Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

Momentum for school consolidation

In the past week there have been a number of signals around the statehouse that there is growing momentum for a school administrative consolidation effort.  The signals include a working draft of goals that was recently presented to the Education Committee (on which I serve). It includes moving towards approximated 60 governing bodies overseeing K-12 frameworks.  Currently there are approximately 280 governing bodies for a wide range of school administrative systems.

The draft plan allows for towns to decide which neighboring towns they would want to work with, but by if some towns have not "voluntarily" decided by 2019, then the state would finish allocating which towns and districts would need to work together.

This outline will raise flags for some (removing some local control), but will also work to alleviate many duplications in services and hopefully will improve educational options for many children in Vermont.  While the overarching goal is to offer a wider range of class options for many students in Vermont, it will also serve as a tool to work to reduce costs by eliminating many administrative functions/positions.  Not all savings will be realized right away, as there are costs in transition, but as that work is completed, and as our workforce retires, there should be a reduction in the number of administrators.

Throughout the discussion of education funding and the challenges that we are facing with the current funding formula and the reduced rate of property values and the slow growth of other broad based tax revenues, I have been broaching the topic of human services functions that our educators are performing.

As our local schools are asked to do more and more functions that and human serviced related, we have seen an increase in our education spending and therefore more pressure on our property tax funding system.  It is my belief that we should move some of those functions to the area of government that is in charge of that...the agency of human services.  I have been raising the question of whether we can house some of the human services staff (either govt folks or contracted services) right in the schools.  This seems like a particularly good option as we ought to have space in the schools considering we have reduced enrollments (nearly across the state).  By moving these costs to the Agency of Human Services, we can rely on other, more progressive broad based taxes to fund them and move away from the pressure we have been putting onto the education fund.  We also ought to be able to get better results. Rather than each teacher having to learn and address the individual issues that various children have due to family circumstances, there will be councilors and support staff who already have experience with those families in their roles as community councilors.  With greater stability for the children, they ought to be able to learn better.

I am no education nor human services expert, so I am still working to learn more about what is possible, but on the surface, it seems to make sense to me!  Please email me with your thoughts as the more input I have the better.  If you are in these fields in particular and you have examples or experiences, or red flags to raise, please let me know.

Senate Ag committee votes 4-1 to support GMO labeling

On Friday, the Senate Ag committee voted 4 -1 to support H.112, the GMO labeling bill, after making a few amendments.  The amendments were mostly to tighten up the bill’s language in order to make it more legally defensible in case the state is sued by those who do not want labeling to happen anywhere in the country.

This vote came after a month of a variety of testimony, as well as a very well attended public hearing on Thursday evening.  Everyday Vermonters, including: a scientist, a doctor, a Vietnam war veteran, a teacher, and many other professions, came out to testify in support of having labeling on processed foods that contain GMOs. In fact, only one person spoke against the bill -- and that was because he felt it did not go far enough!

The bill now moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it will be taken up shortly after Town Meeting day. It is likely that the bill will be amended by that committee to include a "trigger" clause that is different than most laws that we pass.  Generally, laws go into effect either on a certain date or July 1st if a date is not specified.  However, in other states that have moved GMO labeling legislation (Maine and Connecticut), they have included language that requires other states to enact similar laws before their bill will go in to effect.

At the hearing on Thursday, we heard loud and clear that a trigger dependent on other states is not supported by Vermonters.  That's why I've worked hard to get a "reasonable" trigger in the bill that would enable Vermont to move forward alone, but at the same time, prepare us for legal costs if/when we are sued and if we lose that suit.  The good news is there is a very reasonable legal argument that we would win and that the state has a right to require such labeling.  But there has also been an argument made that we might lose and that it could cost the state upwards of $5,000,000 in legal fees.  So the reasonable trigger that I came up with is to create a legal defense fund under the jurisdiction of the Treasurer.  That fund could accept contributions from any (living) person (no corporations or other associations could contribute).  Once that fund reached $5,000,000, the labeling bill would go into effect.

I am hopeful that we can pass a strong GMO labeling bill and that we will be able to work out our differences with the House version.  It is an exciting day for Vermont and with any luck we will follow this success with more strong votes for this legislation in the Judiciary Committee and in the full Senate.

