Town Meeting Legislative Update March 1, 2016
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. I have been busy since the beginning of the session working in my committee and with constituents on a variety of issues. Please feel free to contact me at any time with questions or suggestions. If you are able to visit the statehouse, please let me know and so I can help make your visit as productive as possible.
BUDGETING: The Governor has proposed a 5.768B budget. There are proposals to increase the mutual funds fee as well as proposals for new provider taxes for physicians and dentists. Despite repeated years of budget deficits, for the second year in a row I see reason to be cautiously optimistic that we are on a path to developing more rational budgets. This year the Speaker of the House and the Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson asked all committees to review the programs under their jurisdiction to assess how well they are meeting our state policy goals and metrics. Believe it or not, this systematic goal-oriented approach is not how the Governor’s proposed budgets have been evaluated in the past! I appreciate the collaborative nature of this endeavor as the Legislature looks to develop more sustainable budgeting practices. In depth information on the FY 17 budget can be found here: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/budget_fy2017.asp
EDUCATION: The response to Act 46 throughout the state has been one of larger then anticipated compliance. The school districts in our two supervisory unions, WSSU and WCSU, have been working on identifying best paths forward. Contrary to recent news reports, school choice as our school districts enjoy it is NOT under threat. However there is an effort to significantly EXPAND school choice, by allowing towns that have choice and towns that don’t have choice to merge school governance. This was not allowed prior to Act 46. Budget concerns: The Governor’s budget includes a 240K decrease in funding for the Agency of Education which is charged with assisting districts implementing Act 46 and a $1,000,000 increase to the Child Savings Account (529 plans). This new program was created last year as a privately funded program with the assumption that no public money would be dedicated to the fund.
HEALTH CARE: The functionality of Vermont’s federally mandated health insurance exchange continues to disappoint lawmakers, health care providers, business managers, insurers, and patients across the state. Despite concerted efforts to improve technology and timely response rates, the Exchange remains a serious concern. The House Health Care Committee has been looking at the function of the Vermont Health Connect (VHC) website in recent weeks. Many have called for an independent review of the website and an assessment of whether or not it can be salvaged. H.524, a bill introduced during the first week of the 2016 session, would seek a federal waiver from the requirement for the state to build the VHC website for small businesses. Instead, qualified employers would be allowed to continue to purchase qualified health benefit plans directly from a registered carrier. H.524 is widely supported and has passed both chambers.
INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR CLASSIFICATION: My committee has spent significant time working on ensuring correct classification of employees and on the definition of an Independant Contractor. Advocates for Labor, Employers and Independent Contractors want more surety in the labor market and to ensure workplace injuries are covered appropriately. We have spent weeks taking testimony and discussing language and plan to produce a bill when we come back from the Town Meeting break.
PAID SICK LEAVE: 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 beginning in 2017 and 2018.
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 24 hours between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2018, and to 40 hours in the ensuing year. The paid sick leave requirements will take effect on January 1, 2017, except for businesses with five or fewer employees for which it will take effect on January 1, 2018.
MARIJUANA: The Vermont Senate passed S.241 last week, a bill that legalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill will go to the House Judiciary Committee after Town Meeting Week. I have pledged to work hard to make sure any bill that may pass is as comprehensive and thorough as possible, but I remain extremely skeptical about our ability to pass comprehensive, thoughtful and appropriate language by the beginning of May 2016.
BROADBAND: I have been working with the communities in our district to conduct connectivity meetings with the Department of Public Service. These meetings are helping communities understand broadband programs that are slated for their town as well as areas of opportunity for public funding assistance. The next meeting is in Wardsboro on March 2nd at 7 PM at the town Hall and in Stamford on March 7th at 7:30 PM at the firehouse.
SOUTHERN VERMONT ZONE: The Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone Study Committee, appointed by the Governor and Legislature in the spring of 2015, presented its recommendations to a joint hearing of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee and to Speaker of the House Shap Smith in February. The plan, which was originally submitted to the Legislature in December, outlines a number of next steps and addresses telecommunications, workforce development, arts, culture and access to capital. I am proud to have been a lead sponsor of this legislation along with Rep. Oliver Olson of Londonderry, Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington and Senator Becca Balint. More information on the legislation, committee and final report are available at: http://www.brattleborodevelopment.com/economic-development/projects/sovermont-economic-development-zone
MAKING THE GILFEATHER TURNIP THE VERMONT STATE VEGETABLE: Wardsboro’s native Gilfeather Turnip has made a significant step towards being named the Vermont State Vegetable after passing the House in January. Congratulations to the Wardsboro students who have testified in support of this significant piece of Wardsboro history and the Friends of the Wardsboro Library for their continued advocacy! My fellow Windham County Legislator Rep. Carolyn Partridge, Chair of the House Agriculture and forest Products Committee brought in enough turnips for lunch in the the State House Cafeteria. The bill, H.65 has been introduced in the Senate and will likely be taken up in the next two months.
FOUR YEAR TERMS FOR GOVERNOR: Senator Diane Snelling has introduced language to amend the Vermont Constitution and have our Governors serve four year terms. One of the bigger challenges Vermont faces is the disincentive a two year term provides to creating and following long term strategies, and so I support this effort. Amending the constitution requires an affirmative vote of the Legislature in two different bienniums. So a vote this year, and a vote in 2017 or 2018, will allow for Vermonters to vote on the amendment in 2020.