Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

Blowing Up the Bridge Out of Poverty

The most distressing aspect of the Administration’s proposal to limit Reach Up benefits is that it will defeat, rather than advance, our goal of moving people out of poverty.  Passed as part of the national welfare reform efforts in the 1990s (remember President Clinton’s vow to “end welfare as we know it”?), Vermont’s Reach Up program is designed to get people into the workforce and permanently out of poverty.  One of the most important programs in our overall welfare-to-work design is the Post-Secondary Education Program.

Because (incredibly!) Federal law does not allow “work participation” credit for college, Vermont set up a separate state-funded program to allow Reach Up recipients (mostly very young women) to attend college, raise their small children and receive Reach Up support while doing so.  The success rate for this cohort has been impressive.  Not only do young mothers then stay out of poverty, they actually earn a livable wage (which is more than twice the minimum wage).

For reasons as yet unclear, the Department for Children & Families (DCF) is apparently reluctant to advise new welfare recipients that this option even exists.  House Human Services heard testimony last week from a mother who already has an AA degree and is taking classes to become a nurse.  Unfortunately, none of the time she spends taking class, preparing for class, or traveling to class (tedious because our public transportation is so inadequate) counts toward the work requirement for her Reach Up grant.  As a result, her family is now at risk of being “sanctioned,” that is, having their monthly food and shelter grant reduced.  Just to put this in perspective, the “full” grant is just 49% of what a family actually needs to get by in Vermont.  So this mother may have to give up school to accept a fast food job.

The Governor’s plan to throw families off Reach Up in October if they have received 36 months of cumulative benefits would further undermine peoples’ ability to move out of poverty.  Either the parents will take low-wage jobs (if any jobs are open) or they and their children will slide further into poverty, possibly homelessness.

Vermont Division for Historic Preservation

One section of the Capital Bill consists of requests from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.  Last week the Corrections and Institutions Committee heard from Giovanna Peebles, the State Historic Preservation Officer, with an overview of the program highlights and success stories for fiscal year 2012.

Vermont's historic resources are important to tourism and help to keep Vermont’s rich heritage alive and known for years to come.  Resources include historic community buildings such as town halls, museums, theaters, libraries, recreation centers, barns and other municipal buildings.  In addition to enhancing the cultural enrichment and well-being of our rural towns and communities, these sites are an important revenue source for Vermont communities and for the state as a whole.

Preservation of our historic buildings not only protects Vermont’s architectural legacy, but is critical to maintaining the sense of “Vermont’s rural life”.  The preservation grant programs help to keep these resources from disappearing one building at a time and help to keep the buildings in use, rather than build new.  The grants program helps to generate jobs in our local communities, supports local businesses, and helps to maintain the unique qualities and way of life of our small rural communities.   

The Historic Preservation Barn Grant Program helping to preserve Vermont’s working landscape is funded by the taxpayers of the State of Vermont, at the direction of the General Assembly, through the annual Capital Bill using bonded dollars. 

Read more about these programs >>

Week Five

Last week in the legislature my committee -- General, Housing, and Military Affairs -- continued to take testimony on the equal pay bill (H.99), which we hope to vote out of committee early next week.  I am very excited about this bill because it has the ability to improve employer/employee relations and productivity, as it has done in other developed countries around the globe.

We are also actively taking testimony on the Governor’s proposal to regulate and tax "break-open tickets" used by service organizations like the VFW, American Legion, Elks and other non-profits in order to raise money.  The Joint Fiscal Office testified that the potential revenue is one third of what was originally projected, while organizations testified that the proposal will be severely detrimental to them if enacted.  More testimony is planned before the issue moves out of our committee and over to the Ways and Means committee for their review.

Also, on Valentines' Day at 6 pm our committee will take testimony from the three Adjutant General candidates at the sStatehouse.  It will be a formal committee meeting, but other legislators and the public can attend, but not participate in the process.  The entire body of the legislature will then vote on their choice of an Adjutant General next week.

Thank you and please contact me with your questions and concerns at cweed@leg.state.vt.us.

Shumlin's Budget & Democrats’ Courage

If Jim Douglas had proposed the budget we heard from Peter Shumlin, Democrats would have eaten him for lunch. Cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would have been a non-starter. And trimming “Reach Up” benefits? Democrats would have screamed, "This is about the kids!" When a Republican wants to cut programs helping parents (you have to have dependent children to be on Reach Up), Democrats defend their natural constituents with vigor.

The good news is the EITC idea seems to have fallen flat in the relevant committees in the Statehouse. And, within a week of its presentation, the Speaker of the House told Seven Days he had serious concerns about this source of funds. Now we have to make sure it's a straight up "no way," instead of becoming a "just a little bit" approach in the end.

Cuts to Reach Up, on the other hand, haven't met with much public outcry. That should be a concern.

"Liberals" like Doug Racine and Dave Yacovone both work for Shumlin, but the scuttlebutt around Montpelier is that they have drank the Kool-Aid. That is, apparently they actually believe we are being too generous to those who use the Reach Up program. Earth to the Shumlin administration! Please note how the growth in our economy has worked over the last year (measured in thousands of dollars):

2010-2011 Income Growth

And over the last ten years:

2001-2011 Income Growth

We Progressives are accustomed to standing up against these kinds of cuts. It's easy for us to fight for Vermonters who aren't "booming" as Bernie likes to say. But it sure is more fun when our allies in the Democratic Party are there with us.

Let's protect those who don't see the economy working for them. Come on, we'll have fun and at the end of the day we'll help Vermont families who are already struggling. Rest assured, defeating these proposals will be rewarding, no matter which Party's Governor has put them on the table.

A Distressing Pattern

As we examine the Governor’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, we see a distressing pattern.  For years we have passed new initiatives that promised both better outcomes for Vermonters and cost savings over time.  Then the state has failed to follow through with the investment necessary to accomplish those goals. 

The most glaring example of an initiative that is continually shortchanged is Choices for Care, the program that allows frail elders to remain at home rather than going to a nursing home.  Nearly everyone wants to stay in their own homes if they can, and the savings are obvious.  A year in a nursing home can cost over $64,000; robust services in the community cost about $30,000. 

By design and legislation, that differential was intended to allow a larger number of people to get the care they need.  The hope was that each year the percentage of people being served in their communities would increase.  We were also going to invest in building the community support network by training new people and gradually increasing their pay to a livable wage.  Somehow, regardless of administration, we seem unable to get there.  The “savings” becomes just too irresistible when we need money in other programs.

Week Four

Last week at the statehouse, Bill McKibben, a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College who has written a dozen books about the environment and is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, addressed legislators and impressed upon us the urgency of the global warming situation.  He urged the legislature to focus on making heating efficiency a priority this year at the statehouse.

On another topic, fifty years ago President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, but in Vermont women still earn roughly 84 cents per every dollar earned by men, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families (78 percent nationally).  To that end, I am a co-sponsor of H-99, a bill that strengthens existing laws in Vermont regarding equal pay and workplace protections and prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations to all persons.  The bill is currently in our committee -- General, Housing and Military Affairs -- undergoing testimony.  The bill also promotes flexible working arrangements for workers and creates a process for employers and employees to follow.

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