Important progress overcoming CoverageCo vulnerabilities

Please see the important announcement from the Governor’s office about Grace Cottage Hospital – one of a number of critical community facilities facing public safety issues as a result of the cell vulnerabilities of the CoverageCo project.

Thank you to Speaker Johnson, Governor Scott and AT&T for their preliminary response to the impending public safety issue. I look forward to participating in continued efforts to find solutions for Twin Valley High School, Readsboro and a number of other rural Vermont areas currently served by CoverageCo.

GOVERNOR SCOTT, AT&T PARTNER TO ENHANCE COVERAGE AT GRACE COTTAGE HOSPITAL

Townshend, Vt. – Governor Phil Scott today announced the arrival of an AT&T Cell Site on Wheels (COW) at Grace Cottage Hospital, which will reinforce and enhance wireless network coverage for the hospital and the surrounding area.

The hospital and surrounding area were facing a loss of coverage due to a potential shutdown of wireless provider CoverageCo. The Governor worked with AT&T to ensure there would be no coverage gaps in the hospital’s critical operations.

Within five days of the Governor’s initial request, an AT&T COW arrived in the Grace Cottage parking lot. This equipment will provide more AT&T coverage than was previously available.

“Ensuring Grace Cottage Hospital does not see a lapse in wireless network coverage was a priority as we work to support the entire area impacted,” said Scott. “I appreciate AT&T’s partnership in identifying and providing this solution for the hospital and surrounding area, and the continued work of our Department of Public Service, Agency of Commerce, the Legislature and local officials on this issue. This kind of civic-minded cooperation is commendable and essential to addressing challenges like these.”

Grace Cottage Hospital and Townshend are new coverage areas for AT&T. In addition to the COW, AT&T has plans for a permanent cell site in Townshend as part of the company’s FirstNet nationwide first responder network, which benefits public safety and citizens alike.

“We were happy to work with Governor Scott and be able to quickly respond to this need for coverage in a critical area,” said Patricia Jacobs, President of AT&T New England. “In addition to the immediate coverage provided by the COW, AT&T is committed to further reinforcing and enhancing coverage for this area through FirstNet and supporting public safety efforts in whatever way we can.”

Scott sought assistance with the Grace Cottage Hospital site when it appeared that the CoverageCo small cell network would shut down at the beginning of April. Beginning in 2012, CoverageCo has been under contract with the State of Vermont to build a wireless network of small cell sites in rural areas, completing 160 of a planned 500 nodes over the past four years. However, in the face of mounting management difficulties, CoverageCo’s small cell network in Vermont may shut down, jeopardizing cell coverage along rural roadways in some of Vermont’s most remote areas, as well as for some school facilities, public safety outlets and Grace Cottage Hospital.

“We’ve been working diligently to find reasonable and sustainable pathways to preserve the gains made in these rural areas, and we are grateful to AT&T and the many partners who’ve joined us in this effort,” said Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.

Tierney added that addressing the compelling and complex issue of expanding cell coverage in Vermont’s hard-to-reach areas will remain a priority for the Department. “CoverageCo is a small private enterprise that has taken a run at the large economic challenge of bringing cell service to parts of rural Vermont where a sustainable business model has yet to materialize,” she continued. “We will continue to explore all reasonable options to help find an enduring and affordable solution for these communities.”

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2018 Session – Acts to reduce violence in our schools and communities

During the Legislative Session there are typically three different groups of eighth grade pages that rotate in for six-week terms to the statehouse.  The pages are a group of students from all backgrounds and areas of our state who carry messages back and forth to legislators from their constituents and other legislators.  This year’s second group of pages finished their work this past Friday.  They started six weeks earlier on February 13th.  Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson noted the historical nature of their term in her comments prior to weekend adjournment.  This group of pages first week was remarkably violence filled, even by today’s standards.  On Wednesday, February 14th 17 students in Parkland Florida were killed with another 14 injured in a mass shooting event and on Friday, February 16th a Fair Haven, Vermont high school student was arrested following a tip that he had been planning for two years to cause mass casualties.  What followed in the ensuing weeks began with a request by the governor and legislative leadership to have an expansive conversation on what could be done to improve the safety of Vermont schools, reduce community violence and protect Vermonter’s rights.  It ended after a week filled with historic votes in the Vermont House and Vermont Senate.

At public hearings that filled the statehouse, committee rooms as well as a public hearing in Whitingham, Vermonters asked us to take steps to secure school buildings, address undiagnosed and untreated mental health and drug abuse issues, and give families, law enforcement and the courts more tools to keep firearms out of the hands of those who should not have them.  Here are the actions that the legislature has taken, and that the governor is expected to sign.

