Lawmakers review 2019 session
MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers on Monday recited a stream of successes during the 2019 session that included tapping a funding source for cleanup of the state’s waterways, agreeing on a $6.1 billion budget, banning single-use plastic bags, and passing a measure to ensure lead-free drinking water at public schools.
But county legislators also voiced chagrin for having left Montpelier May 31 without having approved a proposed minimum wage bill that would have raised wages from the current $10.78 to $15 per hour by 2024, nor a substantial paid family leave measure. They promised to revisit those initiatives when the 2020 legislative session kicks off next January.
These were among the impressions offered by a half-dozen members of Addison County’s 11-person Statehouse delegation.
“While I share your heartbreak about work left on the table, I am very proud of the large amount of good work we did accomplish,” said Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln (pictured, right).
Cordes served her inaugural year on the House Health Care Committee. While the general assembly didn’t pass landmark health care legislation this past winter, Cordes pointed to some victories in that realm. The state budget, she noted, includes $1.5 million for “appropriate community placements” for persons with complex mental health challenges, $2.5 million to provide a benefit increase for Reach-Up Program clients, an additional $5.2 million across the entire system of mental health and developmental services.
Cordes is particularly proud of the progress she said was made to support Vermonters battling mental illness.
“Vermont’s commitment to ‘mental health parity’ means that patients with mental health needs should have the same ready access and receive exactly the same standard of care as those with physical health needs,” Cordes said. “Unfortunately, though Vermont has made much progress in this regard, true mental health parity has not yet been achieved.”
She’s already mapping out her plans for the 2020 session.
“I will be joining in a coalition this summer to press forward to address the climate crisis, the significant need for increased mental health services in our communities, removal of barriers to accessing medical care, and getting family leave and minimum wage across the finish line,” she said.
Sen. Chris, Bray (pictured, left), D-New Haven, played a significant role in some of the weighty environmental bills passed during the 2019 session. Bray chairs the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee.
“For me, personally, it was the best session I ever had,” said Bray at Monday’s final legislative breakfast in Bridport and who’s served a combined total of 11 years in the Legislature — first in the House and now in the Senate.
Bray’s panel had a hand in the following, successful bills:
• S.96, which for the first time establishes dedicated, ongoing and increasing funding sources for a federally mandated cleanup of the state’s waterways — including Lake Champlain. Those sources include 6 percent of the current, annual rooms and meals tax, expected to yield $7.5 million in fiscal year 2020 and almost $12 million annually thereafter.
That yield, will be combined with a property tax surcharge, revenue from unclaimed deposits and other state appropriations to produce $50 million for clean water initiatives in fiscal year 2020, and $55 million the following year, according to state officials.
Bray in 2017 had pitched the idea of a per-parcel fee as potential way for Vermont to meet its share of water cleanup costs. He’s pleased the Legislature and Scott have settled on a funding plan.
• S.113, which bans (effective July 1, 2020) single-use plastic bags, straws (with some exceptions), stirrers and Styrofoam.
• S.40, which creates a strongest-in-the-nation program to test for lead in water in all schools and childcare facilities, and remediate taps and infrastructure if necessary.
• S.49, which protects public water systems and waterways from contamination of polyfluoroalkyl (PFA)-type chemicals, requiring standards, testing, and remediation.
• H.63, a “Weatherization for All” bill. It will allow an increase in the state’s annual weatherization commitment by around 1,500 homes. Weatherization saves the annual homeowner $600 per year in fuel costs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to program supporters.
The House had proposed a 2-cent bump in the state’s fuel tax to help pay for the weatherization program boost. Lawmakers ultimately chose to pay for it in large part by enabling Efficiency Vermont to use operational savings from its electric efficiency fund.
While he had hoped for bigger weatherization investments and a bolder transition to green energy, Bray is pleased state government took a step forward in supporting bills he believes will help Vermonters and their environment.
“There were many things from a health point of view… that were very positive steps forward,” Bray said.
“The Legislature makes incremental progress on these things, but meaningful progress at scale and at speed usually comes out of the executive branch,” he added, citing as an example the Dr. Dynasaur health insurance program for children spearheaded by former Gov. Madeleine Kunin.
Sen. Ruth Hardy (pictured, right), D-Middlebury, served on the Senate Education and Agriculture Committees during her freshman year. Her 2019 highlights also included S.40, the get-the-lead-out-of-school water effort. She noted lead is a proven neurotoxin that can lead to developmental delays in children.
“This is a huge public health program that we passed,” Hardy said.
The Senate Agriculture Committee was also quite productive this past session, Hardy noted. Among other things, the panel endorsed H.205, a measure that would require regulation of the sale and application of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect pollinator populations. The bill also requires education and oversight of beekeepers to make sure the tiny pollinators are protected.
