I want to thank you for your calls, emails, and letters throughout the 2023 legislative session. Your engagement is critical to the work I do as your State Representative. Over the last five years I have been working in and outside the State House to build bridges, find common ground and develop solutions to ensure that all Vermonters have opportunities and equal access to a bright future, not just the select few.
This session, under Democratic leadership, we passed significant legislation to address housing, childcare, workforce development and climate change. We made investments to support our students, farmers and small towns. We took action to protect our environment and those who are offering reproductive healthcare. We know these kinds of investments and policies are necessary in building healthy families, safe communities, and a strong economic future for our state. This end-of-session newsletter includes some of highlights of the 2023 legislative session.
During the off-session I hope to connect with many of you at upcoming community events and meetings this summer and fall. It continues to be an honor to represent the people of Guilford and Vernon in the Vermont House of Representatives. If you have any questions or need assistance, please do not hesitate to reach out.
Wishing you all the best for a wonderful summer,
State Representative, Windham-1/Guilford & Vernon
Chair, Transportation Committee
2023 END OF SESSION REPORT
HOUSING, CHILDCARE & WORKFORCE
Heading into the 2023 legislative session my priorities focused on the complex and interconnected challenges of housing, childcare and the workforce. We have been working on these issues over the past several years, and I am pleased to share that this session we passed significant legislation to address them:
• S.100, the HOME bill, creates more affordable housing stock for Vermont’s working families, modernizes zoning laws and increases funding for construction of a variety of new housing.
• In H.217 we took monumental steps towards reforming our childcare system. This is legislation that will positively impact Vermont’s children, families, and our state’s economy by making programs more affordable and increasing wages for early childhood educators. This legislation makes Vermont a national leader in the care and education of young children!
• H.452, our workforce development bill, expands apprenticeships and other workforce opportunities to strengthen pipelines dedicated to addressing Vermont’s workforce shortage, especially in critical sectors such as education, the trades, emergency management services and criminal justice
PROTECTING OUR ENVIRONMENT
Over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change. I believe we need to apply commonsense strategies now in order to protect the health, safety and security of our children and grandchildren. There is no time to waste. This session we developed a suite of bills to build resiliency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect our environment and provide Vermonters with cleaner and more affordable heating options:
• H.126 aligns with 100 other countries and many other U.S. states to address climate resiliency and sustain biodiversity by conserving 30 percent of Vermont’s land by 2030.
• S.5, the Affordable Heat Act, is a necessary step in reducing Vermont’s carbon emissions and helping Vermonters navigate the transition from the volatile and costly expense of heating with fossil fuels.
• H.67 is an extended producer responsibility bill which will protect public health and our ecosystems from the threat of toxic chemicals and plastic pollution. The legislation requires the manufacturers of household products that contain hazardous substances to belong to a program that would pay for collection and disposal of such products.
• H.158 updates Vermont’s bottle bill program (which hasn’t been updated since it first passed over 50 years ago). It expands the redeemable list to include plastic water bottles, sports drinks, and wine and hard cider in bottles and cans. It also creates a producer responsibility organization to create additional, conveniently located redemption centers across the state.
• H.479, the transportation bill, makes significant investments in our roads, bridges, and rail infrastructure, as well as policies and investments to help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector by providing incentives to Vermonters to transition to electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient vehicles. It also funds public transportation and infrastructure that supports more walking, biking, and public transit options in communities throughout the state.
• Several incentives are available to help Vermonters drive electric vehicles, including a federal tax credit, electric utility programs, and an incentive from the State of Vermont. These can be combined to reduce the up-front price of an electric vehicle by up to $14,000 in some cases. The Drive Electric Vermont website (www.driveelectricvt.com) has a calculator tool to help Vermonters determine their incentive eligibility.
A BALANCED BUDGET
This year we continued to hear how the global pandemic is still straining supply chains, our workforce, businesses, state agencies, schools, and families in Vermont. This all forced the legislature to think creatively and take bold action to meet these challenges. I’m proud of the work that lawmakers did to find creative solutions and create a balanced state budget that makes one-time and ongoing investments in critical infrastructure and services that too many Vermonters have gone without. With a focus on long-term stability, these investments will have immediate and lasting impacts on day-to-day life in Vermont.
On June 20th the House and Senate overrode the Governor’s veto and gave final approval to a balanced $8.4 billion budget that funds our state government for the 2024 fiscal year. H.494 is a fiscally responsible, values-based budget that includes critical funding for investments in housing ($211 million), childcare ($76 million), and workforce and higher education ($74 million). The budget also contains a major update to rates that support our medical and human services programs ($99.7 million). These rates have been underfunded for years, causing a substantial shortfall for providers. We’re boosting the rates for primary and specialty care, dental care, home health, nursing homes and residential care, adult day care, substance use and mental health, ambulance services and more. Increasing these rates will help us attract and retain workforce, meet demand for services, and free up hospital emergency rooms to help families, seniors and the most vulnerable Vermonters.
