Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

The First Week

Legislative climate caucus starts with a bang

Last session, I co-founded the Climate Caucus with Rep. Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich).  Our goal is to elevate climate change as a priority and to try and come up with workable solutions.  In his opening remarks last week, House Speaker Shap Smith mentioned our imperative to address climate change.  Perhaps we are already having an impact!

During the first week of the Legislature, we held our kick-off Climate Caucus meeting and over 40 lawmakers participated.  It was the best attended meeting in our history!  People were eager to come up with a package of bills to push this year.  Ideas included a no-idling bill, divesting state funds from fossil fuels, more park and rides, and more.

In the coming weeks, the climate agenda will take shape and we'll get a better sense of what Democratic leaders are willing to consider.

Wrong funding source for great priorities

As you may have heard, Gov. Peter Shumlin has vowed to make education a focus of the year.  He promised to make Pre-K universal and Higher-Ed more affordable.  Unfortunately, the only specific funding scheme the governor mentioned involved reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit.  This is the most effective anti-poverty program we've got!  Across the board, legislators are un-enthusiastic about tapping this as a source of funds.

More affordable Higher-Ed and Pre-K are great priorities, but we must not increase the tax burden for poor and working class families in order to make them a reality.

My First Days as a Legislator

The first few days as an elected member of the Vermont House of Representatives were full of wonderful pomp and ceremony.  On Wednesday, I was sworn in as the Franklin-7 (Enosburg and Montgomery) Representative along with the rest of the legislative body and assigned to the Housing, General and Military Affairs committee, as I had requested.  Our chair is Helen Head from South Burlington and one of the members, Brian Savage, is also from our Franklin County delegation.

Thursday was the governor’s Inauguration and Inaugural Reception, but my committee went straight to work taking testimony from homeless organizations, including the Samaritan House in St. Albans.  On Friday, the committee took testimony from several important Vermont housing groups.  Housing shortages and lack of affordable housing is a serious issue across the state, fueled in part by the slow economy and limited available jobs.

I thank you for the opportunity to serve my constituents and the people of the State of Vermont.  I look forward to the rest of the session.

Session Wrap-Up: Jobs, roads and the climate

One of the most exciting and visionary bills to pass the legislature this year was H.496, the Working Lands Bill. I was privileged be one of four co-sponsors which included a Democrat, a Republican, and Independent, and a Progressive. In the wake he Vermont Council on Rural Development's report on the Future of Vermont, the Council saw a need to press for legislation that would conserve the working landscape; not through preservation but through making it possible for someone to actually make a living on productive forest and farm land. The bill, which passed the House and Senate on the night before adjournment (held up in last minute political wrangling) sets up a board to administer grants to emerging businesses in the farm, forest, and value-added sectors. This can have a particular effect on young people who, for example, want to start a farming operation but have no money to buy the necessary land. The fund will also be used to provide loans and wrap-around services for more established agricultural and forestry businesses, and also help to fund infrastructure to support those businesses, such as slaughterhouses and food venture centers like the one in Hardwick.

As many pointed out, this was really the only jobs bill to pass the legislature. It not only can stimulate economic development, but also serve to protect our beautiful working landscape. It  offers opportunities for young people to stay and work in Vermont, or to move here from elsewhere. And it helps the tourism industry by keeping the land scenic. The House appropriations committee did a heroic job of finding $1.175 m for a program that originally had no funding in the governor's budget. The hope is that this program will gain in funding and become the mechanism by which Vermont can maintain its vital farm and forest economy while also preserving our treasured scenic beauty.

 Another important issue, tucked away in the large Transportation Bill (H. 770),  is a provision for a  Committee on Transportation Funding  to look into the gap between Transportation Fund revenues (flat since 1999-2000) and the increase in vehicle miles traveled contributing to wear and tear on roads and bridges.  While fuel efficiency is up (a good thing), people are driving more, and also driving more electric powered vehicles which pay no gas tax. The major focus of the committee is to look into potential new revenue sources to sustain Vermont's transportation infrastructure. This does not directly address the need to reduce carbon emissions and indeed this is not even mentioned in the legislation. However there is language (that the Speaker had argued for in the original House bill), to look into the possibility of taxing vehicle miles traveled or some other new revenue source. This could potentially lead to a more progressive funding system that could reward good behavior (i.e. driving less). However the challenge remains: if we want to transition to more rail and public transit, and improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, how do we fund it if at the same time we are trying to reduce the gasoline consumption whose taxes fund our transportation infrastructure.

Professor Gary Flomenhoft of the Gund Institute at UVM came and spoke to the Climate Caucus and gave the example of Germany which has high taxes on gasoline with a corresponding lowering of the payroll tax. There is lots of food for thought with this issue.

