Dear Neighbors and Friends,
Thank you for keeping in touch over the last 14 months. The 2021 legislative session will go down in the history books, both in terms of legislator time spent on Zoom and the vast infusion of federal aid that has come to our Green Mountain State due to the global pandemic. We will never forget the hundreds of Vermonters who lost their lives, nor those of us still navigating grief or diminished health.
This pandemic has revealed the gaps and inequities in our system and has tested our institutions and forced us to think creatively. In Vermont, we’ve taken bold action to meet our challenges together and I’m proud of our state budget and the collaborative work lawmakers put in this session.
What’s important for you to know is that I carried your priorities with me into the session and worked diligently to ensure that the millions of dollars coming into the state were put to immediate and effective use in response to the crisis. I advocated for numerous high-impact, once-in-a-lifetime investments you’ll read about here that will accelerate recovery with the aim of leaving no Vermonter behind.
In my second term I was appointed Vice Chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee and named Democratic Co-Chair of the Women’s Legislative Caucus where I have focused on making strategic investments in infrastructure critical to pandemic recovery, reforming our criminal justice and mental health systems, changing the culture of corrections and championing legislation that addresses racial equity and the health and well-being of women in Vermont.
Our just-passed FY2022 budget strengthens systems and services to create an equitable recovery plan that invests in people and rebuilds the economy in all 14 counties. It brings broadband and connectivity to rural communities. It invests in child care to increase affordability and accessibility. It makes a massive investment in increasing affordable housing stock for low- and middle-income Vermonters. It prioritizes climate change, clean water, and begins to center racial and social equity in more of our investments.
This newsletter is longer than usual as it includes my end-of-session report and highlights from the 2021 legislative session. You can also visit my legislative page to see the bills I co-sponsored and how I voted on all the bills that came to the House floor.
It has truly been an honor to represent the people of Guilford and Vernon in the Vermont House of Representatives. While the session has ended, please know that I am available to answer questions, help you connect with resources, and listen to your priorities. I look forward to hearing from you.
State Representative, Windham-1/ Guilford & Vernon
Vice Chair, House Corrections & Institutions Committee
Co-Chair, Women’s Legislative Caucus
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2021 LEGISLATIVE SESSION
BUDGETS THAT EXPRESS OUR PRIORITIES + VALUES
Deep Investments to Ensure COVID Recovery In the Spring of 2020, Vermont received $1.25 billion in federal CARES relief. These dollars provided relief for Vermonters in desperate need, their families, their communities, and their local businesses in all 14 counties. These dollars were also key to stabilizing critical systems in the areas of health care, human services and child care.
Spring 2021 has brought Vermont $1.052 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and once again the legislature is focused on leaving no one behind. To the extent allowed by federal regulation, Vermont’s use of ARPA dollars is defined by a laser focus on the well-being—present and future—of Vermont’s human infrastructure.
This investment is apparent in the amounts of ARPA funding allocated in the FY22 state budget, a total of $599.2 million. Included, for instance, are $109.2 million targeted to Economy, Workforce and Communities. $99 million is targeted to Housing and $51 million to Rental Assistance. There is also $150 million for Broadband Investments and $52 million for Technology Modernization, as well as $50 million for Climate Action and $115 million for Clean Water Investments. ARPA dollars not “spoken for” are available for use as we have a better sense of ongoing or unanticipated needs. This flexibility is permitted by ARPA, as we have through FY2025 to use these funds.
See How Federal Relief Dollars Are Being Spent in VT
Two interactive dashboards show how the $1.25 billion has been allocated and spent so far. Both have interactive graphics to allow the user to display different views or to filter data to display specific elements. Please take a look at this link provided by the Vermont Department of Finance and Management. It is a remarkable source of information about a remarkable amount of money. https://spotlight.vermont.gov/expenditures-it-and-employees/crf-transparency
Building Back Better: Statewide Infrastructure
My Committee, House Corrections & Institutions, crafts a two-year Capital Bill in the first year of each biennium. This is where long-term investments are made in buildings and infrastructure using money from state-issued bonds. This year's Capital Bill, H.438, invests $123 million in a range of projects critical both to pandemic recovery and to the future of Vermont, including courthouse renovations and HVAC, clean water, state park upgrades, state office building maintenance, mental health facilities, and affordable housing.
