Legislative Report 5/16/2022 - Legislative session comes to a productive end

 

The last couple of weeks of a legislative session are marked by a frenzy of movement as bills pass back and forth between the House and Senate with proposals of amendment and further proposals of amendment. When agreement can’t be reached through the amendment process, conference committees are appointed to work out a compromise acceptable to both chambers.  This year the processes worked smoothly, and agreements were able to be reached on most of the key bills.  But there were a few disappointments.

 

The governor used his veto pen liberally. An earlier veto of a housing bill resulted in going back to the drawing board to remove or adjust provisions he objected to. Another was the ban on firearms in hospitals which contained a provision to close the “Charleston loophole,” which allowed a firearm to be purchased if a federal background check didn’t complete in 3 days.  Senate bill S.30 required a completed background check, regardless of how long it took, for a sale to be legal, which the governor felt was unacceptable.  A compromise was reached to permit a sale after 7 business days if the background check didn’t complete, and the governor signed the bill.

 

After a summer of negotiations involving legislators, representatives from the teachers’ and state employees’ unions, the State Treasurer and the Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, a pension bill was passed with the agreement of all parties to the negotiations.  The bill, S.286, passed with unanimous support in the House and Senate. Because the bill didn’t include allowing defined contribution plans (401(k)-type plans) for new employees, a last-minute demand of the governor, he vetoed it. The consensus is that including that option would undercut the sustainability of the pension system and bring us back to square one.  For the first time in Vermont history, the veto was overridden by unanimous roll-call votes in the House and Senate.

 

Two more vetoes, one on a Burlington charter change that required a just cause for evictions and another on the Clean Heat Standard bill, H.715, which my committee worked on, were upheld by a one vote margin.  With 100 votes required to override, both override efforts failed on a 99 – 51 vote, very disappointing on both counts. The governor objected to the Clean Heat Standard bill after it was passed by the House because the costs are unknown, and there would be no chance for the legislature to weigh in after the Public Utility Commission designed the program.  With that objection in mind the Senate amended the bill to require legislative review and approval of the program before it could start. He vetoed the bill anyway.

 

Vetoes aside, the session was very productive because of the huge influx of federal ARPA and infrastructure bill money.  Bolstered by strong state revenues, many programs were enacted using one-time federal money to help low- and middle-income Vermonters, children, students, and workers who have been struggling in the COVID-impacted economy. These appropriations included $95M for broadband; $70M for housing, including $20M for the “missing middle” and manufactured housing; $26M for mental health, developmental disability services, and home health care; $138M for workforce development including nursing education, skilled trades and worker re-training;  $35M for the Vermont state college system; $50M for IT systems modernization; $215M for climate initiatives including weatherization, municipal energy resilience, advanced electrical metering, and EV incentives; $104M for clean water initiatives including municipal water and wastewater systems; and many other services for a total budget of $8.3 billion.  In his closing remarks to the House just prior to our adjournment on Thursday evening of May 12, Governor Scott praised the legislature for its work for the people and the economy of Vermont.


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

Announcement 5/5/2022 - I am running for re-election to the House

 It has been my privilege to serve as the Charlotte-Hinesburg State Representative for the past 12 years.  I am taking this opportunity to announce that I will be running for re-election this year for another term.

During my time in office, my priority has always been to support policies that benefit Vermonters and make Vermont, and our community in particular, a better place to live and work. I believe in a strong democracy in which all citizens can participate through their right to vote. I have advocated for a livable minimum wage, for mental health benefits for first responders, and for sustainable pension funds for our hard-working teachers and state employees, as well as many other policies to support working families. During the worst days of the pandemic I helped many employees, small business owners and self-employed persons in Charlotte to access state and federal economic assistance programs. Through my work on energy and environmental policy, Vermont has taken significant steps to address climate change. However, much more needs to be done to further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions while helping folks save money on their heating bills and adapt to the changing weather patterns.

One of my most important responsibilities is keeping you informed through my bi-weekly Legislative Reports in our local newspapers and occasional Front Porch Forum posts. You can access those reports at my website, MikeYantachka.com, for a look at what I've been working on throughout my legislative career.

With your support I will continue working to support policies that will benefit the social fabric, the economic vitality, and the natural and lived environment of Vermont. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.