Hardy touted other action taken — or still under consideration — by the Legislature for the 2019-2020 biennium:
• Measures aimed at protecting women’s access to abortions.
• S.94, which expands dental care assistance for Vermonters on Medicaid and Medicare.
“It’s the largest expansion of dental care for Vermonters in 30 years,” Hardy said. “I’m very proud to have spearheaded that in the Senate.”
• Bills that increase the minimum age for buying cigarettes from the current 18 to 21; and that subject e-cigarette products to the state’s tobacco tax.
• A required 24-hour wait before purchasing a handgun.
• An effort to extend broadband Internet service to an additional 17,000 Vermonters, though the bill doesn’t include a specific date to meet that goal.
• S.92, a bill that proposes protections against housing discrimination for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
• BillH.330, which eliminates the six-year statute of limitations related to childhood sexual abuse; and H.511, which removes the criminalstatute of limitations for manslaughter and sexual exploitation of a minor.
“It allows victims who, during a young part of their lives, to access the criminal and civil justice system,” Hardy said.
The Independent reached out to Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans (pictured, left) to get his take on bills H.330 and H.511.
“It’s unclear how often these crimes have gone untimely reported in the past,” he said. “However, these changes do broaden the circumstances under which we may prosecute a case. It should be stressed, however, that cases are more easily prosecuted the closer they are reported to the commission of the acts alleged, as memories are fresher and jurors are sometimes suspicious of late reports.”
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, is a member of the House Education Committee.
“A lot was accomplished toward clean water, weatherization,” he said. “The budget I think speaks volumes on the priorities of Vermonters. There’s a lot of items that were accomplished that were sort of obscured by the delayed passage of the family leave and minimum wage bills; there’s a real commitment to get right back to those come January.
“I think it was over all a session that yielded some excellent progress in Vermont,” he added. “It’s the first year of a two-year biennium, so it looks like some things that didn’t get done this year still have a chance next year.”
Passage of a tax-and-regulate bill for recreational marijuana is among those carry-over bills that lawmakers will revisit in 2020.
Rep. Diane Lanpher (pictured, right), D-Vergennes, spent an eventful session on the House Appropriations Committee.
She and her colleagues spent a lot of long days crafting the $6.1 billion state budget that Lanpher said reflects a 2.6-percent increase.
“I would say that during the past three years, we’re pretty much below inflation,” she said, though she acknowledged the new spending plan reflects some fee increases and captures revenue from a few new sources — including e-cigarettes.
Vermont’s improving economy has created more of a financial cushion for state programs, Lanpher acknowledged.
She noted state revenues for April were up more than $50 million beyond what had been forecasted. Lanpher said $41 million of that came through personal income taxes and $12.9 million came from the corporate tax.
Lanpher doesn’t believe the latest, good revenue picture is a one-shot deal. And she’s confident around $10 million-$12 million of it can be counted on in future years, revenue that will help fund water cleanup efforts.
And she said the state’s opioid-addiction problems will command more resources during the years to come.
Lanpher noted there’s $50 million in the state’s Medicaid budget that’s earmarked to help those battling addiction. She noted $30 million of that sum is devoted to fighting heroin addiction alone.
Rep. Caleb Elder (pictured, left), D-Starksboro, spent his first year with Conlon on House Education.
“The Vermont House spent the 2019 session prioritizing bills that will help our families and communities thrive,” he wrote in his session-end report. “We’ve focused our work on building a Vermont that works for all of us.”
Education Committee highlights, according to Elder, included measures aimed at racial justice, lead abatement, and fixing aging school buildings.
Bill H.3 — now signed into law as “Act 1 of 2019” — calls on public schools to identify structural racism, reduce bias, and build a culture of equity by expanding history teaching to include ethnic and social groups that have historically been marginalized, harassed, discriminated against, or persecuted.
Like many of his colleagues, Elder touted S.40 as a major accomplishment. As previously reported by the Independent. Middlebury College Prof. Molly Costanza-Robinson played a major role in the research that led up to the drafting of S.40, the lead-free drinking water proposal. With training from the state, every school and child care facility will collect and submit water samples to the Department of Health for testing, and then work with Department of Health experts to develop a remediation plan.
While bill H. 209 is still on the House Education Committee wall, its supporters hope it will lead to overdue school building repairs throughout the state.
This bill would require the state Agency of Education to oversee and hire a consultant to perform periodic capital needs assessments of public school buildings. It also proposed to end the current, 10-year moratorium on state aid for school construction projects.
“Since (the moratorium), districts have managed their aging facilities in a variety of ways — approving bonds for construction and renovation, covering costs through the annual budget, or deferring maintenance out of fiscal necessity,” Elder said. “Meanwhile, Act 46 has encouraged communities to take a harder look at their buildings, with an eye toward the most strategic use of facilities district-wide.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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