Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

Letter from Rep. Pearson Taking Stock of 2015 Session


Dear Fellow Progressives,

On May 26th I joined thousands of other Vermonters on the Burlington waterfront to wish Bernie Sanders well as he sets off to change the political debate in our country. Vermonters seemed comfortable, even eager, for him to give it a try.

As I reflect on the 2015 legislative session that just finished in Montpelier, I am concerned that our political debate also needs to shift. We are fortunate that Montpelier still functions in a cordial, even friendly manner. And we can take comfort knowing that the debate is respectful. Still, a troubling trend has taken hold that is hard to overcome, even though many of us keep trying.

Of the 150 members of the Vermont House, only 53 are Republicans. Yet that is enough for them to shape the outcome on big issues like how we spend the $4 billion state budget. For years, conservatives have bemoaned the “spending problem” that grips Montpelier. This year, against a backdrop of a hefty budget deficit, the Democrats who control the entire process adopted their cry.

Every year that I’ve served in Montpelier we have been cutting programs.

In fact, as a percentage of the state’s GDP, tax revenue has declined (http://publicassets.org/blog/new-data-show-vermonts-problem-is-revenue-not-spending/<http://publicassets.org/blog/new-data-show-vermonts-problem-is-revenue-not-spending/>).

The budget has been growing, that is true. And so has the economy (finally). The problem we have in Montpelier, as I see it, is three-fold:

  1. Wages for most Vermonters have barely kept pace with inflation. Nearly all of the growth in income goes to those at the top. These families pay a smaller proportion of taxes than most of us in the middle class. Taken together this creates a challenge for the state’s revenue.
  2. Property taxes are too high and the school governance bill isn’t going to change that (which is why I voted against it).
  3. State health care spending (Medicaid) keeps climbing and eating up all the growth in our state budget. This entitlement program serves low-income Vermonters and between the Federal expansion and stagnant wages there are more people qualifying. It’s good to have people receive the health care they need but it's costly (more on health care reform in a future post).

There were positive aspects of this session, to be sure: Universal college savings accounts is one clear example where a tiny investment will pay off down the road. Finally moving to address our water quality is another bright spot but I fear the bill lacks the enforcement we are going to need. In the House we passed a bill to give more Vermonters the right to earned sick leave. Same-day voter registration is important to a district like ours with a lot of transitional residents. This year's energy bill sets us on a course to see more renewable power that is locally controlled. And, the revenue bill that passed is progressive and includes elements I have pushed for years.

But overall, the adoption of the “spending problem” mantra by Democratic leaders reflects a deep disconnect from the reality that median household income has declined. At a time when too many Vermonters are struggling to make ends meet, the state budget should stimulate job creation, not cut back. Sadly, several of the cuts were in areas that would have stimulated jobs and job growth.

As Vermonters cheer Bernie’s march across Iowa and New Hampshire, I hope we will save a little energy to push our own state government to more accurately reflect the economic reality experienced by most Vermonters. Our attempts to do that in Montpelier this year fell short.


Best,

Rep. Chris Pearson (Burlington)

Legislative Update - March 26, 2015

Dear fellow Progressives,

The political climate in the Statehouse this session is difficult to say the least, and Progressive legislators could use a hand from you today: Please call your representatives today (click here to look up contact info) and urge them to support the Workers' Caucus amendments to the tax and budget bills. You can contact Rep. Chris Pearson for more details on what those include: cpearson@leg.state.vt.us

Despite the challenges, your Progressive electeds have been hard at work trying to make progress on a wide range of issues. Here's what they've been up to so far this session....

 


 
Senator Anthony Pollina , Washington County

Committees: Senate Health and Welfare Committee, Senate Committee on Government Operations (Vice Chair), Government Accountability Committee
Contact: apollina@leg.state.vt.us

Sen. Pollina is working on a Senate healthcare bill (S103) that would do 2 things: 1) Provide immediate help to lower out-of-pocket expenses for Vermonters in the health exchange, and 2) requires Green Mountain Care to develop a universal, publicly-funded health care system based on the same principles as Act 48. Most importantly (as amended), it tells the Board they should base the financing plan for the new system on a financing plan proposed by the Vermont Workers Center and/or two of the alternative financing plans included in the Governor’s scrapped plans. These plans all show that a single payer system can actually work, and would give the Board a good starting point from which to design the funding mechanism for a single-payer system. 