The legislation also increases investments in the Building Communities Grant Program, which invests in local economies and helps communities preserve historic buildings, improve ADA accessibility, and address fire safety in recreational, educational, cultural and human service facilities. Municipalities, schools, libraries and nonprofits are encouraged to apply for these grants available through the Division of Historic Preservation, the Vermont Arts Council and the Agency of Buildings and General Services.
INVESTMENTS IN HEALTHY FAMILIES + RESILIENT COMMUNTIES
Investing in Affordable Child Care
We know that child care is essential to supporting Vermont’s children, families, communities, and economy. H.171 takes monumental steps towards reforming our childcare system, investing in our future, and supporting the next generation of Vermont’s citizens. Not only does H.171 make child care more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a study to identify future revenue sources for a more deeply subsidized universal childcare system.
By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare worker wages, we can support and grow our workforce of early care and learning professionals. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving our youngest Vermonters a head start to success. There is a widespread recognition that Vermont’s childcare system holds immense opportunities. H.171 delivers both the resources and commitments necessary to realize that great potential.
Creation of Better Places Program
This session I was proud to work with community and cultural leaders to champion legislation to create the Better Places Program. With community-based participation at its center, the Better Places Program will support “placemaking” – a process that capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, to create public spaces that contribute to people’s health and well-being and will support vibrancy and economic activity in our downtowns, village centers and neighborhoods.
The Better Places Program is designed to fund locally-driven efforts to engage in placemaking projects to strengthen the connection between people and the places they share. The program is designed to streamline the grantmaking process and democratize community access to grant funds through a nimble, flexible funding source.
Thanks to a broad coalition of supporters and advocates I am pleased to share that the legislation to create and fund Better Places crossed the finish line and received an appropriation of $1.5 million to start the program. The program will make smart use of our state’s resources, will support community innovation, and will provide local leaders and communities with the tools and resources they need to advance local recovery efforts, rebuild local economies, and reconnect Vermonters to one another – critical elements that help communities recover quickly and build prosperous and resilient communities into the future.
Universal Access to Broadband
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how high-speed internet is essential to daily life. We use the internet to go to work, attend school, see a doctor, interact with the government, and connect with our communities and the world at large. Unfortunately, the promise of modern communications has bypassed too many rural communities in the state with 25 percent of Vermonters still lacking access to broadband.
H.360 dedicates $150 million of federal stimulus funds to the construction of broadband infrastructure in the most underserved parts of the state. The legislature anticipates spending a total of $250 million for broadband deployment over the next three years. The bill includes funding for pre-construction planning and design costs, grants for building broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and a new broadband workforce development program. The bill also creates the Vermont Community Broadband Board to coordinate and support Vermont’s nine Communication Union Districts and their partners with technical, legal, and financial assistance to accelerate the deployment of universal broadband service across Vermont. H.360 prioritizes the deployment of fiber (“future proof”) infrastructure, giving Vermonters access to at least 100mbps download/100mbps upload service.
Progress on Healthcare Premiums
Vermonters buying on the individual market should now pay no more than 8.5 percent of their income on health insurance as a result of important changes made this year. Both small businesses with less than 100 employees, and individuals purchasing health insurance outside of their workplaces, can save substantial dollars on healthcare premiums as a result of significantly increased federal funding for healthcare premium support, and a change in the health insurance structure in Vermont that’s contained within the larger bill, S.88. Many small businesses, nonprofits and municipalities will see reduced premiums. Individual increases will be offset by new federal funds which provide subsidies and tax credits to help pay for premiums. It’s important that Vermonters who buy health insurance on the individual market review their options. Here’s a link to Vermont Health Connect, which offers an active assistance program, a plan comparison tool, and a customer support center. In addition, the Office of the Health Care Advocate is a valuable and free resource.
