Legislative Review: Hardy reviews eventful session
Last week the 2019 Vermont Senate adjourned and my first legislative session officially came to an end. Despite a somewhat rocky finale, I’m happy to report that the legislature accomplished a great deal to help Vermonters, protect our people and environment, and sustain a healthy economy. As a member of the Education and Agriculture committees and an advocate for women and families, I was fortunate to work on legislation that will have a direct impact on the people of the Addison District.
The Education Committee championed legislation (S.40) that creates the nation’s most comprehensive program for testing school water for lead. The program requires that every water tap in school districts, independent schools, and childcare facilities be tested for the presence of lead, a neurotoxin that can lead to irreversible, life-long health problems. The legislation requires that all taps found at or above the action level of four parts per billion (ppb) of lead must be replaced or removed and provides state funding to do so.
The Agriculture Committee worked on several important initiatives (H.525 and S.160) this session that support diverse agricultural and forestry activities, including attention to Vermont’s struggling dairy economy, forestry worker training, livestock processing, and the burgeoning hemp market (S.58). These bills also address agricultural water quality and soil conservation practices and lay out steps for ongoing work in this area.
We also protected the health of pollinators (H.205) by eliminating consumer use of neonicotinoid pesticides, creating educational programs about pesticides and proper care of honeybees, and establishing stronger beekeeper oversight and hive inspections. Finally, we worked to feed more kids more Vermont agricultural products in more local schools by enhancing the Farm-to-School Grant Program, facilitating the ability of school districts to purchase local foods, increasing the number of children who eat school meals, and improving the financial viability of school meal programs (H.79).
I was the lead sponsor of a bill (S.94) that facilitates the largest expansion in 30 years of dental services to Vermonters with low-incomes. The bill, which was folded into the state budget (H.542), provides for free dental cleanings and preventive care and doubles the reimbursement amount for reparative dental services for patients on Medicaid. Dental care is crucial to maintaining overall health and preventing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
The state budget also includes an increased investment in childcare, an initiative for which I was a major advocate in the Senate. The budget provides larger subsidies for families with modest incomes to access early childhood care and education programs and invests in the childcare workforce and infrastructure. In addition, for the first time since 2004, the budget increases monthly benefits for low-income, single parents through the state’s Reach Up program.
I was a co-sponsor of legislation that aims to curb the use of firearms for suicide by imposing a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns (S.169). Each year dozens of Vermonters take their own lives with a gun, often after an impulsive purchase of a firearm. A waiting period will allow time during which people contemplating suicide can seek help or rethink their plans of self-harm. In addition, the state budget increases funding for community mental health agencies in order to retain staff and support crucial services, as well as assess gaps in mental health care in rural areas and enable placement of complex mental health patients in appropriate community settings.
I am also proud of the work the legislature did to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence. We eliminated the civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases (H.330) and removed the criminal statute of limitations for sexual exploitation of a minor (H.511), allowing victims more time to reconcile their experiences and seek justice for the violence done to them at an early age. We instituted protections for victims of domestic violence from abusers and housing discrimination (H.132), affording them the right to change locks or quickly vacate rental units without penalty. We also created a Task Force on Campus Sexual Harm to ensure that Vermont’s colleges are equipped to appropriately respond to incidences of sexual violence.
Finally, we codified into law the long-standing practice of providing reproductive healthcare services to Vermonters (H.57). Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Vermont has allowed for the safe and legal provision of abortions, overseen by best medical standards and practices, without state interference. With current federal threats to reproductive health care, the Vermont Legislature passed landmark legislation protecting the reproductive liberty of Vermonters, bucking the trend of abortion restrictions in states throughout the country. In addition, the Senate started the process of amending the Vermont Constitution to include a clause guaranteeing reproductive liberty. If successful, the provision will go before the voters of the state on Election Day 2022.
We also accomplished significant work protecting Vermonters from toxic chemicals, cleaning up our environment, and mitigating climate change. My district-mate, Sen. Chris Bray outlined many of these initiatives last week. I am proud of the work the Vermont Legislature did this year for our state and I know there is more work to do. I look forward to continuing to serve the people of Addison County, Buel’s Gore and Huntington. Thank you.
Ruth Hardy is Addison County’s Democratic Senator from East Middlebury.
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