From Senator Pollina:
The bottom line is that the Governor’s own report [the full report] shows a universal single payer-type system can work: all we need is the political will to take the next steps. The first step is to revisit and refine the financing plan. Both the Governor’s [alternate proposals] and the Workers Center proposal lay the foundation for doing that.”


Senator David Zuckerman, Chittenden County

Committees: Senate Committee on Agriculture (Vice Chair), Senate Committee on Education
Contact: dzuckerman@leg.state.vt.us

Sen. David Zuckerman introduced S. 95 (“An Act Relating to Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana”) to the Senate Committee on Judiciary earlier this session. The proposed bill would legalize limited amounts of marijuana to be used for recreational purposes, as well as establishing regulations regarding cultivation, distribution, and taxation of marijuana. Marijuana, under this proposed bill, would be legal to possess and available for sale to people over the age of 21. 

In addition to legalizing marijuana, this proposed law hopes to increase tax revenue which can support drug abuse prevention, education, treatment, and law enforcement efforts against the illegal drug trade. It also would increase the state’s control over distribution to prevent the use of marijuana by persons under 21. This bill proposes marijuana be treated similarly to alcohol, with abuse being approached as a public health matter, and irresponsible use leading to the harming of others being sanctioned with penalties. The hope with this bill is that legalization will reduce crime, create more revenue, and ultimately reduce the overall health risks associated with marijuana.  



Rep. Chris Pearson, Burlington (CHI 6-7)

Committees: House Committee on Health Care (Vice Chair)
Contact: cpearson@leg.state.vt.us

Rep. Chris Pearson has sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana in the House (H.277, a companion bill to Sen. Zuckerman's legislation in the Senate). He has also sponsored a bill to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in Vermont agriculture (a pesticide that kills bees), H.236. 

The House Health Care Committee has been working on making investments to reduce the cost-shift people experience in the healthcare exchange. The goal is for the state to invest money so that current recipients receive care similar to what they had on Catamount. There is also a push to invest in primary care and Medicaid in ways that reduce growth in private premiums, though that bills is currently stuck in the House Ways & Means Committee. 

In light of the recent Democratic budget proposals which seek to slash-and-burn public services across the state, Rep. Pearson and other legislators have developed revenue-raising alternatives that seek to get the rich to pay their share of taxes rather than heaping the burden on working families (such as raising the tax on capital gains to be equal to the tax on earned income).

From Rep. Pearson: 
“Austerity has not been an effective strategy to pull us out of this budget hole-- all it does is dig us in deeper. Now more than ever it's critical that we make strategic investments to help working families and low-income Vermonters to get ahead. Legislators like myself will continue to fight against the notion that we can cut our way out of this economic slump.”

Earlier this session, Progressive Representatives Chris Pearson, Sandy Haas, and Robin Chesnut-Tangerman joined forces with pro-labor Democrats in proposing 10 bills aimed at providing some relief to working Vermonters. The two bills that Rep. Pearson sponsored were aimed at investigating gas prices around the state (H.30), and proposing Paid Family Leave in Vermont (H.339). 



Rep. Susan Davis, West Topsham (Orange 1)

Committees: House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, Legislative Information Technology Committee
Contact: sdavis@leg.state.vt.us

Rep. Susan Davis is sponsoring H.475 (a companion bill to what Sen. Anthony Pollina has proposed), a bill that gives the legislature an alternative financing plan for a universal, publicly-funded health care system. Rep. Davis also co-sponsored H.260, a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour (along with other Progressive legislators Rep. Diana Gonzalez and Rep. Chris Pearson), and has been pushing back against attempts by more conservative members in her committee to add more security to the Vermont Statehouse, making it less accessible to the general public. 

From Rep. Davis: 
“I have campaigned on health care reform since 2005, and I still think a universal single-payer system is in reach. However, we need to ensure that we aren’t just replacing unaffordable co-pays with unaffordable taxes (or premiums). I hear from people living paycheck to paycheck, who struggle to pay for insurance, and from those who are concerned about losing their health care. Healthcare is a huge cost driver. People are concerned about issues linked to health care, too—like property taxes, school and community budgets, and jobs.”



Rep. Sandy Haas, Rochester (Windsor-Rutland)

Committees: House Committee on Human Services (Vice Chair), Joint Committee on Judicial Rules, Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee 
Contact: shaas@leg.state.vt.us

Earlier this session, Rep. Haas sponsored “An act relating to Reach Up participants’ college savings accounts” (H.186) which seeks to put college in reach of more young Vermonters.  