Strengthening Mental Health Care
Mental health, an essential part of health care, needs strengthening. Too many of our friends and neighbors have been struggling with increased stress, anxiety and isolation – plus increased serious mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. Vermont’s mental health system, critical to the support of children and families, has also been struggling. Adults and children have been on waiting lists throughout the state, and even children are waiting in hospital emergency departments for essential, inpatient mental health care. Important, concrete steps are being taken to address this demand and strengthen our community-based mental health system. Reducing and ultimately eliminating wait times in emergency departments has been the focus of actions with the legislature, the Department of Mental Health, and Vermont’s hospital system. Increased federal funding for community residences, mobile emergency response teams, and support for mental health and substance use disorder workforce will also strengthen this vital community system.
ADDRESSING ECONOMIC RECOVERY + WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT
Stabilizing Workers + Employers Impacted by COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the most significant job-loss event ever experienced by Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. Thousands of workers, including a higher-than-average percentage of women, lost jobs or were forced to stay home and care for loved ones or children learning remotely. Many businesses struggled as they were forced to close or scale-back operations due to necessary, state-imposed restrictions.
The Legislature designed S.62 in response to this economic crisis. It is a package of programs and benefits that will both support workers post-pandemic and shore up the UI system for the future. S.62: ● Adds a long-term supplemental benefit of $25/week for UI recipients when the federal bump ends in September. ● Protects businesses from being unduly burdened with large tax increases caused by COVID-layoffs by removing the year 2020 from the employer calculation. ● Ensures the state's UI Trust Fund is replenished and ready for Vermonters in the event of another economic emergency. ● Appropriates $100,000 in scholarships for adult students enrolled in workforce development programs at Adult Career and Tech Education Centers. ● Provides $150,000 to tech centers for the purchase of new equipment; and $150,000 for curriculum development related to high-growth, high-need sectors.
Business + Workforce Grant Programs Launched
To get relief to Vermonters quickly, the legislature passed H.315 in early April, a $97.5 million pandemic-relief bill that invested federal funds before the end of the session to jumpstart the state’s recovery. This bill created $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, targeting new and small businesses not eligible for assistance initially. H.315 also allocated $500,000 to the EMBRACE Grants for Micro Business program, providing up to $5,000 to low- and moderate-income Vermonters with businesses under five employees and less than $25,000 in annual revenue. Finally, $8.2 million was approved for the Vermont State Colleges, UVM and VSAC to provide up to two free classes to adult Vermonters looking to boost job skills or change careers, to all 2020 and 2021 high-school grads, and to train more LPNs.
ADDRESSING RACIAL + SOCIAL EQUITY
Promoting Economic Opportunity for BIPOC Businesses
Vermont’s economic prosperity and vitality is dependent on our ability to attract and retain BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) entrepreneurs, businesses, and visitors to the Green Mountain State. This session, legislators embraced their responsibility to address racial wealth disparities and begin course-correcting the historical impacts of economic exploitation and exclusion from economic opportunity.
This session I was pleased to work with Curtiss Reed of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity who has been focused on economic and business development for minority owned businesses for nearly 20 years. Working with Reed and the findings and recommendations from the Vermont Partnership’s recent BIPOC business survey, Rep. Mike Mrowicki and I developed H.336, and attracted 20 additional co-sponsors. The legislation sought to create much needed infrastructure to provide technical assistance, networking, and support to strengthen, grow and attract BIPOC-owned businesses in Vermont.
I am pleased to share that the bill sparked important conversations in the House Commerce Committee and between the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Office of Racial Equity. The ideas in H.336, along with testimony by BIPOC business owners and thought leaders, informed and shaped the final legislation to create the BIPOC business development project. The legislation includes technical support, better data collection, and an investment of $150,000 for BIPOC leaders to incubate these ideas and present their recommendations to the legislature next year which may include recommendations for the creation of a minority business development center or authority.
