we mustn’t forget about the other existential crisis of climate change.  Ironically, the former crisis is having a mitigating effect on the latter. The abrupt and broad economic shutdown is resulting in a significant reduction in transportation fossil fuel consumption, which had been the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont and the United States. I think we could all agree that this is not the way we would have liked the reduction to occur. (Is Mother Nature telling us something?)  A preferable approach would have been a controlled reduction by making a conscious choice to wean ourselves off fossil fuels by transitioning to cleaner electric energy with incentives to do so.  That, however, would require what I consider to be a small sacrifice in the cost of transportation and heating fuels to generate revenues for weatherizing homes, electrifying transportation, and actually saving consumers money in the long run.

Three of the questions in the survey tried to assess the support for that approach in our community. While 90% of respondents consider climate change to be an important problem, only 76% seemed willing to spend an extra 2 cents per gallon to generate revenues that could be reinvested in fossil fuel reduction.  While 78 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels, or $1.95 of every gallon, leaves the state, the 2 cents per gallon would generate $15M that would be spent in-state.

There’s pretty strong support for a tax and regulate system for recreational marijuana sales, but Charlotters are pretty evenly divided (39% Yes, 37% No) on whether we should allow sales in Charlotte. A significant percentage (24%) were undecided.

Establishing a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program for employees was favored by a 3 to 1 margin, with 11% not sure. Ironically, the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress contains funding for paid family leave during the emergency. This could be a catalyst for continuation of the program beyond the emergency. 

Because the efficiency of the country’s vehicle fleet has been increasing as a result of the EPA vehicle efficiency standards, which the current EPA just set aside, the state Transportation Fund has experienced a decline in revenues. There is less money each year to support our roads and bridges, including municipal infrastructure. Increasing the gas tax, a move supported by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, would help fund municipal roads.  Slightly more than half of respondents are willing to pay 4 cents more per gallon for this.

Finally, there is strong support for banning flavored vaping products, which appeal to young users and increase addiction to nicotine after decades of successful reductions in youth smoking rates. I included the last two questions regarding composting and appeal of electric vehicles to assess respondents’ attitudes on those policies.

Q#
Question
Yes %
No %
Not Sure %
1
Is climate change an important issue for you?
90
8
2
2
Are you aware that 78 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels (gasoline, natural gas and heating oil) leaves Vermont?
25
67
8
3
Would you support a 2 cent per gallon increase on fossil fuels to support programs in Vermont to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the major contributor to climate change?
76
19
5
4
Do you support a tax and regulate system for recreational cannabis (marijuana) sales?
69
20
11
5
Should Charlotte allow recreational marijuana sales in town?
39
37
24
6
Should Vermont establish a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program for all employees with a 0.2% premium payroll deduction (20 cents per $100 of wages)?
67
22
11
7
Would you be willing to pay 4 cents more per gallon of gasoline to maintain municipal roads?
54
36
15
8
Should flavored vaping products be prohibited in Vermont?
83
9
8
9
Do you compost or pay a hauler to compost your household organic waste?
77
21
2
10
Do you own or are you considering buying an electric vehicle (EV) in the next two years?
42
48
10

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 valuable for me.  You can always contact me by phone at 802-233-5238 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

Legislative Report 4/2/2020 - Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

The unofficial slogan of the U.S. Marine Corps is “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”  When faced with the unexpected, the success of a mission requires the ability to change tactics quickly. The COVID-19 crisis has certainly been unexpected and has forced us to adapt our lifestyle quickly. The last two weeks also marked a significant shift in the work of the Vermont legislature. The leadership of all three parties - Democrat, Republican and Progressive - worked hard to keep abreast of the state's efforts to manage the Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency and figure out a way to keep the legislature working.  Daily meetings of the Joint Rules Committee, chaired by Senator Tim Ashe, got updates from the heads of departments and agencies via conference calls that were open to the public. These calls were regularly attended by other legislators and were the source of my communications with you on Front Porch Forum. Last Wednesday the House, by a quorum of legislators who made a special trip to Montpelier being careful to maintain "social distancing", changed its rules to allow remote voting both in committee and on the floor, matching what the Senate had approved the week before. Following that vote House committees began meeting online to conduct the business of taking testimony on bills. 

As we all settle in to maintain Governor Scott's "Stay home, stay safe" directive, we all have questions about how long this will last, how our incomes will be affected, when the kids will go back to school, how our small businesses will stay afloat, and so forth. There is no definite answer to these questions, but recent actions taken by the state and by the federal government have provided some certainty to some of them. During the brief session last Wednesday, the House also approved two bills in concurrence with the Senate amendments to support both working Vermonters who are forced to stay home and our health care system and workers who are on the front lines of defense against COVID-19.

Employees are immediately eligible for unemployment benefits and their employers are held harmless from Unemployment Insurance (UI) rate increases.  While childcare centers have been ordered closed, a certain number will remain open to serve families where both parents are essential workers, a designation determined by the administration. The provider tax on medical providers, including hospitals, is being abated during the emergency, and emergency authority is given to the Departments of Financial Regulation and the to react to evolving needs, including considering requiring insurance companies to eliminate copays for any prescriptions during the crisis. Testing for COVID-19 according to Department of Health guidelines will be free. The healthcare workforce will be boosted by temporarily relaxing licensing rules, and delivery of health care services by telemedicine will be reimbursable by insurance companies.