The House Committee on Human Services, which Rep. Haas is vice chair of, has also been working on a child protection bill in the wake of the tragic deaths of two Vermont toddlers last year. After months of hearings by a special joint House Senate committee, the Senate has passed S.9, a bill that takes a multi-prong approach to protecting children from abuse and neglect.

First, the bill sets forth specific procedures to assure communication between law enforcement and the Department for Children and Families (DCF). In particular, cases of serious bodily injury will be referred to a Special Investigative Unit. Second, the bill sets a new standard for the courts in deciding whether a child who has been removed from the home because of safety concerns should be reunited with his or her parents. Such decisions will now focus on the best interests of the child. 

S.9 also sets forth a clear mechanism for adoption agreements that allow birth parents to have continued contact with their children. This is especially important in light of the current epidemic of drug addiction. This provision will make it easier and more likely that an addicted parent can agree to an adoption that creates safety and permanency for the child, while retaining the hope of a life-long connection to the child.

The bill has now moved to the House, where the Human Services Committee has begun taking testimony. 

One portion of the bill that was added by the Senate creates a new crime of “failure to protect a child,” which could be used by prosecutors where one caregiver knew that another person was committing child abuse. Several witnesses have testified that this provision may make it more difficult to protect children, since it could catch service providers in its net as well as discourage parents from working closely with DCF. The committee will continue to review the bill before it moves on to the House Judiciary Committee.

Please feel free to weigh in with Rep. Haas and other members of the House Human Services Committee if you have thoughts on this bill (including the “failure to protect” language). 


Rep. Diana Gonzalez, Winooski (CHI 6-7)

Committees: House Committee on General, Housing & Military Affairs
Contact: dgonzalez@leg.state.vt.us

New legislator Rep. Diana Gonzalez has hit the ground running since taking office this year. Rep. Gonzalez has added her name to several worthy pieces of legislation, including bills in support of increasing the minimum wage (H.260), in support of paid family leave (H.339), in support of a real single-payer healthcare system (H.475), and in support of establishing a homeless bill of rights (H.211). 

Rep. Gonzalez has just finished work on H.25, a bill focused on natural burial grounds, or those with ecological land management practices and burial with no embalming fluid (or a non-toxic embalming fluid) in bio-degradable containers. These natural burial grounds will be exempt from the many laws and regulations that conventional burial grounds are subject to. 

From Rep. Gonzalez: 
“While we have been working on a variety of things, this is what comes to top of mind because it shows the power of social change. Small groups of individuals across the nation (and beyond) have been working for over 15 years to alter the cultural practice of preserving bodies and maintaining mowed cemeteries-- practices that are ecologically unsound and separate the experience of death from the experience of life…. Local advocacy pulled these efforts together an put forward the bill [H.25]…. The bill still needs to pass the Senate, but hopefully it will pass and pave the way for a new way of burying our loved ones in Vermont.” 


Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, Middletown Springs (Rutland-Bennington)

Committees: House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy
Contact: rchesnut-tangerman@leg.state.vt.us

Another new Progressive legislator, Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, is hard at work representing the working people of the Rutland-Bennington district! Robin has added his name to several important pieces of legislation, including those in support of establishing a homeless bill of rights (H.211), in support of increasing Vermonters’ access to weatherization and thermal energy efficiency services (H.287), an act relating to rental assistance (H.389), and an act creating a program for first-time home buyer down payment assistance (H.401). Rep. Chesnut-Tangerman also co-sponsored a bill aimed at small farm viability (H.52), as it relates to regulations around chicken slaughtering.

From Rep. Chesnut-Tangerman: 
“Earlier in the session the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee approved a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s energy plan. The bill (H.40) clarifies existing uncertainties for sale of Renewable Energy Credits, sets thresholds for distributed generation and net metered renewable energy, and moves progressively to increase energy efficiency in the areas of heating and transportation, and to decrease the use of fossil fuels. That bill is now in the Senate.

“The Committee is moving ahead with an issue which is a direct consequence of our success in promoting local, renewable energy - siting of such projects. In addition to hearing testimony in committee there is a joint Public Hearing on March 24th as we look to balance clean energy with the Vermont landscape.”

 

Legislators Propose Menu of Options to Help Working Vermonters

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 11, 2015
CONTACT: Chris Pearson – 802-860-3933

 

Growth of Income

MONTPELIER, VT – An informal coalition of Democrats and Progressives in the Vermont House of Representatives think income inequality is hurting Vermont's working families and want to see policy that addresses this challenge. Using data from the Vermont Department of Taxes the group point out that income growth between 2009 and 2012 overwhelmingly went to those at the top of the economic ladder. Tax filers earning over $1 million saw income grow by an average of 73%. People earning under $25,000 annually saw income decline between 1.6% and 3.2% in that same period.