During the pandemic, Vermont expanded its existing General Assistance (GA) emergency housing program. Through the voucher system, we’ve provided non-congregate shelter at participating motels across the state for Vermonters who are unhoused or at risk of being homeless. With these investments, we’ve been able to rehouse more than 3,000 Vermonters who were experiencing homelessness.
While this expanded COVID-era program had many benefits and clearly saved lives, it also had drawbacks. It has been a necessary but costly short-term strategy. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Vermont has spent just under $191 million on the motel program, not including security and services, at an average monthly expense of roughly $8 million for motel vouchers alone. It’s mostly been funded by federal dollars, supplemented by the General Fund. (Before the pandemic, the annual base budget for GA housing was about $4 million.)
Homelessness is a complex issue and the legislature’s proposed FY24 budget takes into account the varying needs and complexities as a way to reach a more permanent solution. It includes $211 million in both base and one-time funding for affordable housing, the general assistance emergency housing program, expanded shelter capacity, and increased rates to providers. $12.5 million was added specifically to help our community partners, working with the State, to transition people to more permanent housing.
With federal support ending, we need to find a sustainable long-term solution. Following our May adjournment, leaders in the House and Senate worked with the Governor to find a better solution to help those who have been receiving a general assistance housing benefit. When we returned for the special session on June 20th the legislature passed a companion bill that will ensure funding and stronger oversight. Field service directors from the Agency of Human Services have been working diligently with community partners across the state to create individual transition plans.
If you are aware of anyone potentially facing homelessness by July 1 and they are not already in touch with a case worker, the following resources may be of assistance: • Vermont 211 • AHS’ Emergency Housing line at 1-800-775-0506 • South Eastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) (802) 722-4575 • Senior Solutions’ Helpline 1-866-673-8376
UNIVERSAL SCHOOL MEALS
During the pandemic, the federal government provided free school meals to all K-12 students. Last session, the legislature provided funding to continue offering universal school meals in Vermont for the 2022–2023 school year. H.165 makes this popular program permanent so all kids can be fed at school regardless of circumstance. The program will also increase purchases of local foods and draw down more federal funding to support school meals.
EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICES
Faced with rising call volumes, staff and volunteer shortages, and reimbursement rates that do not cover the cost-of-service delivery, EMS services are struggling to keep pace with the needs of our communities. The FY24 budget includes funding to stabilize our EMS system by increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for services, investing $1M in training for EMS personnel, and commissioning a report to provide recommendations for improving our emergency medical system.
HELP FOR ORGANIC DAIRY FARMERS
These are challenging times for organic dairy farms, with more than thirty organic farms closing in the last two years. Production costs are skyrocketing, including rising fuel prices and expensive feed due to the Ukraine conflict, inflation, and last summer’s severe drought. Organic farmers do not have the safety net that conventional dairy farmers have because the calculations used in the federal Dairy Margin Coverage program — which helps bridge the gap when dairy prices are lower than production costs — do not take into account costs incurred or prices received by organic farmers. The final FY24 budget includes one-time emergency relief for Vermont organic dairy farmers to help farmers pay off debts and prevent farm closures.
HELPING VERMONTERS SAVE FOR RETIREMENT
Most Americans, including Vermonters, have inadequate personal retirement savings. This is particularly true for those who are self-employed or who work for small employers that lack access to convenient, automatic retirement savings. S.135 creates a Public Retirement Initiative, VTSaves, to provide employees not currently covered by a workplace retirement plan access to one at no cost to their employers. VTSaves will be transformational for Vermonters’ long-term financial well-being, allowing them the dignity and security they envisioned for retirement.
Vermont’s suicide rate is 50% higher than the national average. H.230 addresses Vermont’s high rate of suicide as a public health crisis by implementing several critical, evidence-based measures to prevent suicide by reducing access to lethal means, including a 72-hour waiting period to purchase a gun and requirement of safe storage of firearms in homes with children.
OPIOID PREVENTION & RECOVERY
As the opioid epidemic deepens, nearly every Vermonter is connected to someone who has died of an overdose. H.222 focuses on harm reduction and increasing access to life-saving treatment and services like Narcan, outreach workers, drug testing sites and supplies.
Vermont now leads the nation in progressive health care policy. H.89 establishes the highest possible level of legal protection for Vermont-based providers of reproductive and gender-affirming health care and the patients receiving that care. S.37 guarantees that our health care providers will not lose their licenses and certifications due to injurious laws in other states. It also requires pregnancy service centers to comply with Vermont’s laws and standards of practice, ensures the supply of medications used in reproductive care, and increases access to contraceptives on Vermont’s college campuses.
RIGHT TO REPAIR
More and more companies are putting up barriers—legal, physical, digital—that prevent consumers from fixing the products they own. For Vermont’s loggers and farmers, this means waiting days or even weeks for an authorized tech. H.81, the right to repair bill, requires original equipment manufacturers of agricultural and forestry equipment to make available—on fair and reasonable terms—the parts, tools, manuals, and diagnostic materials needed to fix their products. This bill passed the house and will be taken up by the Senate next year.