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.  

The Word in the House 3/12/2020 - Vermont Prepares for COVID-19

Note: This article did not appear in the March 12, 2020 issue of The Citizen as planned It will be replaced for publication on March 20th by an updated version written on March 13th as the Legislature adopted COVID-19 economic relief provisions before taking a 1-week recess to reduce exposure of members to the virus.

As Town Meeting discussion turned to the Advisory motions last Tuesday, the question of what Vermont is doing in the face of the novel Corona virus (COVID-19) was asked.  The Vermont Department of Health is monitoring the situation and is actively planning for any outbreak of the virus in the state, but at this time there is no appropriation in the budget to address the virus specifically. After speaking with a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have been advised that the appropriations for the Department of Health has funding for such emergency situations. As the budget makes its way through the House in the next two weeks and through the Senate after that, any funds allocated by the federal government to address the situation will be included.  In the meantime, Vermonters can keep abreast of the Health Department's evolving COVID-19 response at https://www.healthvermont.gov/response/infectious-disease/2019-novel-coronavirus.

The Health Department website states that it is closely monitoring the developments in the outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus and is prepared to respond to protect and support Vermonters. More than 200 people are being monitored by the Health Department throughout Vermont.
On March 8th one known case of coronavirus was confirmed in the Bennington area, and the patient is being treated at the Southwestern Medical Center Hospital in Bennington.

Governor Phil Scott in a press conference on Friday, March 6th, announced that the State will ensure that anyone who meets the medical requirements for testing for COVID-19 can be tested at no cost. Vermont health insurers are directed to waive any out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing, and those insured by Medicare and Medicaid will also be covered.  Also, the cost of testing for the 3% of Vermonters who do not have health care coverage will also be absorbed by state government. For more information, contact Stephanie Brackin, Department of Financial Regulation, at 802-828-4872.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, reminds us that the most important thing for Vermonters to do is to take action to help prevent the spread of respiratory illness:
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue, not your hands.
  • Stay home when you’re sick, especially with a fever, except to get medical care.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Routinely clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • And get your flu shot – flu is still widespread in Vermont.
Also, prepare yourselves and your families for the possibility that you might need to stay home for a few weeks. The situation is fluid, so use the local news media and the Health Department website to stay informed.

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

Legislative Report 3/5/2020 - Legislature Moves to Regulate and Tax Cannabis

The week before Town Meeting was intense as the legislature spent long hours debating, amending, and passing two major bills: the regulation and taxation of legal cannabis and revisions to Act 250. Both are very complicated pieces of legislation, so I will focus this article on the 53-page cannabis bill, S.54.

The history of cannabis, a.k.a. marijuana, in Vermont law dates back more than 100 years.  Vermont outlawed marijuana in 1915 as part of a movement to restrict its usage throughout the United States in the early 20th century.  Its presence in Vermont was well-known, however, during the “back-to-earth” movement in the 1970s and, truthfully, never left. It was approved for medicinal use with “a note from the doctor” in 2004 by a bill that Governor Jim Douglas allowed to become law without his signature. In 2013 the legislature decriminalized possession of up to an ounce; i.e. it became a civil infraction. Finally, in May of 2017, the legislature passed a bill legalizing adult possession of one ounce and possession of two mature plants per household, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Scott. However, the following January the House passed an amended version, the Senate followed, and Governor Scott signed it into law. So, while it is legal to possess marijuana in small quantities, it has not been legal to buy or sell it or bring it into Vermont, including marijuana seeds.  It is a highly dysfunctional system in which the black market continues to thrive.

Because of the need and desire for strict regulation, the production and sale of cannabis will be considered a business rather than “farming” and will not be eligible for agricultural tax breaks. However, sections of the Required Agricultural Practices related to operating standards for farming, groundwater quality, and subsurface tile drainage will apply to cannabis cultivation, processing, and manufacturing.