Expanding Office of Racial Equity
Before the 2021 session, legislators heard from constituents that Vermonters were not only dealing with one pandemic, but three: COVID, climate, and systemic racism. In addressing systemic racism, one of the glaring needs identified was bolstering personnel at the state’s Office of Racial Equity. When this office was created and Xusana Davis hired as director, the legislature didn't know the extent of how widely these services would be used and requested.
The workload has continued to grow, with the director being flooded by requests to sit on committees and boards, meet with Vermonters, review policies, and offer expertise to all three branches of state government. It became clear that the needs of the Office were far greater than one person could handle. To help, two positions were added to the Office of Racial Equity and passed in the budget, effective in the new fiscal year, July 1, 2021.
Promoting Healthcare Equity
The Department of Health’s 2018 State Health Assessment revealed that not all Vermonters have a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. From access to health care, mental health and morbidity, statistics show significant disparities across the Green Mountain State based on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status. H.210 begins the long-term process of breaking down these barriers. The bill creates a “Health Equity Advisory Commission,” made up primarily of Vermonters whose lives have been impacted by historic inequitable treatment in accessing health care, while empowering their voices to develop an Office of Health Equity by no later than January 1, 2023.
Healthcare for Undocumented Women & Children
H.430 provides immediate increased access to health care for income-eligible pregnant women and children, regardless of their immigration status, by establishing a Dr. Dynasaur-like healthcare program. This coverage begins on July 1, 2021. These undocumented women and children often work or live with their families on the farms and dairies that are essential to our Vermont economy. Because of fear regarding immigration status being revealed, confidentiality is critical. We know that prenatal care and medical care in childhood can improve health outcomes over a lifetime, as well as reduce costs for both education and health care systems.
Eliminating “Trans Panic Defense”
While we like to envision our society as evolving and moving forward, the unfortunate truth is that 2020 was the deadliest year yet for transgender and gender non-conforming Americans. This violence is so prevalent that BIPOC trans women currently have a life expectancy of just 38 years. In response to this devastating information, the legislature passed H.128. This bill prevents minimizing a crime in our court system because the victim is transgender. Throughout the country, there have been court cases where defendants were able to use a “trans panic defense” to have assault charges against them lessened or dismissed altogether. By passing H.128, the legislature sends a strong message that in Vermont every single one of us deserves equal protection under the law.
INVESTING IN EDUCATION + OUR FUTURE
Improving Literacy; Addressing Learning Loss Post-Pandemic
Learning to read is critical to success in school and beyond. The widespread consensus around the need to improve literacy test scores for Vermont students guided the legislature’s efforts to provide additional resources for literacy instruction across the state. S.114 harnesses $3 million in federal stimulus funds to improve reading proficiency among all Vermont students, and especially those in grades PreK through 3. To achieve this important goal, the Agency of Education will provide professional development learning modules for teachers in key areas of literacy instruction and help supervisory unions to implement evidence-based literacy strategies that address learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also creates an Advisory Council on Literacy to engage in innovative thinking around sustainable improvement in literacy outcomes on a statewide level.
Community Schools Pilot Program
As schools across Vermont focus on pandemic recovery and re-engagement, H.106 invests $3.3 million in a demonstration grant program that will allow eligible districts to explore the innovative “community schools” model. Sometimes known as full-service schools, community schools help kids and families access vital services such as health care, mental health counseling, or help with food or housing, often right in the building. They serve as resource hubs that provide a range of accessible, well-coordinated, and culturally inclusive supports and services.
Now gaining traction across the country, community schools tackle head-on the challenging and complex out-of-school barriers, like poverty and hunger, that hold so many of our students back. They help close the achievement gap for low-income students, special education students, BIPOC students, and English language learners, and improve student outcomes ranging from attendance and academic performance to graduation rates. The bill also kick-starts a grant program to help schools buy more food that’s grown or produced in Vermont and creates a task force with the goal of achieving universal school lunches by the 2026-2027 school year.
