Week ahead: paid family leave, ethics, property taxpayers and marijuana legalization

The coming week, presumably the final week of this year’s legislative session, is loaded with significant bills that will likely generate heated debate on the floor of the House.  My votes on these bills will be made after taking into consideration ALL of the language in the bill, as well as any amendments that may pass, any fiscal analysis that has been done, and what I am hearing from constituents.  I encourage you to monitor the daily calendar for potential legislative activity and to be in touch with concerns or information you want to ensure I’m considering.

H.196 PAID FAMILY LEAVE: The proposed legislation will direct Vermont to develop a state run family and medical leave insurance program for public and private sector employees in the state.  Enrollment by employees is mandatory, even if already covered by a paid family leave plan. The program is estimated to require $5.4M in administrative costs to create.  Self-employed individuals, small farmers with a payroll under $20,000, and federal employees are exempt and will neither pay into, nor collect, any benefit.

Qualifying conditions include:

  • Pregnancy, birth, adoption, foster (both maternal and paternal).
  • Serious illness or non-work related injury of the employee’s close family member.

greeneconomy

Maximum duration of paid benefit: Up to 6 weeks. Compensation: 80% wages up to a cap of 2x the livable wage ($13 per hour), as calculated by the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office.

Employees would have to have been employed for at least 12 of the previous 13 months to qualify for the insurance program.  The insurance program will be financed by a 0.141% payroll deduction (up to $150,000 in wages) paid for by the employee by default with the option for employers to pay all or a portion of the cost.

Employers would need to protect an employee’s job while they are out on qualifying leave unless:

  • The employee works for an employer with fewer than 10 employees.
  • The position was going to be terminated prior to the employee’s request,
  • The employee would have been laid off for reasons unrelated to the leave,
  • The employee performed a unique service and hiring a permanent employee to replace the employee was necessary to prevent substantial economic injury to the employer’s operation

The program would be administered by the VT Department of Labor (DOL).  If the DOL denies an employee claim for paid family leave, employees can appeal in court.

S.8 ETHICS BILL:  The bill requires increased financial disclosures by candidates for stock-photo-info-text-graphic-ethic-145461094elected office and executive branch employees and their spouses as well as a one year time lapse for former legislators or executive branch employees prior to employment as a lobbyist.  S.8 would also establish a State Ethics Commission to implement and enforce State ethics laws for current and former legislators, State Executive officers, and candidates for State and legislative office. The Commission would consist of five members and would be staffed by an Executive Director who would work half-time.  There is some concern by legislators about a potential invasion of privacy of spouses in this legislation; nonetheless, I wholeheartedly support the very modest ethics legislation passed out of the Government Operations Committee.

H.509 AMENDMENT TO SAVE PROPERTY TAXPAYERS 26 MILLION:  Vermont’s school employees receive health coverage through the Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI). Actuarial analysis of current VEHI plans indicates they have among the highest actuarial values of any health insurance plan offered in the State of Vermont. Premiums for VEHI plans are up to nine percent higher than those for a BlueCross BlueShield platinum plan offered through Vermont Health Connect.

In response, VEHI is replacing existing school employee health insurance plans with plans designed to be competitive with Vermont Health Connect.  This change means that, as of January 1, 2018, all school employees will be on new health care plans.  The new health plans cover the same health care services and networks, but they have lower premium costs. The savings associated with lower premiums is estimated to be as high as $75 million.

The new plans also create higher out-of-pocket exposure through deductibles and co-payment requirements. However, because the premiums for these plans are markedly lower, there are opportunities to keep employees’ out-of-pocket costs at current levels while also realizing up to $26 million in savings.

These new plans have made health insurance negotiations more complex. In at least 20 supervisory unions, the parties have declared impasse over the inability to negotiate the transition to new health insurance plans.  The State of Vermont is uniquely positioned to bargain health care benefits and coverage with school employees in a manner that ensures fairness and equity for school employees and delivers savings for property taxpayers.  Governor Scott, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont Superintendent’s Association have all come out publicly in favor of moving these negotiations to the state level.

Believe it or not, virtually every year the Vermont Legislature tries to enact property tax reforms.  Our education financing system is only able to deliver somewhat predictable outcomes on the tax collection side of the equation which the state controls.  Efforts to cut education spending at the state level are impossible to do if you want to know how individual students, classes or districts will be impacted (even though the Vermont imageConstitution arguably requires us to know those impacts) .  This impossibility is because spending is controlled at the individual district level.   The unique situation that has presented itself with the VEHI change in plans presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Vermont to act as a state to save ALL property taxpayers and to also know (for once!) that there will not be negative impacts to individual students, classes or districts as a result of that action.

Governor Scott has indicated he will veto the budget if the Legislature doesn’t find a way to capture these significant savings.  I have co-sponsored an amendment that would move teacher healthcare bargaining to the state level.  My final vote on the budget will be dependent on two things regarding this bargaining proposal:

  1. That we approve moving healthcare negotiations for school employees to the state level.
  2. That we return ALL of the savings achieved by taking this action to the taxpayers and do not use the savings to pay for additional programs/costs put into the education fund.  Both the Governor and the Senate have proposed putting additional programs into the education fund this session.


H.170 POSSESSION AND CULTIVATION OF MARIJUANA BY A PERSON 21 YEARS OF AGE OR OLDER 
The intent of this bill is to eliminate all penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for a person who is 21 years of age or older while retaining civil and criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts of marijuana and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana.  This bill allows for cultivation of up to three mature marijuana plants.  This act also retains civil penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21 years of age, which are the same as for possession of alcohol by a person under 21 years of age.  This bill does not allow for the regulation and taxing of marijuana sales.image

In November 2016, voters in Massachusetts and Maine approved possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use by adults 21 years of age or older.  In July 2018, both states will begin to allow retail sales of marijuana and marijuana-infused products through licensed stores.  Canada is expected to act favorably on legislation legalizing marijuana possession and cultivation for adults 18 years of age or older and federal administration officials have cited the summer of 2018 as the date at which licensed retail stores will begin selling marijuana and marijuana-infused products to the public.

Legalization and legal markets adjacent to Vermont will increase costs in Vermont enforcement of impaired driving; particularity in areas close to the MA border and with large amounts of tourism traffic; like our district.  Whether or not Vermont acts to legalize, there is no increased revenue to offset the costs associated with the expected increase in impaired driving, or youth prevention.

The Senate has passed a full tax and regulate with home grow policy.

The House is expected to vote on H.170 in this final week.  It has been improved to prohibit use in child care establishments (over 50% are home based).   I am currently working on an amendment to require a Commission be established to produce a full tax and regulate policy.  Regardless as to my personal belief on marijuana legalization, I do believe Vermont needs to be able to address the impacts of legislation in adjacent states and countries.

This last week will likely be very busy and also have periods of very little activity as we wait for the senate or conference committees to act.   The very best means of reaching me this week, in addition to emailing lhsibilia@gmail.com, is likely through text (please tell me who you are!) at 1-802-384-0233.  I may only receive late in the evening or very early morning.   Alternatively, you can call the Sergeant at Arms office at 802-828-2228 and ask them to have me call you.

AND, speaking of the Sergeant at Arms, a reminder for any students who will be entering eighth grade next year – you can apply to be a (paid!) legislative page next winter by September 30th 2017.  The details on this 6 week program can be found at http://legislature.vermont.gov/the-state-house/civic-education/become-a-legislative-page/ .  For any parents of students who are interested, I am happy to answer questions on the process and experience.  I would highly encourage mature 8th graders with an interest in civics and how our government works to apply!

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura H. Sibilia

 

 

 

 

 

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