Rep. Mike Yantachka
Chittenden 5 District
 of Charlotte and Hinesburg

Legislative Report 4/18/2022 - Legislature takes responsibility for integrity and pension systems

 

Code of Ethics for state government

Back in 2015 the Center for Public Integrity gave Vermont a failing grade from the State Integrity Investigation ranking Vermont 50th out of 50 states in the category of ethics enforcement because it previously had no ethics body of any sort.  In response Vermont passed Act 79 of 2017, enacting its first comprehensive state ethics laws and creating the State Ethics Commission. This week the Legislature took another important step by passing S.171 which creates Vermont’s first statutory State Code of Ethics. Vermont was one of only five states without a code of ethics. In 2020, all six statewide elected officials, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer and Attorney General, called for passage of legislation to create a code of ethics for Vermont’s public servants in all three branches of government. 

 

The Code of Ethics applies to elected and appointed State officers, the General Assembly, members of the Judiciary and state employees. The Code of Ethics provisions include: 

    • disclosure and recusal for conflicts of interest; 
    • not using a state position, resources or information for personal or financial gain; 
    • limits on gifts to public servants; and 
    • limits on other outside and post-state employment.

S. 171 also provides protection for whistleblowers who report a Code of Ethics violation and mandatory training on the Code of Ethics. By setting out clear rules that public officials must abide by, Vermonters can have confidence in the integrity of our state government.

 

Pension systems find support

In 2021 the sustainability of the public pension systems covering state employees and teachers was called into question. State Treasurer Beth Pearce announced that the state pension funds for teachers and state employees were underfunded by about $3 billion and recommended that action be taken, including painful changes to pension benefits. These included increasing the retirement age, increasing employee contributions, and lowering the payouts. Teachers and state employees reacted immediately to protect the benefits they had earned by contacting legislators to plead their case. After a considerable amount of controversy within the Legislature and between the Legislature and the unions, a task force consisting of the Treasurer, legislators, and representatives of the unions and of the administration was created to address the problem. This task force worked throughout the summer of 2021 and hammered out a solution that all parties agreed to.

 

S.286, as passed by the Senate, implements the final recommendations of the task force which are expected to reduce Vermont’s long-term unfunded retirement liabilities for state employees and teachers by approximately $2 billion by prefunding other post-employment benefits (retiree healthcare), modifying the pension benefit structure and making additional State and employee contributions into the retirement systems. The bill contains a $200 million one-time General Fund appropriation to the state employees and teachers’ pension systems to pay down unfunded liabilities. An additional $13.3 million one-time Education Fund appropriation for FY 2022 is made to the Retired Teachers’ Health and Medical Benefit Fund to begin prefunding health care benefits for retired teachers. S.286 was voted out of the House Government Operations Committee and sent to the Ways and Means Committee for review. It is expected to pass and be sent to Governor Scott by the end of this week. 


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

Legislative report 4/4/2022 - Security requires being prepared

Having finished our work on bills initiated in the House, committees turned their attention to bills coming from the Senate and to other matters of importance. The Biden Administration recently issued a nationwide alert for Americans to elevate their cybersecurity posture in anticipation of a Russian response to economic sanctions imposed by the West because of the invasion of Ukraine. Vermont is vulnerable to such an attack on many fronts, and it is imperative to be prepared to both minimize vulnerabilities and respond quickly if an attack is successful. The House Energy and Technology Committee started taking testimony on the state of preparedness of critical IT infrastructure in both the public and private sectors. 

"It's not if, it's when, our systems get breached" is a line the House Energy and Technology committee heard repeatedly during our two days of testimony on Vermont’s cybersecurity defenses. Cyberattacks can take many forms: phishing scams, malware, spyware, data breaches, ransomware, and others. It is the responsibility of every entity that relies on a computer system connected to the internet to take the best precautions possible to prevent a cyberattack in the first place and to have a plan of action in case a breach is successful. In addition to hearing from leadership at the Agency of Digital Services and the Departments of Public Safety, Public Service, and Financial Regulation, we heard from UVM Health Network about lessons learned from the ransomware attack they experienced in October 2020. We also heard from representatives from Vermont utilities and banks about their cybersecurity efforts to prevent loss of confidential information, financial resources, and service. We explored how these organizations are working together to share best practices, intelligence on cyber threats, and how they are coordinating with state and federal governments to protect Vermonters’ data and infrastructure.

