February update: connectivity, fish hatcheries, electing the next Adjutant General, protecting women's reproductive rights in VT & more
I’ve been commuting to Montpelier for six weeks now, and every day as I approach the State House I am greeted by Ceres, the goddess of agriculture atop the golden dome. Ceres reminds me of who I am serving and of the importance of Vermont’s agricultural heritage and our rural communities. Sometimes living in Guilford and Vernon, the southeast corner of the state, we can feel distant from removed from Montpelier, so I feel like a big part of my new job is to bring visibility to our communities and to be a conduit to share the discussions and debates that are happening with my constituents.
This week Guilford’s very own Verandah Porche delivered a Valentine’s Day Devotional in the House Chamber. Verandah’s poetry captured so much of the challenges and beauty of rural living. As a poet, activist and select board member she exemplifies service. She is a deep listener, a bridge builder, and a state treasure. If you want to hear her love poem to Vermont, she also recorded it for Vermont Public Radio and you can listen to it here: https://www.vpr.org/people/verandah-porche#stream/0
COFFEE WITH COFFEY Over the last two months I have been hosting monthly coffee hours in both Guilford and Vernon, and we have had great attendance and great discussions among neighbors. I have been sharing updates and listening to the issues that concern my constituents. We have been talking about our schools and school mergers, how Vermont is addressing climate change, grading maple syrup, current use and solar energy, making changes to our corrections facilities and policies, fish hatcheries, minimum wage, paid family leave and a constitutional change to protect women’s reproductive rights. These have been great ways to connect and build community dialogue and since I will be home for Town Meeting, the monthly Coffee with Coffey hours will resume in April - stay tuned.
COMMITTEE WORK Since the Governor’s budget address on January 25th my committee, the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, has been diving into the capital budget and taking testimony from the different government agencies and programs that receive funding through the capital budget. There is a lot of pressure this year because the two-year capital budget has been reduced to $123 million to invest in capital infrastructure from maintenance of our state buildings, historic monuments and buildings to our state parks, armories and fisheries to clean water funding and investments in affordable housing, community grants that address historic, recreational and educational buildings.
This most recent week we focused on clean water funding which goes through the Agency of Agriculture, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) https://vhcb.org through investments in equipment and loans available to farmers and communities. The work of VHCB in particular reaches our communities in Southern Vermont through investments in projects like the affordable housing in Guilford to the Guilford Country Store and restoration of the Green River. VHCB is funded through the property transfer tax (PTT). This year the Governor has proposed a $1 million-dollar reduction to VCHB even though the PTT is up $3 million. I will be working with other legislators to find ways to restore this funding, as I believe VHCB is vital to our small, rural communities in Guilford and Vernon.
RESOURCES FOR COMMUNITIES Last week my committee heard from folks who run the five Building Communities Grant Programs established and funded by the Vermont Legislature to help communities preserve important historic buildings and enhance community facilities. All of these grant programs, with the exception of the Barn Grants, require that the applicant be a non-profit organization, regional economic development organization, or municipality. The deadlines for all five grant programs vary and the committee selections are made up by individual boards through an established selection process. If you have a community project you visit. https://bgs.vermont.gov/commissioner/building-communities-grants to find out more about these grant programs.
THE FUTURE OF THE SALSBURY FISH HATCHERY This past week I heard from several constituents about the Governor’s proposal to close the Salsbury Fish Hatchery. To give people some context, the state of Vermont owns and operates five fish hatcheries which produce 1 million fish to stock our rivers and lakes. The Salisbury hatchery has been the brood stock hatchery where the eggs are produced and then sent out to the other facilities to be raised. The facility at Salsbury is old and a big issue is that it discharges into a small river and soon it will not meet clean water standards. It would require nearly $13-$16 million of investment to bring it up to water quality standards. But fishing is an important part of our recreational economy in Vermont, generating $36 million annually, so the closure would have significant impact 25% fewer fish for 3-7 years. As you can imagine, legislators are a bit concerned about the economic impact of this, and we are working across several committees to find a way to stave off an immediate closure, so we can build some brood stock capacity at another facility. I will have more updates on this as we are further down the road in the budget process.