Secure Buildings:

  • Creates a felony charge for the possession of a firearm on school ground with intent to harm.
  • $4 million in funds to the School Safety and Security Grant Program. Schools will be able to apply for grants to implement safety measures such as video monitoring and surveillance equipment, intercom systems, window coverings, exterior and interior doors, locks, and perimeter security measures. Another $1 million in federal funds is expected to be leveraged on this program.

Address untreated mental health and drug issues:

  • The Agency of Human Services will receive funds to increase their capacity to provide mental health services to relieve the backlog in our local hospital emergency rooms, increase the number of beds for therapeutic placement, as well as create a new psychiatric residential treatment facility at the Woodside juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex

Keep firearms out of the hands of those who should not have them:

  • Puts current practice into law giving the judge discretion to require any individual who is a risk to themselves or others to turn over weapons as of condition of pretrial release.
  • Empowers family members and law enforcement to seek an Extreme Risk Protection Order, a court order temporarily restricting a person’s access to guns when they pose a danger to self or others (commonly called a ‘Red Flag’ bill).
  • Provides protection to a victim of domestic assault by allowing a law enforcement officer, in certain circumstances, to remove a firearm from the scene if the removal is necessary for the protection of the officer, the victim, or another person.
  • Expanding background check requirements to unlicensed (or private) firearm sales, including a provision that provides immunity to Federal Firearm Licensees that provide background check services in unlicensed (private) sales;
  • Requiring purchasers of long guns to be 21 years or older, unless they have taken a hunter safety course (which is already required to obtain a hunting license), are a veteran, are a law enforcement official, or are in the military. This puts long guns on par with handguns. Under federal law one must be at least 21 to purchase handguns.
  • Bans the purchase and possession of bump stocks effective October 1, 2018; and
  • Bans the purchase (not possession) of high-capacity magazines while excluding antiques, replicas and long guns with lever or bolt action. Possession of high-capacity magazines that were purchased before the enactment date is grandfathered.

I am a strong supporter of our entire Constitution including the Second Amendment.  As such, I worked extremely hard to understand the legal provisions and constitutionality of the bills, read about supreme court cases, met with the attorney general’s office, spoke with supporters and opponents of various pieces of legislation, attended and hosted public hearings with leaders from our schools, communities and from local and state law enforcement, and at the very end worked with folks from our valley, legislative attorneys, the speaker’s office and members of the governor’s staff to develop amendments that were needed to strike an appropriate balance between Vermonter’s rights and public safety.

For some we will have done too little and for others too much.  Our individual Constitutional rights are not absolute.  Our courts have allowed for reasonable regulations when one individual’s rights have encroached upon another individual’s rights. While nothing we do can guarantee 100% safety for our students or are citizens, I believe we have found a balanced way to improve the odds and respect Vermonters rights.  Thank you to all in our Valley who supported or opposed this legislation that took the time to engage with us to learn, to research, to attend hearings, speak on the phone, offer technical knowledge, or who listened to the hours of debate on public radio.  That is how a free people govern themselves in a democratic society.

The session is rapidly drawing to a close and an early May adjournment is expected.  There are very significant education, income tax, telecommunications, minimum wage, family leave laws that have also been being developed and debated during the past 6 weeks.  I look forward to providing additional updates in the coming weeks.

Please stay in touch with questions about any of the legislation noted above of if you need assistance.  lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us or 802-384-0233

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

Current status of S.55

Here is the current status of the bill:

The bill is on the Senate Calendar for tomorrow (Thursday).  The Senate can concur, concur with further amendment or ask for a conference committee with the House to settle the differences.

Here is what the bill currently does:

  • Expanding background check requirements to unlicensed (or private) firearm sales, including a provision that provides immunity to Federal Firearm Licensees that provide background check services in unlicensed (private) sales;
  • Requiring purchasers of long guns to be 21 years or older, unless they have taken a hunter safety course (which is already required to obtain a hunting license), are a veteran, are a law enforcement official, or are in the military. This puts long guns on par with handguns. Under federal law one must be at least 21 to purchase handguns.
  • Banning the purchase and possession of bump stocks effective October 1, 2018; and
  • Banning the purchase of high-capacity magazines while excluding antiques, replicas and long guns with lever or bolt action. Possession of high-capacity magazines that were purchased before the enactment date is grandfathered.

House Journal for March 27th, 2018 which captures all of the amendments and roll call votes.

If you have questions please email or call.

History and my votes:

The House voted on 2nd reading for S.55 on Friday March 23rd.  The vote to support the bill was 85-59.  I did not support the bill because it created a ban on possession and transfer of high capacity magazines.  I spent much of last Saturday detailing the various provisions and how I voted which you can read here.  I voted no on the whole bill on Friday.