"Income inequality hurts our state, undermines our economy, and has most Vermont families barely treading water or falling further behind," said Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) who emceed the coalition's event.

The ten proposals offered by this group ranged from boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour to earned sick days, guaranteed family leave, health subsidies, assistance for home weatherization and more. Each would benefit low income and working families, according to the presenters.

"The work to give Vermonters at the lower end of the economic spectrum the tools and resources to achieve a dignified life never ends. The livable wage rose fifty cents this year – and it still does not contemplate personal debt, like college or consumer loans. To be humane, our minimum wage should stay ahead of this number, and it should apply to every worker, including those who have worked for tips," said Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury).

Rep. Jean O'Sullivan (D-Burlington) talked about a bill to regulate so-called "Rent-to-Own" stores. "This  bill makes sure that Vermonters will know the fair market value of the new and used products and how long and how much they will have to pay in order to own them," said O'Sullivan. The bill establishes clear disclosure of the effective annual percentage rate and makes sure that rate is in compliance with the federal Truth in Lending Act. It also caps the effective annual percentage rate at 24%.

Also in the package is a bill that would mandate earned sick time so that every Vermonter could accrue paid leave. This issue is especially important to low-income women across the state, said lead sponsor, Rep. Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro). "President Obama has highlighted the need for this policy and I hope Vermont can pick up the mantle. This issue hits lower-income families, especially women who often play the role of caretaker when children get sick." The bill permits sick time to be used for your own illness or when a worker needs to care for an immediate family member.

Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre City) spoke of the need to make out-of-pocket deductible more affordable in Vermont Health Connect's Exchange market place. "There are far too many working families among the 90,000 under-insured Vermonters," said Poirier. He has a bill to have the state further subsidize the insurance plans to more closely match the costs Vermont had under the former "Catamount" plans.

Many members of the coalition play a role in the Legislative Workers' Caucus which helped to push the minimum wage proposal up to $10.50 during the 2014 session.


The 10 bills:

1)    $15 minimum wage – Rep. Tom Stevens
2)    Earned sick days – Rep. Tristan Toleno
3)    Increase weatherization fund – Rep. Mary Hooper
4)    Increase health exchange out of pocket subsidies – Rep. Paul Poirier
5)    Paid family leave – Rep. Chris Pearson
6)    Small farm viability (chickens) – Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman
7)    Reach up college savings proposal – Rep. Sandy Haas
8)    Rent-to-own regulation – Rep. Jean O’Sullivan
9)    Ban the box – Rep. Joanna Cole
10)    Gas price discrepancy – Rep. Chris Pearson

 

 

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Progressive Legislators Lead the Charge on Marijuana Legalization

~by Michael Gallagher

On February 18, 2015 Progressive Sen. David Zuckerman introduced S. 95 (“An Act Relating to Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana”) to the Senate Committee on Judiciary. The proposed bill would legalize limited amounts of marijuana to be used for recreational purposes, as well as establishing regulations regarding cultivation, distribution, and taxation of marijuana.  Marijuana, under this proposed bill, would be legal to possess and available for sale to people over the age of 21. 

The limits of marijuana possession for residents would be two mature plants, seven immature plants, one ounce of marijuana, and “any additional marijuana produced by the person’s marijuana plants, provided that any amount of marijuana in excess of one ounce of marijuana must be possessed in the same secure indoor facility where the plants were cultivated”.  For non-residents it would be no more than one quarter of an ounce of marijuana. 

In addition to legalizing marijuana, this proposed law hopes to increase tax revenue which can support drug abuse prevention, education, treatment, and law enforcement efforts against the illegal drug trade. It also would increase the state’s control over distribution to prevent the use of marijuana by persons under 21, and hopefully this involvement will prevent many of the negative aspects of illegal marijuana sales, such as revenue from marijuana sales going to criminal activity, violence in the distribution and cultivation of marijuana, and driving under the influence.

The idea is that marijuana should be treated similarly to alcohol, with abuse of both being treated as a health matter, and irresponsible use leading to the harming of others being sanctioned with penalties.  The regulation and enforcement of these new laws would be administered by a state run board, the Marijuana Control Board, which would appoint a director to run the day to day operations. The hope with this bill is that legalization will reduce crime, create more revenue, and ultimately reduce the overall health risks associated with marijuana.  

Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), introduced a companion bill in the House to legalize marijuana. And in April 2015, Rep. Pearson introduced H.502-- a tongue-in-cheek bill proposing Vermont ban alcoholic beverages until marijuana is made legal. Rep. Pearson said that continued prohibition of marijuana makes about as much sense as outlawing alcohol, and that if you look at the figures, alcohol-related deaths far exceed marijuana-related deaths. The following exceprt is from a statement by Rep. Pearson about the legislation: 

"National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that alcohol use is a factor in 40 percent of all violent crimes in the United States, including 37 percent of rapes and 27 percent of aggravated assaults.

No such association has been found among marijuana users.

Binge drinking accounted for about half of the more than 80,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The economic costs associated with excessive alcohol consumption in the United States were estimated to be about $225 billion.

More than 17 percent of all people in the United States are binge drinkers, and more than 28 percent of people age 18 to 24.

Marijuana, on the other hand, kills almost no one. The number of deaths attributed to marijuana use is pretty much zero according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Dangers associated with driving are obviously a concern to everyone in the legislature and beyond. Marijuana use increased odds of a fatal crash by 83%. Alcohol use increases the odds by 575% says the Accident Analysis & Prevention journal.

Risks of being hurt by others: A 2014 study associated lower incidents of violence within the first 9 years of marriage among marijuana users compared to non-users. By comparison, annually US college students report over 450,000 incidents of alcohol-related violence.

Use leads to substance abuse - National Institute of Health in 2010 found 9% of pot users become dependent, 23% of alcohol users do.

We often think of alcohol and marijuana use as associated with the college experience. My kids are young but when the time comes, this will be on my mind. Every year more than 1,800 American college students die from alcohol-related accidents. About 600,000 are injured while under alcohol’s influence, almost 700,000 are assaulted, and almost 100,000 are sexually assaulted. About 400,000 have unprotected sex, and 100,000 are too drunk to know if they consented. The numbers for pot aren’t even in the same league.

It’s time we have a robust debate about the wisdom of taxing and regulating marijuana. It is estimated that at least 80,000 Vermonters have used marijuana in the last month. This is not a rare or exotic substance for Vermonters. We need to bring use out of the shadows. We need to admit the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure.

Whereas prohibiting sale and possession of alcohol is a laughable suggestion, the common-sense reaction against the idea should be the same logic we use to consider the continued prohibition of marijuana. Keeping marijuana illegal is a poor, unfounded policy. It is a hang over from the war on drugs and deserves a full debate.

It is now my pleasure to introduce the co-sponsor who will discuss some of the economic impacts of treating marijuana like we treat alcohol."

 

House bill would revamp minor guardianship law in Vermont

Last week the House passed a bill that substantially overhauls Vermont law regarding minor guardianship. Existing law is nearly 100 years old and fails to adequately address the needs of families in this century.

In a nutshell, the minor guardianship procedure in the probate division allows a family to choose someone other than a parent to have custody and responsibility for a child. Most probate guardianships are ordered with the consent of the parent, but some are contested and the rules governing contested cases are currently incomplete. In addition, existing law gives little guidance in handling a guardianship that begins with consent, but later becomes contested when the parent seeks to resume custody.

H.581 addresses all of those issues and lays out a clear road map for parents, guardians and probate judges going forward. It is a significant piece of legislation and reflects the careful work of a dedicated group of stakeholders who met for nearly 18 months and produced a comprehensive report.

The bill now moves to the Senate where we hope it will be passed this session.

2/24/14 Legislative Update

Last week my General, Housing and Military Affairs committee voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would allow spouses of military personnel to receive unemployment if the spouse is transferred to another location. By current statute, “trailing” spouses are ineligible for these benefits.

In other words, an individual would not be disqualified for unemployment benefits if the individual left their employment to accompany a spouse who is on active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces and is required to relocate by the U.S. Armed Forces due to permanent change of station orders, activation orders, or unit deployment orders, and when relocation would make it impractical or impossible, as determined by the Commissioner, for the individual to continue working for their current employer.

The bill also ensures that the experience-rating record of the employer shall not be charged for benefits paid to an individual who voluntarily separates from that employer under such conditions.

We also heard testimony from the Department of Labor that the cost of this benefit, estimated to be between several hundred dollars and $5,000, would be easily absorbed by the unemployment compensation fund; costing the average employer about $1 per year.

If passed by the House and Senate, H. 275 will take effect on July 1, 2014.

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