A related development happened in the last days of the session when the Climate Caucus met to discuss how to go forward for next year. We had an extremely productive discussion resulting in a commitment to focus on carbon emissions from the transportation sector (which account for about 44% of Vermont's greenhouse gases). I believe everyone present felt that we need to become more pro-active in proposing specific legislation to address this issue. I am extremely grateful to Rep. Chris Pearson for initiating the caucus and to Rep. Margaret Cheney for agreeing to co-chair this caucus and I look forward to working with others in the caucus on specific and meaningful legislation.   

No law at all

Sometimes the best law is no law at all. There were two instances this year where the legislature spent a great deal time on an issue and finally decided to leave the law as it is. Both issues received a lot of press, not all of it effective in clarifying the issues at stake.

The immunization bill was driven by a concern that Vermont’s "philosophical" exemption was somehow creating a danger to public health. It’s true that the data shows fewer children with a full slate of the required shots than we saw a few years ago.  But the supporting data include both children claiming an exemption – medical, religious or philosophical -- (about 6.0 % in total) and those children who are on schedule to get their next booster shot, but who don’t yet have it on the day they enter kindergarten (nearly 11%).

Although some pushed very hard to remove the philosophical exemption, a majority prevailed in voting to maintain current law until there is clear proof that we have a public health need to change it. The final compromise bill will require far better data in the future. The bill will also ask parents who claim any exemption to affirm each year that they understand the risks to their own child and others. In addition, the bill calls for a study of whether all the adults in a school should be included in any mandatory immunization mandate.

Another bill was so contentious that there was no compromise at the end. It simply died when the House and Senate conferees could not come to agreement. The issue was whether the State Police should have access to the Vermont Prescription Drug Monitoring System (VPMS) without a search warrant. The administration claimed that it was helpless to fight the current increase in prescription drug trafficking and abuse without such warrantless power. However in testimony, the Deptartment of Public Safety made it clear that they had never even requested a search warrant, much less been denied by any court of law.  Although the House bill sought to explicitly clarify that the state police can access VPMS when they have a warrant, the Senate conferees thought it better to let the bill die. The result is that Vermonters are protected from warrantless search of their records on the VPMS database . . . for now.

Waterbury

The gavel came down at 6:45 PM on Saturday May 5th bringing the close of the 2012 legislative session.  We had a very busy session, looking at the opportunities blown our way by Tropical Storm Irene, and making some changes.With the loss of the State Hospital, much work was directed to the delivery of our mental health system of care for Vermonters.

The new system moves to a statewide crisis care management system as well as community care. Although our state hospital will not be relocated in Waterbury, we are returning about 1,000 state employees to the Waterbury complex.  These employees will mostly be from the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Human Services.
 
On Monday the 7th of May, the House Committee on Institutions and Corrections and the Senate Institutions Committee were in Waterbury as the governor signed the Capital Bill. As I’ve written about in articles, much of the initial funding for restoration, building, and demolition at the complex is allocated from bonded dollars in the Capital Bill.

Immunizations

One of the most controversial bills moving through the legislature this year addresses the issue of childhood immunizations required for school attendance. Under current law, a child can be exempted from immunizations for medical, religious or philosophical reasons. Although the Senate voted to remove the philosophical exemption in S.199, the House has voted to preserve it.

When the legislature considers any bill, the first question is “What’s the problem? Do we really need a new law?” In the case of immunizations, we were told that the rate of vaccination has dropped recently, and that the drop could be dangerous for babies and others who cannot be immunized. But the numbers cited are confusing at best, and, frankly, a little misleading.

Because of the way the data is collected, we know the number of children who lack at least one shot as they enter kindergarten, but we don’t know how many shots they lack or which particular vaccine(s). In addition to the children claiming one of the three exemptions, nearly 11% of kindergarteners are admitted on “provisional status” because they are still in the process of completing their shots. Any child who lacks just a single shot for any reason is officially counted as “unimmunized.” It’s the total of those kindergarteners that has driven the push to change the law.

When we look closely at the claims that one out of six children is not fully immunized, we see that most will have all their shots within a few months. More importantly, even among the 5.6% of kindergarteners whose parents assert the philosophical exemption, many have all of the required vaccines except one -- often chicken pox. The vaccine for chicken pox was recently added to the required list, and some parents are still deciding whether natural immunity would be preferable.

A majority of House members concluded that we need better data before we change a law that’s been in place for more than 30 years. In addition, we believe that the Vermont Department of Health must do better parent education on the benefits and risks of vaccines, both for their own children and for their classmates.

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