The House voted on 3rd reading for S.55 on Tuesday March 28th.  The vote was 89-54.  I spoke with a number of constituents over the weekend about the problematic magazine section.  I worked with a number of my House colleagues, the Judiciary Committee, our attorneys and the Speaker of the House to amend that provision.  I sent all of the new amendments to a few folks opposed to the bill and asked for more information about how they would be impacted.  We still had questions about transfers.  After 9 pm on Monday night, I had conversations with constituents opposed to the Friday version of the bill, our legislative attorneys and the Speaker to confirm transfer of magazines would still be possible.  I voted yes on the whole bill on Tuesday and sent out this explanation as to why:

As expected, S.55 has passed 89-54. There were 14 amendments on the floor. Some were handed out in paper. They will all be printed out in the journal tomorrow. I look forward to providing a detailed explanation of all the changes to the bill. This is the statement I just read on the floor.

Madame Speaker,

When we left here last week, this bill contained private sale background checks and raising the age for purchase of a firearm by three years, measures that I believe are in keeping with both the Second amendment and my oath of office, and that go hand in hand with Extreme Risk Protection orders, a measure I support. It also contained measures on high capacity magazines that would have made a number of my gun owners criminals upon passage, and so I could not and did not support the bill. The significant work that has been done over the weekend to protect my gun owners has changed my vote. While nothing we do will guarantee 100% safety for our students or are citizens, I believe we have found a balanced way to improve the odds.

No guns are being made illegal by this bill, all high capacity magazines that Vermonters currently own they can keep, Vermonters of all ages will continue to be able to possess and use a firearm.

Fear is a powerful force. Ignorance combined with fear is dangerous. I want to thank all Vermonters who both supported and opposed this legislation that took the time to engaging with us to learn, to research, to be here with us in this building, on the phone, to listen on public radio, to testify here and at hearings around the state. This is how a free people govern themselves in a democratic society.

 

 

School safety and gun regulations votes

Thank you to all who attended the hearing Rep. Gannon and I held in Whitingham last week.  Thank you also to the law enforcement, school administrators, civic leaders, sportsman and gun regulation advocates who helped us plan an event we hoped all would feel comfortable sharing their views at.  Read more about the event here.

My constituent Stephanie Greene, who assisted in the planning and hosting of this event, posted an opinion piece on the importance of using your voice.

Prior to Town Meeting, the House voted on H.675 :

  • Puts current practice into law giving the judge discretion to require any individual who is a risk to themselves or others to turn over weapons as of condition of pretrial release.
  • Empowers family members and law enforcement to seek an Extreme Risk Protection Order, a court order temporarily restricting a person’s access to guns when they pose a danger to self or others (commonly called a ‘Red Flag’ bill).
  • Provides protection to a victim of domestic assault by allowing a law enforcement officer, in certain circumstances, to remove a firearm from the scene if the removal is necessary for the protection of the officer, the victim, or another person.
  • Creates a felony charge for the possession of a firearm on school ground with intent to harm.

The roll call vote on this bill was 104-29 in favor.  I voted yes on this bill.  The Extreme Risk Protection Order contained in this bill is the most effective measure we have been asked to consider to ensure firearms do not end up in the hands of those who should not have them.

In addition, this bill allows law enforcement to remove firearms at the scene of a domestic assault.  Last year I voted against this piece of the bill because I felt it violated an individuals right to due process.  Changes to this language include requiring arraignment within one business day.  In my discussions with the Vermont Attorney General’s office I learned that the courts have found an individual is not Constitutionally entitled to pre deprivation due process.  In simple terms, in certain cases where law enforcement believes there is an extreme and imminent risk, due process begins after your weapon is confiscated, not before.

I tried to live post the voting on S.55 yesterday and it looks like it was tough for folks to follow.  Here is a detailed explanation of what happened on the House floor yesterday, March 23rd, with S.55.

I want to let those who elected me know that I take all parts of the Constitution very seriously.  In addition to the right to bear arms and the right of the people to petition, that also includes the separation of church and state, the right to assemble – as our youth are courageously doing today – and freedom of the press.

It is important to me to help people engage with their government, and so I work to ensure you know how to reach me, how I vote, how to read bills under consideration, and in yesterday’s instance to attempt to report what was happening from the floor.  I invite each of you to come to the State House and spend a day with me and see how our government functions.  The State House is also available to you without visiting me.  If we are in session, you have a right to be in the building watching as we attend to the people’s business.