CONNECTIVITY AND THE RURAL ECONOMY I am member of the Rural Caucus – a tri-partisan group of legislators who are working together to advocate for legislation that would make strategic investments to strengthen our rural economy. In addition to advocating for investments that support sustainable forestry practices and farming, I am advocating for ways to bring our rural communities up to 21st century speed. I am pleased to have signed on to co-sponsor several pieces of legislation (H94 and H95) that will help advance connectivity in our rural communities. These bills aim to make it easier for fiber-optic companies to get onto poles (the pole-attachment rules up to now have functioned to slow down the process): assisting with formation of Communications Union Districts (like EC Fiber in south-central part of state). These are muni districts consisting of 10-20 towns that plan and install fiber where commercial carriers typically don't find it profitable; building out cell tower network. Needed for FirstNet, the national first responder network which might help with minimal broadband to last-mile locations; and possibly finding ways to utilize unused capacity on existing fiber lines installed by electric utilities for their purposes.
PROTECTING WOMEN'S REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS IN VERMONT This session H.57 was introduced - a bill relating to preserving existing practice of women’s’ right to abortion. H.57 has been the subject of intense, often emotional debate and testimony in the State House over the last four weeks. Perhaps the most visible of this debate occurred during the public hearing attended by hundreds of Vermonters – both pro and against the bill. I have been receiving notes and calls from constituents sharing their deeply held views both in favor and opposition to the bill.
Because this is an emotionally charged issue, it is important to understand some of the facts. This bill does not change current practice in Vermont, or in fact, the practice as it has been for more than 40 years since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade – notably one of the Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions. Given the politics in Washington, there is considerable debate about whether the Supreme Court will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade and leave it entirely up to individual states. This bill does not allow for partial or full birth abortions that are specifically prohibited by the 2003 “Partial Birth Abortion Act” enacted by Congress. All medical providers must comply with this federal law. The bill does not change the ability of a woman to sue for wrongful death if something goes wrong during her pregnancy.
Testimony revealed that abortions in Vermont are declining – that’s good news. They are declining because of improved education and increased access to family planning and birth control. In Vermont, 1.3 percent of abortions occurred later in pregnancy – only because of the mother’s health or viability of the child – not for elective purposes of the mother. No elective late term abortions are performed in Vermont according to the Vermont Medical Society.
I remain grateful for all of the notes and calls I received from constituents sharing their deeply held views both in favor and opposition to the bill. In the end, I believe that these decisions are intensely personal and private, and best made by women with consultation from their medical providers, and not by politicians.
STAY IN TOUCH Next week we will also be debating and voting on Paid Family Leave and electing the next Adjutant General. I welcome hearing from constituents on these issues.
The issues we debate in Montpelier impact each and every one of us, and your voice and your participation in our democracy matters. I appreciate getting emails from constituents voicing their concerns and ideas. I encourage people to talk with your neighbors at town meeting, and to reach out to me and your other elected officials. In Vermont, the work that we do in the legislature is public and you can see the bills that I have sponsored by going to my legislative page https://legislature.vermont.gov/people/single/2020/30971 and you can see the work that I and other legislators do in committee by going to the Vermont General Assembly’s website https://legislature.vermont.gov/house/overview/2020 where you can have access to our agendas and the testimony we take.
Thanks for taking the time to read this longer than usual update. It’s an honor to serve Guilford and Vernon in the People’s House. I look forward to seeing you in the community, at Town Meeting, at an upcoming Coffee with Coffey Hour or at the State House in the coming months. Please stay in touch!
Sara Coffey State Representative Windham-1/Guilford and Vernon e-mail email@example.com www.saracoffeyvt.com