Banks and other financial institutions, regardless of size, are required by the federal government to maintain strong security measures for their systems and to have incident response plans in place.  The Vermont Bankers Association told us that inter-bank competition stops at the cybersecurity door, that there is excellent sharing of information among its members.  Vermont’s electric utilities are subject to National Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection requirements. Also, the Vermont Public Utilities Commission requires Vermont utilities to report annually on their cybersecurity programs.

Be alert and be aware

The testimony we heard gave us considerable assurance that strong protections are in place.  But it also brought to our attention that we as individuals also have a part to play. We need to know how we can be used and how to protect ourselves. The entry point for a breach is often accomplished by “phishing” a user, that is, sending an email or text that seems to be from a legitimate website, colleague, or company with a link or attachment to open. The result is the surreptitious installation of malware or spyware on the user’s computer or asking a user to verify a userid and password or other personally identifiable information to allow the hacker to bypass security in a system.  With the possibility of attacks coming from many directions, protection of our data and the systems we depend on is both a collective and a personal responsibility.  Here are some steps we can all take:

  • Never click on a link or open an attachment unless you are expecting it or can verify that the sender is who they purport to be.
  • If the email is from a company you have an account with, go to the website and log in there instead of clicking on a link.
  • Use two-factor authentication if possible. This is an option that requires not only a password, but a verification code sent to your phone or email account to successfully log in.
  • Maintain different passwords for different accounts.  Password managers like Lastpass, Keeper or Zoho can remove the anxiety of having to remember multiple passwords.

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

New Legislative Maps Approved

 The Vermont House and Senate districts will be changing for the 2022 election.  H.722, the House redistricting bill passed earlier this month, came back from the Senate with their proposal of amendment which added the Senate redistricting proposal. While the Charlotte and Hinesburg House districts are only slightly modified with the Charlotte-Hinesburg district (Chittenden 5) enlarged by one census block of Hinesburg (Chittenden 4), the six-member Chittenden County Senate district was split into three districts: Chittenden North, Chittenden Central, and Chittenden Southeast. Charlotte, along with Bolton, Hinesburg, Jericho, Richmond, Shelburne, South Burlington, St. George, Underhill, Williston, and part of the city of Burlington, will be in Chittenden SE with three senators. Burlington, Winooski and part of Essex will comprise Chittenden Central with three senators, and Milton, Westford, Fairfax and the rest of Essex will make up Chittenden North with one senator. Population shifts over the last decade added one Senate seat to Chittenden county.  The House and Senate redistricting maps can be found at the following sites.

House:

https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/SmallMaps/2022/Phase_II/Statewide%203_3.pdf


Senate:

Legislative Report 3/21/2022 - Reaching crossover, Environmental bills score big

 

As the Legislature hit the crossover date last week, House committees were busy finalizing work on the dozens of bills they had been working on since January. The once-a-decade legislative reapportionment bill was finalized and passed, and the Charlotte-Hinesburg district, Chittenden 5, again contains all of Charlotte and a slightly larger portion of Hinesburg, running along the west side of Baldwin Road from the Monkton line to Burritt Road. (Map)

 

Among the many bills that passed and were sent on to the Senate, were several that touched on the environment and our efforts to address the climate change crisis. The Municipal Efficiency Resilience Initiative (H.518) passed unanimously to help municipalities assess the energy efficiency of their buildings and apply for grants to weatherize, reduce operation and maintenance costs, enhance comfort, and reduce energy use by improving heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. The Clean Heat Standard bill (H.715) also passed with a strong 96 to 44 vote to help homeowners, renters and commercial properties reduce their dependence on fossil fuels for heating.

 

The Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee sponsored several important bills including H.500, which prohibits the sale, starting in 2024, of four-foot linear fluorescent lamps in Vermont for which LEDs are available. All fluorescent lamps contain mercury and can create an immediate public health and environmental hazard when they accidentally break during installation, use, transportation, storage, recycling, or disposal. Light-emitting diode (LED) replacements for fluorescent lamps do not contain any mercury. Another bill, H.523, seeks to reduce hydrofluorocarbon emissions. Hydrofluorocarbons are potent greenhouse gases and enter the atmosphere as leakage from cooling systems. Products that contain hydrofluorocarbons for use in refrigeration systems and auto air conditioners are prohibited starting in 2024. Alternative refrigerant products are available.