Running for office is not a decision to take lightly.  Particularly if you are a parent with a school age child, particularly if you are not wealthy, particularly if you are not affiliated with a party.   I decided to run four years ago because I did not think our voice was being heard in Montpelier.  I’ve worked hard to help individuals and groups interact more successfully with government.  It is impossible for me to vote more then one way, so inevitably, on every vote, I have disappointed some and pleased others. If you are dissatisfied with the overall service of your legislators, the Vermont Secretary of State website contains the rules and links to forms needed to run for office. Competition in a democracy is a great thing.

To those in my district who are posting death threats and threats of bodily harm to me and/or to my fellow House and Senate Members, here are a few things to consider:  in addition to the fact that you are creating a public record of your intent, your children, their children, and my children are reading those comments.

It seems to now be acceptable for persons acting in fear to not take the time to research and cross check facts prior to taking to social media. I’d like to suggest an alternative.  Let’s turn down the emotion and rhetoric and try engaging with the information and facts which are being made available – before commenting.

Fear is contagious.  So is courage.

Thank you to all who have engaged and are engaging on these issues.  Please do stay in touch, please do ask questions, please do let me know what you are thinking about specific issues and please do let me know if you need assistance.  lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us or 802-384-0233

 

School Safety Forum planned for March 18th in Whitingham

Deerfield Valley Residents and employees invited to attend

A significant discussion about school safety is happening throughout Vermont and the Deerfield Valley following the Florida and Fair Haven, VT school incidents.  There is a sense of urgency to the conversations happening in Montpelier, led by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Pro Tem, which includes considering new safety measures as well as legislation increasing regulation of guns. Governor Scott has issued a memo detailing ideas he would like the Legislature to consider in order to improve school safety.   Deerfield Valley State Representatives Laura Sibilia and John Gannon want to ensure residents, students, staff, and law enforcement in the Deerfield Valley communities are able to weigh in.

A School Safety Forum for residents and employees who work in the towns of Dover, Halifax, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Readsboro, Wardsboro, Whitingham and Wilmington will be held on Sunday March 18th from 4 pm to 6 pm at Twin Valley Middle High School 4299 Vermont Route 100 Whitingham, VT.    Gannon and Sibilia are hosting the forum and met with school administrators, board members, and staff, law enforcement and community representatives to plan the event.

The purpose of the forum is for those who live and work in the 9 towns to be able to share ideas about possible legislative and non-legislative solutions to school safety. This will be a moderated discussion.  To allow as many people as possible to speak, individuals who live and work in the 9 towns will be given three minutes to speak and share their thoughts on school safety.

Questions from residents or employees of the Deerfield Valley on the upcoming forum can be sent to Rep. John Gannon at jgannon@leg.state.vt.us or Rep. Laura Sibilia at lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us

Rep. Sibilia 2018 Town Meeting Update

Dear Friends and Neighbors: It’s an honor to represent you in our State Legislature and to communicate the activities of the General Assembly to you in this Town Meeting update.  This report is also available online at www.laurasibiliavt.com where it contains live links to supporting documents and sponsored legislation.  Please stay in touch on issues of importance to you: (802)384-0233 or lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us

PROPOSED INCOME TAX CHANGES: H.911 Lowers all income tax rates by 0.2% and collapses top two income tax brackets, creates a VT Standard Deduction, equal to $6,000 for single filers and $12,000 for married couples, creates a Vermont Personal Exemption equal to $4,150 per exemption, expands the Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit, from 32% of the Federal EITC to 35%, creates a 5% tax credit for the total amount of charitable contributions up to $10,000. Taxpayers who contribute up to $10,000 will be eligible for a $500 tax credit, provides tax relief to Vermonters receiving Social Security benefits, taxable Social Security benefits below $45,000 for single filers and below $60,000 for married filers will be 100% exempt from State income tax.

EDUCATION and PROPERTY TAXES:

  • Education Finance Proposal: 911 Adds a School Income Tax Surcharge, built upon the reformed income tax system (noted under Proposed Income Tax Changes). Rates are 0.1% of lowest bracket, 0.5% for middle brackets, and 1% on highest income brackets; Raises approximately $59 million for education; Uses the $59 million to reduce average homestead property tax rates (on both property and income) from projected FY19 rates (average reduction of $0.15); Cost containment: future tax rates will rise faster for all spenders; Non-residential property tax rate: stays at current law = $1.591; Homeowner rebate: split into two components: education and municipal; Renter Rebate: maintained and transferred to General Fund; Separates municipal and education tax bills; General Fund transfer to Ed Fund repealed; Dedicates to the EF: 100% of sales tax and 25% of rooms and meals; Transfers adult education, flexible pathways, community high school of VT, renter rebate to GF ($21.5 million); Repeals excess spending penalty. The excess spending penalty is replaced.  I am concerned that this proposal doesn’t address the current lack of accountability to businesses and nonresidential taxpayers, that it doesn’t address the substantial inequities that exist for our students, and I am deeply concerned that the replacement cost containment measure will add insult to injury for rural students while failing to capture significant needed savings throughout the system.
  • Weighting study: A student Weighting Study passed by last year’s House, Senate and signed into law by the Governor has not yet been conducted.  The administration made a request for 300K in this year’s budget adjustment to conduct the study which has been turned down by the House and Senate.  The administration is required to conduct the study and has communicated that they have begun pulling together some of the pieces.  The House Education Committee has included the study and funding in it’s recently passed Special Education bill. An accurate weighting (equalizing) of students is critical for sustained property tax relief that reflects the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for equity.
  • VT/MA Interstate district: Kudos to the Stamford School Board and Interstate Committee for driving to Montpelier in a snow storm to attend an important hearing in front of the House and Senate Education Committees on their Interstate School District proposal with Clarksburg, MA. This proposal has been developed in response to Act 46 requirements.  Several elements of support for this proposal continue to move forward in both the House and Senate.  The proposal has been awarded financial support from the MA Legislature.

HEALTHCARE: The House Healthcare Committee advanced a bill H.696 out of its Committee on Friday that requires individuals to be covered by insurance and establishes a working group to report on administration and enforcement of the Individual Mandate requirement.

SALIVA TESTING: The House voted in favor of allowing law enforcement officers to administer a saliva test.  The test will indicate the presence of some drugs, including marijuana.  A person is driving under the influence of alcohol, can be asked to take a Breathalyzer test to measure their blood alcohol level. There’s no roadside test to determine if a person is impaired because of the use of certain drugs. If an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that a person is driving impaired, they can be asked to do a series of roadside tests to screen for sobriety.  If a driver failed those tests, and the officer didn’t think that alcohol was a factor, if this bill passes they can ask the driver to take a saliva test. This test would not measure an impairment level, but would confirm the presence of certain drugs in the driver’s system.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: 

  • VUSF Increase: The House passed a bill to raise more than $6 million to build out broadband infrastructure across the state. 582, would temporarily increase a fee on telecommunications services from 2 percent to 2.5 percent for four years, ending in 2022.  The money raised from the increase go to a fund that distributes grants to internet service providers that expand networks in underserved areas.  Readsboro and Stamford town internet committees each have projects that have recently been awarded VUSF funds.  The House approved the measure on a vote of 109-27.  The measure is now in the Senate Finance Committee.
  • Net Neutrality: Two bills in my Committee are seeking to ensure Vermonters have Net Neutral internet access. Senate bill 289, was approved by a vote of 23-5, and requires internet service providers to certify compliance with net-neutrality provisions as a precondition for winning state contracts. I am one of the lead sponsors on House bill, H.680, takes a wider approach to regulation, requiring internet service providers doing business in Vermont to apply to the Public Utility Commission for net-neutrality certification. Governor Scott signed an Executive Order similar to the Senate bill, but with flexibility for State Agencies to grant exceptions to some internet service providers.

PAID FAMILY LEAVE: Passed the House last year.  If approved by the Senate, and signed into law by the Governor, employees over age 18, who work at least 18 hours a week, who do not work for the federal government, who work more than 20 weeks for an employer in a 12-month period, will legally have access to paid sick leave. Covered employees will accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 52 hours they work. An employer may require a one-year waiting period before an employee may take accrued sick time. The employer may restrict the amount of sick leave that may be taken to and to 40 hours a year.

MINIMUM WAGE INCREASE:  Passed the Senate last month.  If approved by the House, and signed into law by the Governor, employers would be required to increase hourly pay every year through 2024. The first increase would come January 1, 2019, with a minimum wage increase from $10.50 to $11.50 an hour.

MARIJUANA: Recreational use of marijuana and a policy of limited “home grow” was legalized on January 22nd.  I support taxing and regulating marijuana use like we do with alcohol and tobacco.  This was not a tax and regulate bill and therefore I voted against this bill.  Thank you to all who contacted me regarding this legislation.  I expect Vermont will be working to adjust marijuana legislation on an annual basis for the next decade.   Details of the bill can be found on my website.

GUN SAFETY LEGISLATION:  There is a significant discussion about school safety happening throughout Vermont, and a sense of urgency to the conversations happening in Montpelier, led by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Pro Tem.   A memo from Governor Scott to legislators outlining proposals he is open to working on can be found on my website.  New school safety measures as well as legislation increasing regulation of guns are proposed.  Rep. Gannon and Rep. Sibilia are working with school, law enforcement and community groups a public forum for residents, students or employees who work in the Deerfield Valley on Sunday March 18th from 4-6 pm at the Twin Valley Middle/High School in Whitingham.