Legislature Keeps Property Tax Rates Level
Vermont’s education spending is decided at the local level and then costs are equalized throughout the state via a complex formula designed to achieve equity of opportunity and taxation. Due to unprecedented federal spending, we were able to keep property tax rates level while continuing to invest in community schools throughout our state. However, Vermont’s education finance system hasn’t been significantly updated for 20 years, and many inequities have grown in that time. With S.13, the pupil weighting study, we have begun a process to shift how we measure poverty, allocate resources, and levy taxes to pay for schools
ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE
Historic Investments in Climate Action
Last year, the Vermont Legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), which created legally binding emission reduction targets. The Act requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Emissions would need to be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050. In addition to the emission reductions required by the statute, the law also directs the Council to consider opportunities for long-term carbon sequestration and enhance the resilience of Vermont’s communities and ecosystems.
This session the legislature made historic investments in climate action through the state budget. Besides the immediate $50 million for weatherization, transportation, and renewable energy, $200 million in ARPA funds are reserved to support the critical work of the Climate Action Plan being developed right now by the Climate Council as mandated by the Global Warming Solutions Act. Such investments will create the climate jobs of the future and save Vermont families and businesses money as we speed the transition to a clean energy economy.
Steering Vermont Transportation into the Future
For a century, the word “transportation” in America has been virtually synonymous with the word “car.” And not just any car, but cars using an internal combustion engine (ICE). This year, the House Transportation Committee worked on several bills that recognize and embrace that change is here, driven by customer demand and environmental concerns. The T-Bill and FY22 State Budget appropriated millions of dollars for incentives to help Vermonters shift gears from ICE vehicles to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). To make sure Vermonters can “fill up” their new rides, support is also set aside for additional public charging stations. Don’t want to drive? Sign up soon for $200 off an electric bike. And while electrifying our transportation system saves Vermonters money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation transformation is best approached comprehensively. As such, funds were also directed to address stormwater and improve water quality, to construct bicycle and pedestrian facilities as well as Park and Rides, and to support the growth of carpools and vanpools. Go Vermont!
PROTECTING OUR ENVIRONMENT + NATURAL RESOURCES
Prohibiting “Forever Chemicals” from Consumer Products
Many Vermonters know that PFAS chemicals were found to contaminate drinking water in Bennington and North Bennington in 2016. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade in the environment and accumulate within our bodies over time. This exposure leads to a number of adverse health effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Research is showing that you don’t need to live in a contaminated area to be exposed to PFAS, because these chemicals are used in many consumer products.
Rather than limiting our solutions to downstream clean-up, S.20 addresses this issue upstream by preventing these toxic substances from entering our state. S.20 prohibits the manufacture and sale of PFAS from four products that pose the highest risks to Vermonters’ well-being, including food packaging, fire extinguisher foam and firefighting PPE, rugs and carpets, and ski wax. S.20 takes comprehensive steps to protect Vermonters from toxic chemicals and prevent future harm to the environment and public health.
Updating Vermont’s Bottle Bill
An update to Vermont’s 50-year-old bottle bill passed the House this session. H.175 will expand the types of containers subject to deposits and will now include water bottles, wine bottles, hard cider and tea containers, and others. This bill will also increase the handling fees paid to vendors, which will encourage the opening of more redemption centers. Containers recycled via the deposit system are cleaner and more valuable than if they go through the general recycling stream, and a greater percentage of them will be made into new containers. Glass, in particular, is much easier to manage as a recycled material if it goes through redemption centers versus a curbside bin.
Old Growth Forests
The Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Committee heard a great deal of testimony about the value of wildlands and intact forests. Old growth forests are particularly rich in biodiversity because they are more complex, and this complexity grows over long periods of time. They provide unique habitats during a time when habitat loss is the biggest driver of diminishing animal and plant populations. Old forests are one of the most cost-effective ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it. The related issue of forest fragmentation occurs when forests are split up by roads and developments, and animals that require large areas to roam can be severely impacted. The committee is working on a bill to encourage and protect old forests through an expansion of the Use Value program.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE + CORRECTIONS REFORMS
Reforming Vermont’s Correctional System
Recognition of the need for reform and culture-level change in the criminal justice and corrections systems has been growing for years. “Warehousing” offenders does not help them prepare to reenter society successfully, as most of them will. We are committed to building a criminal justice system that is equitable and rehabilitative, where state employees and the incarcerated Vermonters in their care are safe and treated with dignity and respect.