 

Forests play an important role in Vermont’s working landscape, and in its tourist and recreation economy. Currently only actively managed forests are

A view of Camels Hump from Niquette State
Park.   Photo by Mike Yantachka

 eligible for enrollment in the Use Value Appraisal (Current Use) program. Forests that exhibit old forest characteristics can provide unique contributions to biodiversity, contribute to the climate resilience and adaptive capacity of Vermont’s working landscape, and serve as ecological benchmarks against which to measure active management of Vermont’s forests. The House passed H.697 which creates a pilot program to extend eligibility for current use for forest parcels that are left wild and meet certain criteria with the approval of the Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

 

This forest program will complement nicely another bill, H.606, the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act. Nature is facing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, both globally and locally. In addition to its intrinsic value, biodiversity is essential to human survival. According to the United Nations one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, and human activity has altered almost 75 percent of the Earth’s surface, squeezing wildlife and nature into ever-smaller natural areas of the planet. The health of ecosystems on which humans and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever, affecting the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide. The causes of the drivers of changes in nature rank as: (1) changes in land and sea use, (2) direct exploitation of organisms, (3) climate change, (4) pollution, and (5) invasive species. According to the Nature Conservancy Vermont plays a key role in the conservation of biodiversity regionally.  H.606 sets a goal of conserving thirty percent of Vermont’s total land area by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050, including state, federal, municipal, and private land. It requires the Agency of Natural Resources to develop a plan by the end of 2023 with public input from all stakeholders. These bills and many others now move to the Senate.


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

Legislative Report 3/7/2022 - The war in Ukraine and our heating costs

 

Surely, we are all horrified by the devastation that is happening in Ukraine.  The uncalled-for war initiated by Vladimir Putin has outraged the world and resulted in a unified front against Russia in support of the Ukrainian people.  The strong economic sanctions are totally justified and must remain as long as Russian forces continue their assault and occupation.  We will have to stand firm regardless of the economic pain that the sanctions cause in the U.S. and among our allies in Europe and around the world, because that pain is nothing compared to the pain being visited on the people of Ukraine.


Om March 8 the Vermont House voted to send $643,077, which represents $1 for every Vermonter, plus $1,749 from sales of Russian-sourced liquor sold in Vermont  between February 24 and March 2 for humanitarian relief in Ukraine. In addition, many House members bought sunflowers, the Ukraine national flower, and displayed them at our desks.

 

One of the biggest effects in the U.S. is soaring oil prices which is driving already high inflation even higher. With gasoline topping $4 per gallon and heating oil not far behind, the remainder of the heating season as well as our daily commutes will be more costly than previously expected. The questions many are asking are “What can we do about it? How can I handle the added expense?”  These questions are at the forefront of policymakers in Montpelier as well. One thing we can do is help Vermonters reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

 

The Governor has proposed, and the House Committee on Energy & Technology has recommended, that $80M be allocated for weatherizing 8,000 low-income and moderate-income residences between 2022 and 2026. Vermont homeowners and tenants with low incomes will be eligible for no-cost, comprehensive home weatherization services through Vermont’s Home Weatherization Assistance Program administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity and delivered through six Weatherization Assistance Providers. Weatherization of buildings with five or more units will be delivered through 3E Thermal, a team of consultants who help apartment building owners increase energy efficiency and improve building performance. Vermonters with a moderate income will be eligible to receive incentives through Efficiency Vermont and its network of contractors to support the cost of home weatherization. Weatherization will reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed for heating and thereby reduce the cost of heating.

 

In addition, $20 million in ARPA funds is recommended for low and moderate-income Vermonters to upgrade home electrical systems and install energy saving technologies such as cold-climate heat pumps in conjunction with weatherization. Another $5M is recommended to help approximately 3,000 low-income Vermonters that have a fossil fuel water heater at least 10 years old to replace it at low or no cost with a heat pump water heater to reduce their energy costs and emissions. These alternative heating appliances will further reduce dependence on fossil fuels and their associated cost.