Local Reps planning school safety forum

For Immediate Release:

Local Reps planning school safety forum

Rep. John Gannon and Rep. Laura Sibilia have been contacted by and are having conversations with a number of individuals in the Deerfield Valley following the Florida and Fair Haven, VT school incidents.  There is a significant discussion about school safety happening throughout Vermont.

The Governor has stated he wants to “determine if we are doing all we can to prevent violence.”

The Speaker of the House has stated, “If we think school shootings are something that need to be changed, and I do, then we all need – at the local, state, and federal level – to come up with a plan that fits our values.”

Their is a sense of urgency to the conversations happening in Montpelier, led by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Pro Tem, which includes considering new safety measures as well as legislation increasing regulation of guns. Rep. Gannon and Rep. Sibilia are working to ensure residents, students, staff, and law enforcement in the Deerfield Valley communities are able to weigh in. Planning for a public forum in mid-March is underway.

The public forum will be for the purposes of learning what people are thinking about regarding our schools and safety and what additional actions we can or should take to protect students and the Second Amendment.

Representatives from the WCSU and WSWSU Supervisory Unions have been invited to participate in the planning of the forum. An additional announcement will be made finalizing the date and place of the agenda after Town Meeting.

Questions from residents of the Deerfield Valley on the upcoming school safety forum can be sent to Rep. John Gannon at jgannon@leg.state.vt.us or Rep. Laura Sibilia at lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us

Education Finance Public Hearing this Wednesday 2/19

Public Hearing on Potential Changes to the Education Funding System
Wednesday February 21, 2018, 4:00-6:00 p.m.in Room 11
The House Committee on Ways and Means will hold a public hearing on

CTCT-20170330_144109_0

 Potential Changes to the Education Funding System on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. The hearing will be held in Room 11 on the ground floor of the State House in Montpelier from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Materials outlining the potential changes to the education funding system will be available and may be requested ahead of the hearing by emailing Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us.
Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 3:45 p.m. on the day of the hearing. Each witness is limited to three minutes to testify. The Committee will also accept written testimony.
For information about the format of this event or to submit written testimony, contact Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us.
If you plan to attend and need accommodations to participate, please contact Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us by February 20, 2018 so that any accommodations can be made in advance.
Information on the proposal can be found here.
The Ways and Means Committee is expending a lot of time and effort to craft a solution to the perennial cry of high property taxes and should be commended.
I am concerned that this proposal doesn’t address the current lack of accountability to businesses and non residential taxpayers, that it doesn’t address the substantial inequities that exist for our students, and I am deeply concerned that the cost containment measure will add insult to injury for rural students while failing to capture significant needed savings throughout the system.  Nonetheless, I am listening and looking for opportunities to make positive changes for students and taxpayers.  Please be in touch if you submit testimony or plan to testify in person.
Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

Legislative update – January 28, 2018

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Photo by Jim Therrien from the January 5th Bennington Banner story “What’s important to local lawmakers in 2018”

The 2018 Vermont Legislative Session began on January 3rd.  We’ve already seen marijuana legalized in the Session and it looks like we will be spending a considerable amount of time on education cost, delivery and equity. I was pleased that both both House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s opening comments and Governor Phil Scott’s subsequent State of the State address noted the need to ensure rural Vermont is included in economic and community growth, and each made promises regarding addressing the current state of Vermont education – the Speaker on funding and the Governor on spending.  The critical piece that binds those two together – equity for all students – will be significantly served by the completion of the weighting study passed last year.  Here are links to both opening addresses:

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Recreational use of marijuana and a policy of limited “home grow” was legalized on January 22nd.  Given the increased legalization surrounding us, particularly in MA, as well as increased public safety and education costsimage associated with that legislation, I am in support of taxing and regulating marijuana use like we do with alcohol and tobacco.  This is not a tax and regulate bill and therefore I voted against this bill.  Thank you to all who contacted me regarding this legislation.  I expect Vermont will be working to adjust marijuana legislation on an annual basis for the next decade.   Details of the bill can be found here: Marijuana Rules signed into law on January 22, 2018 and effective July 1, 2018

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fy19overviewcover2019 Vermont State Budget detail

Community-Based Public Hearings on the Governor’s recommended FY 2019 State Budget

The Vermont House and Senate Committees on Appropriations are seeking public input on the Governor’s Recommended FY2019 State Budget and will hold community-based public hearings on Monday, February 12, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the following 5 locations.