Earned Sick Time

Recently a letter appeared in my local paper that claimed the Earned Sick Time bill (H.208) that passed my committee today, is “written for a small percentage of people that typically do not want to help themselves” and “the same people who keep coming back with their hand out.” The opposite is true: this bill will affect 60,000 hard-working Vermonters who work for businesses that do not currently offer this benefit.

Historically, labor bills such as overtime pay and the 40-hour work week, for example, were mandated because employers did not always prioritize workers health and safety. I found it particularly interesting that even though the author of this letter disapproved of government mandates and intrusion, he would “dictate what they [the poor] can buy with government subsidies.”

The General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee took testimony on H.208 from over 85 different groups and individuals, including Vermont businesses, employees, professors, nonprofits and the general public. We learned that a lack of paid earned sick time largely affects women -- caretakers of our children, the elderly and the vulnerable -- who work part time and/or for low wages, many in the food service industry. Children are deeply affected too, because parents are unable to leave work to pick them up from school and daycare when they are sick, further spreading disease and illness.

The numerous Vermont businesses who already voluntarily offer earned sick time (comprehensive/combined time off qualifies as sick time under this bill) testified that their employees are happier, healthier, and more productive. That is a win-win by anyone's standards.

H.732

With the introduction of H.732, co-sponsored by Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, Vermont is the 12th state to introduce legislation that would block some of the effects of mass data collection by the National Security Agency (NSA). The bill as drafted proposes to prohibit the State from assisting or participating in the collection of electronic data or metadata by the federal government or from using any of the data collected unless it is obtained pursuant to a warrant issued by a court.

Read an article on H.732 here >>

Read the full bill here >>

Update from Rep. Weed

We began taking testimony regarding the budget adjustment for emergency housing last week. As the Department of Children and Families works to create better longterm solutions to the problem of increasing homelessness, the need for money for the state's cold weather policy -- to keep individuals and families from freezing -- continues to grow. My committee, General, Housing and Military Affairs, is actively encouraging DCF to look seriously at a host of policy changes in order to create longterm solutions.

On Thursday, we took an off campus field trip to the White River Junction area. We first visited Vermod, a new modular home building company that is in the process of building super efficient homes that fit on a mobile home footprint. Following that, we took a tour of Haven House, an amazing homeless shelter/food shelf; the new PTSD clinical research center; and the Veterans Administration hospital. At each of these facilities we saw firsthand how caseworkers are helping their clients change, grow and improve their lives.

In addition, my Committee began taking testimony around two bills that increase the minimum wage in Vermont to $12.50 per hour. Proponents are concerned that low wage earners must depend upon state services like food stamps and fuel assistance in order to make ends meet. This type of business subsidization drives up the state budget for taxpayers. Proponents also noted that higher wage earners would spend more in the state, thus stimulating our local economies.

Wednesday we are hosting a public hearing around the Earned Sick Time Bill. Four panelists at a Vermont Chamber of Commerce luncheon that I attended week supported the legislation. In addition, at last year's public hearing, the majority of individuals and small businesses testified in favor of the bill, considering it a pro-health, pro-families bill. We will continue to take additional one-on-one testimony on both of these bills, as well as others, through next week. If you would like to testify on this or any other bill being taken up in committee, please call the Sergeant at Arms (802-828-2228) for more information about scheduling. And please continue to contact me with your comments and concerns.

Corrections and Institutions Update

House Corrections and Institutions was invited by Senate Judiciary to hear from Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito and senior policy and legal adviser for Public Safety, Robert Sand. Both introduced the committees to a proposal for a pretrial risk and assessment program. This program would identify defendants who should be diverted for treatment of substance abuse or mental health issues into receiving treatment for their addiction rather than incarceration.

The proposal is based on three programs that are being used by state’s attorneys in some parts of the state. Two are in Chittenden County — the Rapid Intervention Community Court and Rapid Referral Program. A third, the Sparrow Program, offers case management and reporting to courts in Windsor County.

People’s access to justice is unpredictable across the state depending on the programs implemented by (or available to) elected State’s Attorneys in their counties. For example, people being arrested for drug possession in Chittenden County often experience much lighter sentencing than in more rural parts of the state where these programs are not in use. We can expect this to be a top discussion in committee in the weeks to come as the bill (S.295) introduced by Senator Sears and others is on fast track to come over to us from the Senate.

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