 

While the situation in Ukraine was not a consideration when the Vermont Climate Council proposed a Clean Heat Standard, it may turn out to be an effective tool when combined with the state’s share of ARPA funds in counteracting the heating costs of Vermonters. By allowing clean heat measures like weatherization, heat pumps, and heat pump hot water heaters installed starting January 1, 2022, to create Clean Heat Credits, we can get a jump start on reducing emissions as well as costs of residential heating.  These credits will be readily available for purchase by fossil fuel dealers to meet their clean heat credit obligations which are expected to start in 2024. Or they can generate credits themselves by helping their customers transition to these clean heat measures.

 

We don’t know how long the war in Ukraine will continue, how the sanctions will affect Putin’s conduct, and what the outcome will be.  But fuel prices that were already high before the war will probably continue to be so. For every gallon of heating oil or gasoline we can avoid using, we will further insulate ourselves from the volatility of fossil fuel prices as well as reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.


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

Legislative Report 2/21/2022 - 2022 Town Meeting Legislative Report

 

Town Meeting marks the halfway point in the Vermont legislative session, and it’s a good time to highlight some of the work the legislature has accomplished.  The House passed some significant legislation in these first two months, and we will continue to work on our key priorities in collaboration with the Senate prior to our anticipated May adjournment.

 

One of our priorities is to use Vermont’s share of federal stimulus funds to boost recovery and set the stage for a strong future, while building a balanced budget that reflects our values as we tackle the complex and interconnected challenges of housing, workforce, and childcare. Of the $1.049 billion Vermont received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), over $600 million was allocated for

fiscal year 2022 (FY22) investments, leaving more than $400 million available. This infusion of federal dollars will not be sustained over time, nor will state revenue levels which have been outpacing forecasts. In developing the FY23 budget, our challenge is to make strategic use of one-time money to address extraordinary ongoing needs in order to support and strengthen Vermont communities, families, and vulnerable Vermonters now and into the future.

 

Workforce development is another one of our legislative priorities this year. With 25,000 job openings in Vermont and an unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent, we’re trying to identify and remove the barriers that are preventing people from working or returning to work. We’re also listening to education and training providers to see if we can provide better opportunities for Vermonters to gain postsecondary credentials and degrees of value, which increase earning potential in rewarding careers. Vermont’s 17 regional Career and Technical Education (CTE) centers provide critical pathways to improve career readiness for students and adult learners and play a big role in workforce development. Stakeholders across Vermont in the business, nonprofit, education and government sectors have committed to a common goal of having 70 percent of Vermonters possess a postsecondary degree or credential of value, such as an apprenticeship, certificate or license. The legislature is considering several proposals to revamp and support CTE, with bills under consideration in several committees. While there are worker shortages across the board, the shortage of nurses has put severe pressure on our healthcare system due to COVID-19. This is exacerbated by a shortage of nursing professors. The legislature is looking for ways through scholarships and grants to support Vermont’s colleges in expanding their nursing programs, attracting nursing professors and helping current RNs who wish to become professors.

 

The Legislature recognizes that climate change is an existential threat to our way of life and several bills aim at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in the two categories producing the most emissions: transportation and heating. I have previously written about two bills from my committee, Energy and Technology, that promote municipal energy resilience and help Vermonters reduce their dependence on fossil fuels for heating. The House Transportation Committee is reviewing the Governor’s “Transportation Bill,” which recommends approximately $40 million in investments to support a state highway electric vehicle (EV) charging network and incentives for EVs as well as electric bicycles, ATVs, and snowmobiles. The Transportation Innovation Act (H.552) has similar objectives and also includes funding for transportation programs for lower income Vermonters and continuation of zero-fare public transit. These initiatives will be helped by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law by President Biden in November 2021.

 

There is a lot of work being done in many other areas including pension funding, support of the forest economy, registration of construction contractors, support for mixed-income and multi-family housing, racial and social justice, telehealth initiatives, toxic waste, and more. Bills dealing with these issues will be coming up for a vote in the two weeks after Town Meeting to meet the crossover deadline when bills need to be passed in order to be considered by the Senate.  Stay tuned.

