Op/Ed

Editorial: Legislature was productive on issues that really count

ANGELO LYNN

Deem this year’s legislative session a success, and if you think none of the goings-on in Montpelier impact you directly, here are several reasons why they do and why you should care. 

First, let’s note that while the Democratic-controlled Legislature had a new super-majority that could override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes, they nonetheless agreed upon two culture-war issues that have rocked other states: 1) they passed landmark reproductive shield bills to protect medical professionals from suit or recrimination for performing abortions or gender-affirming care; and 2) they strengthened Vermont’s gun safety laws. 

In signing H.89, Gov. Scott said: “Today, we reaffirm once again that Vermont stands on the side of privacy, personal autonomy and reproductive liberty, and that providers are free to practice without fear.” That follows the perspective of keeping the government from intruding on the rights of women and transgender people when making personal health decisions. It passed with overwhelming margins in the Legislature and signed with approval by a Republican governor. 

Similarly, the Gov. Scott was eager to sign a bill prohibiting paramilitary training camps, as well as another law, dubbed the “suicide prevention law” that increases the waiting period for buying firearms to 72 hours, creates new gun storage requirements to prevent children from accidentally gaining access to firearms in the house, and expands access to “extreme risk protection orders.” 

Both laws affect the lives of many residents within each of our communities, and in each case improve the well-being of our greater community. Watching the battles engulf other states on these two issues makes us doubly grateful to live here. 

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Not everything, of course, was hunky-dory in the state’s capital. Gov. Scott spent the session warning the Legislature of overspending, and Democrats spent the session trying to deal with the significant problems facing the state. It should be obvious to most Vermonters that you can’t deal with the problems without putting some resources into the fray. 

To that end, Democrats were successful in passing major child care legislation, H.217. The legislation will pour $120 million in the ailing industry in an effort to make child care more affordable to those young Vermonters most in need. To pay for the initiative, the bill would enact a payroll tax of 0.44% starting July 1, 2024, with employers required to cover at least 75% of the new levy.

That increase in taxes affects all of us, and is what has prompted the governor’s promised veto, which the Legislature has the votes to override. 

The other signature legislative achievement was the clean heat bill, S.5, which sets in motion a complicated plan to devise an affordable heat standard that seeks to reduce the cost of heating a home in the near future, as well as reducing the state’s carbon footprint. The bill sets up a two-year study of how to create such a system, and demonstrate that it can work before the legislature will vote again on that proposal in another two years. If you heat your home with gas, oil, wood or renewables through the electrical grid, this bill affects you — and you’ll want to pay attention as the studies over the next two years demonstrate how it will reduce, or not, your fuel bills.

The Legislature also tackled the home affordability issue by passing what it call the “Home” bill, S.100. It effectively eliminates single-family zoning to allow for denser development and tweaks sections of Act 250. While it makes some progress on changing rules that could make the building of future housing less expensive, it came under tough criticism by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, as well as the Scott administration and building groups, saying that it didn’t go far enough in relaxing some of the most onerous Act 250 rules that have increased the costs of housing in Vermont. 

Included in the budget bill was $50 million in one-time money for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to build housing, $10 million of which is earmarked for homeless shelter expansions and homes for those exiting homelessness. There’s also another $10 million for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which gives grants to landlords to get vacant and derelict units back online. So, progress was made in creating more affordable housing, but more systemic work needs to be done in the second year of the biennium if Vermont hopes to move the needle over the long-term. 

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Of the things that didn’t get done, paid family leave was the priority issue in the House that was put on hold, and for good reason — the state had too many major initiatives to tackle, and the House proposal was asking for another $150 million in a budget that was already up 13-plus percent from the prior year. No doubt some form of family leave needs to be adopted, but until Vermont’s economy demonstrates it can thrive with the latest round of budget increases, legislative leaders were wise to delay its full implementation. 

That said, the initial child care proposal by Sen. Ruth Hardy, S. 56, featured a 12-week family leave provision for new parents, which should be the building block of a future family-leave program for the state. Such a program would help small businesses provide for family leave, creating a level playing field with larger employers that already offer leave programs, not to mention help young families in those first few crucial weeks of parenthood.

Hardy’s S.56 also had a bolder vision for child care that deservers further scrutiny. Her initial legislation sought to expand Act 166, a universal pre-kindergarten program passed in 2014, by transforming a 10-hour-per-week program for some 3- and 4-year-olds into a full-time school program for all 4-year-olds. Under the proposal, school districts would have provided this universal, play-based education for 4-year-olds, using the expertise of the public school system. Notably, it sought to use the vacant physical capacity in many schools due to declining enrollment.

Unfortunately, that aspect of Hardy’s legislation was left out of the House’s version of the bill, H.217, because of concerns from private daycare centers that the public facilities would undermine their operations, although there remains a provision to study the impacts and benefits of such an expansion over the summer. Surely, the best bang for the public’s dollar here is to fully use existing capacity in our schools and expand that to younger students. We all know that early education is essential to growing healthy, bright individuals with greater capacity to learn as they age; and with universal food programs (breakfast and lunch) implemented this year, Vermont would be a leader in child care facilities — which is important not for any social status, but as an economic driver to attract and keep young families.

At least one other education-related item was left undone. The House passed H.486, a measure to abandon an overly aggressive state initiative to test schools for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The measure passed the House with overwhelming support, but died in the Senate Education Committee because its chairman, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, has refused to listen to school officials or adhere to science-based studies that suggest the state standard it wants to impose is far too restrictive, exceeding federal guidelines by up to 400 times. If the state pursues testing of Vermont’s schools using that standard it could suggest or mandate corrective measures costing hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars without just cause. The state’s school-based organizations of principals, superintendents and school boards, as well as the teachers union, has supported the bill, which essentially asks for a pause in the testing until scientists and state officials can agree on a standard level of exposure that is safe without going overboard. Hopefully, some last-minute agreement can be made to pause the PCB testing, and slipped into the final budget or other bills during the upcoming veto session. 

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All things considered, however, it was a very productive session that dealt with substantial issues that affect us all. If only Congress were a fraction as effective.

Angelo Lynn

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