  • Johnson – Johnson State College
  • Rutland City – Rutland Public School
  • St. Johnsbury – St. Johnsbury House
  • St. Albans City – St. Albans City School
  • Winooski – Community College of Vermont

Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. in Montpelier.

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Reforming our education system for students and taxpayers:

I wrote an OpEd in December which outlined the challenges we are facing with Screenshot 2018-01-27 17.32.26regard to a proposed 7-9% increase in property taxes.  Here is what has been transpiring with regard to the situation since the beginning of the Session:

  • Weighting Study – the Weighting Study passed by last year’s House, Senate and signed into law by the Governor has not yet been conducted.  The administration made a request for 300K in this year’s budget adjustment to conduct the study which has been turned down by the House and will likely be turned down by the Senate.  The administration is required to conduct the study.  An accurate weighting (equalizing) of students is critical for sustained property tax relief that reflects the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for equity.
  • Governor’s List – Governor Scott issued a memo to the legislature outlining 18 possible cost containment initiatives to work on collaboratively with the legislature.  Without accurate weights, I’m opposed to a number of these initiatives, but not to all.   Proposals to cap per pupil spending or implement staffing ratios need accurate weights and scaling in order to not harm students and achieve the most savings.
  • Ways and Means – has been looking at the current funding source for education and developing a proposal to move towards lowering property taxes by shifting to partial income tax, as well as replacing the general fund transfer and separating municipal and .  The latest working draft can be found here and will likely undergo numerous edits prior to ever coming to the floor.  Keep an eye on updated work the Ways and Means Committee is doing here.

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New bills I have introduced and roll call votes I have taken can be found here.  Please let me know if you have questions about either. Legislation I have been working on in January:

Stamford, VT and Clarksburg, MA Interstate District – Next month representatives

from the two districts will travel to the statehouse for a joint hearing with members of the House and Senate Education Committees on developing legislation to form the VT/MA interstate agreement.

H.581 and H.582 – I’ve introduced two bills to increase funding for build out of last mile service.  H.582 temporarily increases the Vermont Universal Service Fee by one half of one percent to raise approximately $1.5M annually to be used in partnership with providers and municipalities to build our telecommunications infrastructure in undeserved areas.  This proposed increase was supported by roughly 75% of the 200+ respondents to my 2018 Legislative Survey and has encountered limited opposition during testimony to date.

Net Neutrality – The recent history on this fight centers around a 2015 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote to re-classify internet service providers (ISPs) as Common Carriers and a December 2017 FCC voted to reclassify ISPs as information service providers; unregulated in a competitive market. In addition, in 2017 the FCC prohibited states from regulating Net Neutrality.

  • A common carrier is classified by what they do.  Landline telephones and utilities are common carriers.
  • Common carriers have to serve everyone who wants to use the service.  Everyone has the same right to pay to use the service.
  • Common carriers have to charge everyone the same price for the same service.

In our district, and in much of rural Vermont, it’s difficult to recognize the benefits of an unregulated competitive telecommunications market. The more that modern life relies on being connected for healthcare, education, safety, the less acceptable it is for our rural citizens to not have access because of the lack of a competitive market. For this reason I began working on a Net Neutrality bill prior to the session. We are currently taking testimony on H.680. IF you are interested in testifying, please contact me.

Sexual Harassment – I’ve also co-sponsored H.707 which would prohibit employee agreements that prevent an employee from disclosing sexual harassment or seeking rights or remedies related to sexual harassment. The bill requires settlements to be registered with the attorney general and other provisions and has broad support from all parties and independents in the House.

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The Vermont House Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWnG) held a public hearing in Montpelier on November 7th.  Below are four main areas that received a lot of input and provide a clear focus for legislative initiatives:

  • Extend high speed internet/broadband to every corner of Vermont.
  • Assist small towns and villages to establish community water and wastewater systems.
  • Strengthen the market and demand for Vermont forestry products.
  • Strengthen the integration of Career Technical Education in secondary schools

I co-chair this group which is comprised of House members from across the state and representing every party and independents.  This group meets weekly to track legislative initiatives related to these areas.