This year my Committee developed H.435 to address sexual misconduct and systemic issues within the Department of Corrections (DOC) that came to light at the women's facility in South Burlington. The bill drew heavily from recommendations in the independent report by Downs Rachlin Martin.
H.435 establishes an independent Corrections Monitoring Commission and a Corrections Investigative Unit; expands state law to criminalize sexual contact between DOC employees and anyone under the department’s supervision; and requires that the DOC works with the Criminal Justice Council to develop a proposal for training standards, and a process for certification and decertification of correctional officers.
New Women’s Correctional + Reentry Facility in Planning Stages
Changing the culture of Corrections is not only a matter of programming, it is also a matter of facilities. Most of Vermont’s six regional correctional facilities were designed with an outdated mindset and built decades ago. Most are in need of significant repair and maintenance. In particular, the women’s Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility is in dire need of replacement to better serve women and their unique reentry needs. The capital bill includes an initial $1.5 million investment in planning and program design for a new women’s correctional and reentry facility or facilities. In summer and fall 2021, the Department of Corrections (DOC) will hold focus groups with key stakeholders, including correctional officers and other staff, inmates, and outside service providers. DOC will work with Buildings and General Services, which handles construction and maintenance of most state facilities, to develop a proposal for size, location, and preliminary design that the legislature will review during the 2022 session.
PUTTING OUR PUBLIC PENSIONS SYSTEM ON A SUSTAINABLE PATH
The Legislature focused this session on putting the State of Vermont’s public pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and all state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire.
The goal is to set a process in motion that preserves the defined benefit model, because when properly designed and managed, this is the most affordable way to provide secure income in retirement. Legislators are balancing multiple commitments— one made to state employees and teachers, and another to Vermont taxpayers— who now face a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will continue to grow exponentially if action isn’t taken.
H.449, developed by the House Government Operations Committee, slowed down the process to engage more stakeholder voices. The legislation focused on governance changes that will amend the Vermont Pension Investment Commission (VPIC) to include more independent financial expertise. It also established the Pension Benefits, Design & Funding Task Force to meet this summer with a “report-back” to the legislature for putting the retirement systems on a sustainable path. Through a conference committee negotiation between the House and Senate, the task force was reconfigured to equalize the state (employer) and union (employee) representatives at the table.
The Legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars (freed up by ARPA dollars), along with the annual ADEC payment of $316 million for a total investment this year of $466 million, a massive commitment for the legislature in a single year. Resolving this pension crisis in the short-term with robust participation from all stakeholders is the fair and responsible thing to do for all concerned.
ENSURING VOTER ACCESS + PARTICIPATION
Universal Vote-By-Mail was a great success during the 2020 General Election, contributing to record turnout even during a pandemic— a 74 percent participation rate! It expanded voter access and encouraged increased participation in our democratic process. Vermonters asked legislators to build on that success, and we listened. S.15 continues the Vote-By-Mail program, adds in other important election measures, and counters the prevailing trend across the U.S. where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws. Effective this coming General Election in November, new features will include:
● Ballots with postage-paid return envelopes mailed to all active registered voters. ● Voters may cure defective ballots if, for example, they forgot to sign the certificate envelope, or failed to return unvoted primary ballots along with the voted ballot of their party choice. ● Access to secure ballot drop boxes that are accessible 24/7 for voters to return their ballots. ● A limit on the number of ballots someone can deliver on behalf of others.
That’s it!! Thanks for reading this far! Please be in touch with any questions about the legislation we passed or to talk about your priorities for 2022.