The bill we just passed creates a Cannabis Control Board that will issue licenses and regulate all aspects of the marijuana market in Vermont. There are six types of licenses: Cultivator, Product manufacturer, Wholesaler, Testing laboratory, Retailer, and an Integrated license. A person may hold a maximum of one of each license, except that an integrated license is only available to the current five vertically integrated registered medical cannabis dispensaries in Vermont. Retail cannabis establishments are allowed in a municipality only if the voters of the municipality approve. Other types of licensees cannot be disallowed, but must comply with any local bylaws, ordinances, or permits. The bill bans advertising related to cannabis and requires cannabis and cannabis products intended for human consumption to be tested for contaminants, potency, and quality. All cannabis products remain illegal for persons under 21 years of age.

Taking into consideration roadside safety, all Vermont officers will be required to take 16 hours of Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) training by the end of 2021, and roadside test results and Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) evaluation results will be admissible in court.

A 14% excise tax and the regular 6% sales tax will be assessed on retail marijuana sales. Any local option tax will also apply.  Expected revenues during the first year are around $13M. The revenues from the sales tax will go into the Education Fund for after-school programs, 30% of the excise tax revenue will be used for prevention programs, and the rest will go to the General Fund. The bill is now back in the Senate for its approval or further amendment.

I have been honored to be able to serve you in the legislature and work for the improvement of our environment and quality of life. I’m taking this opportunity to announce that I will be running for re-election again this year and would appreciate your continued support.  I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.  

The Word in the House 2/27/2020 - Climate Action, Act 250 Changes and Cannabis

After weeks of hard work the Vermont House passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688) with a solid 105 to 37 vote. This bill, the subject of last week’s article which can be found here, is the product of the House Energy & Technology Committee chaired by Representative Tim Briglin of Thetford. It will become the foundation for Vermont’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in line with the 2016 Paris Climate Treaty.

While the first reduction target is set for 2025 when we require GHG emissions to be 26% below 2005 levels, we can’t assume it will happen without further energy policy changes. These changes must include increases in renewable energy generation beyond our current target of 75% by 2032. Since GHG reduction will mean electrification of a major part of our transportation and heating requirements, we need our electricity to be as carbon-free as well as locally generated as possible. Solar and wind energy generated near the demand for its use with energy storage capability will improve grid reliability and efficiency and provide well-paying jobs for Vermonters. Even before the Climate Council created by the bill develops the plan for carbon reduction, we can directly impact GHG emissions by continuing the EV incentives and residential weatherization assistance in the Governor’s budget.

While the Energy & Technology Committee will continue working on energy policy, other Committees in the House are also hard at work. Before the Town Meeting break several other committees will report out bills that should get a lot of attention.  One bill contains revisions to Act 250 that the Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee has been working on for two years. Another is the Senate bill on regulation and taxation of recreational marijuana that has been under consideration by the House Government Operations Committee since last year.

The Act 250 revision (H.926) seeks to exempt designated downtowns from Act 250 review and modify criteria to include climate adaptation and mitigation.  A controversial provision to create a statewide professional three-member Act 250 Review Board that would handle all major projects was eliminated by the House Ways and Means Committee as of this writing because of concerns that the provision would make it harder for public participation in the process. The Natural Resources Committee had proposed a hybrid system that would add two regional members of the project’s District Review Board to the three-member panel for major project consideration. Elimination of the provision reverts review back to the regional District Review Boards while retaining the environmental-oriented and downtown development changes.

The Cannabis Tax and Regulate bill (S.54) worked its way through the Government Operations and Ways and Means Committees and is now in the Appropriations Committee. The highlights of the bill’s provisions include creation of a Cannabis Control Board which will make recommendations for any legislation needed to implement the system starting in 2022, issue licenses, and control advertising, product quality and testing. To protect highway safety every law enforcement officer will receive 16 hours of training in impaired driving assessment by the end of 2021, and the number of Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) will be increased.  Field sobriety test results and Drug Recognition Expert evaluation results will be admissible in court. The proposal currently includes an excise tax of 14% and the sales tax of 6% on retail sales. Local option taxes will apply as well.  The 6% sales tax will go to the Education Fund which will help all towns.  

More information on these bills will be posted to my website. I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.