 

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Public Hearing regarding Vermont Firearms Laws

The Senate Committee on Judiciary of the Vermont General Assembly is holding a public hearing about Vermont firearms laws on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.  The hearing will be held at the State House in Montpelier, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The hearing will be held in the House Chamber, second floor.  Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 4:30 PM.  Witness testimony will be limited to three minutes.  The Committee will also accept written testimony.  Due to space constraints, please consider viewing the live feed channel and submitting written testimony. https://youtu.be/vhfhCLYrgNk

For information about the format of this event or to submit written testimony, e-mail testimony@leg.state.vt.us

If you plan to attend and need accommodations to participate, please contact testimony@leg.state.vt.us by January 20th, so that we can arrange those in advance

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Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

 

Without new state funding mechanism, Vermonter’s property taxes will keep rising

It’s the holiday season and for many a time of year filled with traditions among families and communities.  In Vermont we also have a unique tradition that kicks off the month of December.  December 1st brings about the annual receipt of the Vermont Tax Commissioner’s statutorily required letter to the legislature regarding anticipated property tax rates.  This event, while not anticipated with as much fondness as other time honored religious and secular conventions, is a predictable, if not pleasant, opening salvo in the annual education property tax public debate.  This year Vermonters are possibly facing a .09 increase. In addition to cumulative expected increases across the state in education spending, tax rates will see the effects of the Act 46 incentives (which will be even higher next year) and the effects of the compromise position reached last year regarding the Governor’s proposal to move teachers healthcare negotiations to the state level which resulted in a budget veto.  Rather then shutting down government or seizing the unique opportunity for parity and accountability and the future ability to fairly manage healthcare costs, the legislature and administration agreed to use reserves and stabilization funds for a one year tax reduction.

The angst and anger resulting from this projected increase is understandable and predictable.  But it’s really not enough to simply continue to be outraged by the property tax.  It’s important to dig in and understand how this situation is happening. It’s not simple.  And it’s no longer acceptable to beg off being part of the solution because it’s “too complicated.”  There are great resources on the Department of Education, the Department of Taxes and the Vermont School Boards Association that explain the mechanics of education finance.

For added perspective, it’s important to also acknowledge that we have a major demographic crisis underway in much of Vermont in terms of declining workforce population which also manifests as declining student population. This crisis is creating a huge stress on our employers, our municipalities and communities all across the state.  The effects of this crisis are easiest to see in rural Vermont, and also shine a light on the myth that equity exists for Vermont’s students and taxpayers.  We have a state mandated education finance system for which no single entity is responsible for students or accountable to taxpayers, that can not scale equitably, resulting in taxes going up statewide and a education structure teetering on the edge of violating Brigham when it comes to student opportunity. (NOTE: First lawsuit filed.) On top of all this, our entire education governance system is in the midst of a complete reorganization through the aforementioned Act 46.

For decades lawmakers and both Democratic and Republican administrations have allowed themselves to believe that equal per pupil spending is an appropriate measure of equity of opportunity. Think about that. Our laws and funding mechanism are constructed to strongly encourage a classroom of 10 students to spend the same per pupil as a classroom of 20 students. Not the same per classroom, the same per pupil. Believe it or not, just about every year the Vermont Legislature, with urging from whoever the Vermont Governor is that year, undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.” It has almost always revolved around creating downward pressure on per pupil spending. The problem is this, we simply are not able to equally appropriate all of Vermont’s students into equally sized schools. And so almost every year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, and that frequently cause the most upheaval in Vermont’s most rural districts.

The “tragedy of the commons” describes a situation where a shared-resource system with individual users acting independently – according to their own self-interest – behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The shared resource at play in this situation is the statewide education property tax. The notion that that resource is controlled locally and a district’s budget decisions only impact that district’s voters is a fallacy. Every budget vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.  For example, business and non resident’s education property tax rates have nothing to do with local budget decisions happening in their communities.  And while Vermont residents have the ability to control much of their local districts per pupil spending, they do not control all of the other factors that go into determining their local education property tax rates.  We have a statewide education/accountability/tax problem that cannot be solved locally.

The reason for the continued inability for any single district, lawmaker, governor or taxpayer to be able to deal with this tax increase is the current education finance mechanism which relies on ALL Vermont property tax payers to support hundreds of individual LOCAL decisions. There is no single year, silver bullet that fixes this without harming kids, despite the annual cries to simply wave a magic wand at the state level and adjust student staff ratios or mandate the lowering of per pupil spending. For those solutions to be effective, and more importantly constitutional, we’d have to have evenly distributed population, evenly distributed property wealth, evenly spaced out school buildings, equitable access to telecommunications, equitable access to public transportation, equitable access to school choice. And flat roads.   We do not have those things and we never will.  But our current education funding mechanism presumes most of those things exist.  And while the current funding mechanism serves large student and voter population centers, it is not serving rural Vermont students and it definitely is not providing Vermont taxpayers with a transparent means of understanding the return they are getting on their significant investment.   We need a new education financing mechanism.  One that is able to provide statewide accountability for all of Vermont’s students and all of Vermont’s taxpayers.