Local lawmakers set goals for session
MONTPELIER — As the new legislative session began last week, Vermont lawmakers said that they expect to pass bills on paid family leave and the $15-an-hour minimum wage, both of which mirror bills that Gov. Phil Scott vetoed last May.
Addison County members of the state Senate and House of Representatives said other priorities for this session include water clean up, education funding and providing legal protection for groups who face discrimination.
A lot of the legislation discussed over the first days of the session is designed to address wealth and social inequality in Vermont. Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, said all priorities at the Statehouse stem from a desire to pass laws that help Vermonters live good lives.
“We’re looking at bills and legislation that will help ensure Vermonters have what they need and can get what they need and can be successful,” she said. “That means supporting working families and a Vermont that works for all of us. We want everyone to have a fair shot at success.”
Scheu named the $15 minimum wage and paid family leave as priorities in the Vermont House. She also identified several of her other legislative priorities, which included education, health care, clean water and addressing what she called “systemic racism” in Vermont.
“People think that because we’re a very white state that we don’t have a problem, but that actually hides the problem,” Scheu said on the second day of the session. “As a state and as a caucus we’ve really coalesced around the need to do much better.”
One way Scheu hopes to do better is through a bill that would advise schools to adopt ethnic and social equity studies into their curriculum. This bill, which has already been introduced in the House, also calls for the publication of data regarding bullying based on identities such as race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
Other House members have their own goals for new legislation this session. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, is currently focused on potential changes to the state budget. She mentioned her concern about how the federal government shutdown is affecting federal employees in Vermont.
“We have to ask ourselves, what does the shutdown mean, how do we react and do we have any money to react with?” she said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, plans to co-sponsor a bill that would bring back state construction aid for schools. Conlon is the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and chairman of the Addison Central School District board of directors. His bill would restore state funding for projects that result in the consolidation of two or more schools and create a building that reduces the carbon footprint of the school district.
“The next step in the evolution of the unified school districts is to help them address their facilities needs,” he said “We are looking at having smaller school populations and the cost of operating so many schools going up on a per-pupil basis, and it seems like we need to give school districts some incentives to look at better ways of addressing their facilities needs.”
In the upper chamber of the Vermont Legislature, Sen. Christopher Bray discussed the need to increase water quality standards across the board, from farms and forests, to municipalities and wastewater treatment plants. He also referenced the need to crack down on exposure to toxins. Bray believes that toxic exposure disproportionately affects poor families, and that the government needs to pass regulations to help everyone avoid unhealthy chemicals.
“Unfortunately we have a series of rolling stories about exposure, whether it’s radon in schools, lead in schools, PFOA in groundwater, and now showing up also in surface water and in drinking water,” he said. “The connection to poverty is that you have a higher likelihood of exposure when you’re in a less carefully regulated environment.”
Local members of the Legislature, who are almost all Democrats, met in caucuses with members of their party. Senate Democrats caucused on the first day of the session.
During that meeting, Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-South Burlington, detailed the Democrats’ plan to pass a bill that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.
“There will be a bill introduced to get there by 2024 again, so it will be slightly more aggressive because we’ve lost a year,” Sirotkin said. “As of now, the bill that’s being introduced is pretty much exactly like the one that was vetoed by the governor.”
Sirotkin also noted that the Senate plans to introduce a paid family leave bill similar to the one the governor vetoed last year. Democrats are less worried about a veto this session because they likely have enough votes to override one.
Lawmakers also plan to get the ball rolling on legislation that will take longer to get off the ground. This includes several amendments to the state constitution senators hope to introduce this biennium.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, is taking the lead on an amendment that would extend the governor’s term to four years, rather than two. Ashe believes that a longer term would allow the governor to lead more effectively before having to worry about re-election.
Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Williston, has introduced an amendment to remove slavery-related language from the Vermont Constitution. Although the Green Mountain State was the first state to abolish slavery in 1777, Article I of the constitution still permits slavery of those under the age of 21 and the use of slavery to pay off debts.
“I’m hoping this won’t be too controversial,” Ingram said. “It’s just one of those that’s very anachronistic and it’s very degrading to many Vermonters, and I think it’s high time to get it out of there.”
Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Williston, will introduce what she called an “Inclusive Equal Rights Amendment,” which includes language protecting groups that face discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ status or religion. It also guarantees reproductive autonomy, which Lyons believes is important now that many fear for the fate of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that has historically protected a woman’s right to choose the future of their pregnancies. Lyons wants Vermont to protect that right at the state level.
“The Inclusive ERA, to me, is significant because of the federal culture right now and the atmosphere that is just permeating parts of our society,” Lyons said.
Lastly, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Lyndon, plans to introduce an amendment relating to privacy rights, and Sen. Anthony Pollina P/D-Middlesex, is considering an amendment granting Vermonters the right to a clean environment.
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