 

Legislative Report 2/7/2022 - We can clean up our heating sources

 

It is very apparent by now that climate change is happening both locally and globally with rising average temperatures and devastating effects, including extraordinary wildfires, flooding, and other extreme weather events. In September 2020, the Vermont Legislature enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act (Act 153) that set greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets and created a Climate Council to develop a Climate Action Plan (CAP) to achieve those targets. The Climate Council published its report in December 2021, and in January the Legislature began working to implement it.

 

Transportation accounts for about 40% of GHG emissions in Vermont and heating accounts for about 34%.  Targeting these two energy-intensive sectors will give us the best chance of meeting the target of a 40% reduction from 1990 levels of GHG emissions by 2030. The House Energy and Technology Committee has started crafting legislation from some of the specific recommendations of the Climate Action Plan regarding heating, including a Municipal Energy Resilience Plan (bill H.518) and a Clean Heat Standard.

 

The Climate Council was careful to insist that whatever
measures were taken to reduce GHG emissions, that they be done in an equitable manner to prevent impacting those with the highest energy burden.  Energy burden is defined as the total household energy expenses for heating and electricity divided by household income. The highest energy burden is experienced by the 20% of Vermonters with the lowest income as shown in the accompanying chart. Energy burden profiles can also be associated geographically with the highest energy burdens occurring in rural communities because of increased transportation fuel costs.

 

Vermont’s cities, towns and villages own and maintain approximately 7,000 old buildings that are expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. To meet our climate goals and ease the energy burden on municipal budgets, H.518 will support communities with technical assistance, design support, and funding to make municipal assets more energy efficient and to displace fossil fuels with cleaner options. It will expand the State Energy Management Program to help municipalities finance improvements and assist municipal leaders, who may lack the technical expertise to assess the best investments to increase efficiency and resilience, with help from Efficiency VT and regional planning commissions.

 

With one-third of Vermont’s climate pollution coming primarily from fossil fuels used to heat our buildings and water, dependence on fossil fuels is expensive with unpredictable price swings for consumers. If you heat your home with oil or propane, you’re paying as much as 40% above last year’s prices. This creates an especially large energy burden for lower-income Vermonters. Unlike our highly regulated electric sector, which is subject to the renewable energy standard (RES), fossil fuel corporations are under no obligation to reduce the carbon pollution of their product. A Clean Heat Standard (CHS) would require fossil fuel corporations to provide cleaner heating fuel options and/or pay for pollution-reduction measures that benefit Vermonters. These include employing cleaner heating options, like heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, and advanced wood heat to displace fossil fuels, or supporting weatherization and efficiency measures. A CHS places the obligation of lowering emissions on fuel sellers while presenting Vermonters with choices on how and when to move to cleaner heat. To ensure equity in the application of the CHS we are considering various design options such as requiring a high fraction of credits to come from serving low- and moderate- income homes, providing extra credits for providing clean heat in rental housing, and making incentive payments income-sensitive. Without implementing a CHS, Vermont will not meet its emissions reduction requirements under the Global Warming Solutions Act.

 

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

Apologies!

 I apologize for not updating this website since the Legislature adjourned in May of 2021.  A lot has happened since then, including a number of articles I wrote for our local newspapers. I have included them below with the following dates:

7/2/2021  General Assembly overrides vetoes

11/29/2021  Rising COVID cases prompt special legislative session

1/8/2022  New legislative session looks ahead

1/22/2022  Artificial Intelligence: Opportunity and Risk

Fortunately, Blogger allows me to backdate the posts to when they should have been posted.

Legislative Report 1/22/2022 - Artificial Intelligence: Opportunity and Risk

 

Jeopardy host: In the category Technology, systems (usually software) capable of perceiving an environment through data acquisition and then processing and interpreting the derived information to take action or imitate intelligent behavior given a specified goal.

Watson: What is Artificial Intelligence?

 

Many years ago, I went through a period of reading Isaac Asimov’s novels about robots, the kind that exhibited human functions, what we would call androids today. His first robot novel I, Robot was a collection of short stories about robots with human-like personalities that performed various jobs, like childcare for example.  Robots and androids have been a staple of literature from ancient times (search “Robots in Literature”), and most of us are familiar with those of the Star Wars anthology. We aren’t quite at the C3-PO stage yet, but the artificial intelligence that the robots of science fiction exhibited has become a reality with the development of high-powered computers today.