Because self-employed persons do not pay into the UI Fund, they are not currently eligible for unemployment benefits.  However, the COVID-19 relief legislation passed by Congress will extend benefits to self-employed and "gig-economy" workers as well as boost the maximum UI benefit by $600. Each adult will also receive a $1200 federal check and $500 per dependent child. The legislation provides $2 Trillion that will include aid for businesses, hospitals and states.  Vermont will receive $1.25B for COVIID-19 expenditures.  The aid is not intended for revenue replacement, however, and can only be used for expenditures not in the most recent budget.  This still leaves Vermont and other states in a precarious position since expected revenues will be impacted due to the economic shutdown jeopardizing existing programs.

While individuals will be receiving some income from the state and federal government depending on their situation, it may not be enough to continue meeting monthly payments for rent, mortgage, utilities, etc.  Federal legislation has put a moratorium on foreclosures of federally backed mortgages and on evictions. In Vermont the Judicial system has made it clear that during the COVID-19 emergency, when everyone must stay at home, evictions will not be processed. Vermont banks have also agreed not to proceed with foreclosures for delinquent mortgage payments for the next 90 days. To be clear, however, this does not mean that rents or mortgages are forgiven.  They will still have to be paid in full after the emergency ends.  Furthermore, if homeowners or renters can afford to pay, they are encouraged to do so in order to make future payment easier on themselves and provide cash flow to help landlords meet their obligations.

This will be a trying time for all of us.  As I told my granddaughter, by keeping ourselves and each other safe with social distancing and willingness to help when needed and able, we will come out stronger in the end. Be well and stay safe.

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

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Legislative Report 3/19/2020 - Vermont COVID-19 Ongoing Response


The ubiquitous news regarding the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to pervade our consciousness.  The Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Emergency Management, and the various health care providers around the state continue to take steps to monitor the situation and adopt a coordinated response. Vermonters are advised to keep abreast of the Health Department's status reports at https://www.healthvermont.gov/response/infectious-disease/2019-novel-coronavirus or dial 2-1-1.  My earlier report on the initial Vermont response can be found at https://www.mikeyantachka.com/2020/03/the-word-in-house-3122020-vermont.html.

I am writing this a day after the Vermont General Assembly adjourned for a one-week hiatus to essentially “distance” members from the Statehouse out of concern that business-as-usual might increase chances for spreading the virus. It is also a day after a state of emergency was declared at both the national and state levels by President Trump and Governor Scott respectively. In order to expedite action on legislation responding to the crisis, three House committees, Commerce and Economic Development, Health Care, and Human Services, worked on amendments to existing bills in order to vote on a COVID-19 response package by the end of the week. As Governor Scott was holding a press conference announcing his declaration, the Vermont House passed two bills and a resolution to provide some economic relief to Vermont employers and employees impacted by the virus and to our health care providers.

An amendment to H.681, a bill dealing with employment insurance, will hold employers harmless from unemployment insurance rate increases if an employee voluntarily leaves to care for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 or if the employer must cease operations at the request of a health official or voluntarily if workers were exposed to COVID-19 at the workplace. The affected employee(s) must be rehired by the employer when the employer resumes operations or when the individual has completed quarantine. Help for employees is also included. Employees who leave employment voluntarily do not normally qualify for unemployment compensation. However, an employee who leaves to care for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 will be eligible for unemployment compensation.  Because of the legislature’s care in past years to build up the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, money is available to provide this relief.

The House also amended H.742, a bill to fund training of Emergency Medical Personnel, to assist health care providers during the COVID-19 emergency.  During the state of emergency, in order to preserve the ability of providers to continue to operate, the Secretary of Human services is authorized to waive, modify or postpone the provider tax assessed on hospitals, clinics and others provided that the Secretary obtain the approval of the Joint Fiscal Committee and, if necessary, the Emergency Board. If the normal operation of health care, long term care, home- and community-based, and childcare services are impacted because patients or clients are not seeking services due to the virus, the Agency is authorized to provide payments to sustain the services and enable continued operation during the emergency. In addition, the bill provides for issuing temporary licenses to retired medical professionals or those with valid licenses from other states to join the workforce to supplement the potential loss of workers due to the virus.

Finally, a resolution was passed urging the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to suspend implementation of the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds Rule that revokes the valid immigration status of individuals receiving public assistance.  It also urges the Department to refrain from arresting individuals at hospitals, health care facilities, or coronavirus testing sites for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and to issue a statement to that effect. This is a necessary step to encourage persons, regardless of immigration status, to seek necessary care that will help control the spread of the virus.

When the General Assembly reconvenes, this COVID-19 package can be acted on quickly by the Senate. Additional details about any forthcoming relief from the federal government will also inform further action. We are all working in harmony to put the very best package forward to help Vermonters weather this crisis.

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