 

We are surrounded by artificial intelligence, also known as “AI”, whether we recognize it or not.  The first AI algorithm was created and used successfully to master the game of checkers in 1956 by Dartmouth scholars. Fast forward to 2011 and IBM’s supercomputer, dubbed “Watson”, competed against two Jeopardy champions, and won. The dialog at the top of this column did not actually take place, but it serves to define what AI is. Today we use AI to guide us to destinations, predict the weather, translate languages, for facial recognition, and many other applications. AI is used for scientific research, medical diagnoses, autonomous vehicles, and more; and the government, including the Defense Department, funds advanced research in AI.  AI is the source of many benefits, but it can also pose a risk if it is used improperly.  For example, ubiquitous use of facial recognition threatens our expectations of personal privacy. And systems that determine eligibility for services can have built in biases.

 

Already, AI is creating a wave of economic growth in Vermont with high-paying jobs in this field. The legislature recognizes both the economic potential and the potential for abuse associated with AI development and use.  Act 137 of 2018 created an Artificial Intelligence Task Force to investigate the field of artificial intelligence in the State and make recommendations on the responsible growth of Vermont’s emerging technology markets, the use of artificial intelligence in State government, and State regulation of the artificial intelligence field. The task force’s report was issued in January 2020 and can be found at https://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Legislative-Reports/Artificial-Intelligence-Task-Force-Final-Report-1.15.2020.pdf

 

The report states that "there is in fact a role for local and state action, especially where national and international action is not occurring. Large scale technological change makes states rivals for the economic rewards, [whereas] inaction leaves states behind. States can become leaders in crafting appropriate responses to technological change that eventually produces policy and action around the country."

 

Members of my committee, Energy and Technology, worked on a bill, H.410, over the summer that implements some of the recommendations of the Task Force, and we voted it out of committee last week. It creates an AI Commission under the auspices of the Agency of Digital Services, and requires a survey of all software applications purchased, developed, or used by State agencies or departments. We want to know if any applications use AI, how it is used, and the potential impacts on Vermont citizens. The bill is awaiting action by the Appropriations Committee and will eventually be voted on by the full House.

 

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

Legislative Report 1/8/2022 - New legislative session looks ahead

 

On Tuesday, January 4, the legislature returned to Montpelier in person for the second half of the biennium.  In a floor session that lasted about 45 minutes, resolutions were passed to allow the House and Senate to meet and conduct business remotely until January 18 because of the rising number of COVID cases due to the much more contagious omicron variant. The intent of the legislature is to re-evaluate the situation mid-month to determine whether it will be ok to return in-person. As we begin the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to remain vigilant to prevent its spread as much as possible.

But legislative work must be done. On Wednesday Governor Scott delivered his State of the State address to the Legislature.  He laid out his priorities to increase housing, develop Vermont’s workforce, and use the federal assistance that the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Act.  His priorities match well with the priorities of the Democratic led Legislature, which is to help families, businesses and our economy thrive. Building on the work we accomplished in 2021, we’re ready to hammer out detailed proposals — and make significant investments — that make a real difference for Vermonters.

This will include taking smart, strategic action on climate. The Vermont Climate Council, created by the Global Warming Solutions Act passed last year, has delivered its report with recommendations on steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon through agricultural and forestry land management practices, and adapt our infrastructure to the effects of climate change, and to accomplish these tasks with an eye toward racial and social equity.  

We plan to resolve our pension crisis in a way that’s fair to teachers, state employees and taxpayers; create greater equity in the way we fund our schools; increase access to healthcare, mental health and substance abuse treatment; and address many other critical issues as the session moves into high gear.

While unemployment has again fallen to pre-pandemic levels, there are thousands of jobs still waiting to be filled.  This workforce problem affects all areas of the economy, including restaurants, retail, nursing, education, broadband, and transportation among others. While we try to grow our workforce from within the state, our future also depends on attracting new workers into Vermont. A lack of affordable housing and available childcare opportunities are major stumbling blocks to young families who would like to become part of the Vermont community. The investments in housing and childcare we made in last year’s budget will get more attention this year.

After two strenuous years of the pandemic, we must continue to do all we can to end it.  Vaccines are the primary weapon in our arsenal.  Wearing masks in indoor public places helps prevent the spread. Being cautious in our interactions with others protects us and them.  We’re all in this together and have to take care of each other. As always, I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).