Sibilia: Final report of the 2019 Vermont Legislative Session

Some may know my father passed away last month. As a result, I missed several votes at the end of the session which I will discuss below.


Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson confers with Republican Leader Patti McCoy, Assistant Republican Leader Rob LeClair, Progressive Leader Robin Chesnut-Tagerman and independent Ben Jickling as the House finished its business and adjourned last month.

The legislature finished it’s work at the end of May and has adjourned until January. Disagreements about how to pay for an accelerated increase in the minimum wage and mandatory paid family leave proposals – while also minimizing additional pressure on Vermont’s rural small businesses – was ongoing through the session and a large contributor to a one week extension of the session.

While I missed the vote on the House’s minimum wage proposal, I had been actively working with several other independents and moderate Democrats on proposals to help reduce the number of job losses that would result from the accelerated increase (called the dis-employment factor), to slow the rate of increase, provide for a pause in the accelerated rate of increase in the case of recession, and to credit – rather then penalize – employers who are paying minimum wage but also providing tuition assistance, childcare, health insurance or room and board. The proposal that ultimately came to the floor did not go far enough to protect our smallest businesses in our smallest towns and so, had I been present to vote, I would have voted noas I did on the paid family leave bill that passed the House in April.

After spending a week past the expected end of session continuing to debate with the Senate on resolving differences in the accelerated increasing of the minimum wage and the mandatory paid family leave, the Speaker of the House asked the Senate to either choose from five different previously discussed combinations of the two bills or adjourn and take the bills up next year. Neither proposal was agreed to by both the House and Senate and so both bills will likely be taken back up next year.

The Governor has vetoed several bills, but no veto session has been scheduled to try and override those vetoes.

Raising the minimum wage and paid family leave are long standing labor priorities of the Democratic Party and are debated in Vermont and nationally every year. These proposals make the most sense in Vermont’s most densely populated Chittenden County where there is a virtuous economic cycle (more jobs, more people, more housing demand, increased competition for healthcare, services, telecommunications, driving increased tax revenue which supports more jobs, more people, more service choices…) driving up the cost of living. While I remain open to modest action on both minimum wage and paid family leave, as a representative from a rural area whose economy is struggling – like many rural areas in America – I remain opposed to the length of time and energy that the Vermont legislature dedicates to these initiatives annually. This matches the predominant opinions in my district who consistently rank these issues as among the lowest when asked what the legislature should be focusing its time on.

I have included in this final update some modest progress achieved on issues that our district consistently ranks as the most important to focus on: telecommunications, healthcare, addressing the opiate crisis and working to protect Vermonters privacy and data.


Budget and Tax Bills

H.542 An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government passed by a voice vote. The Joint fiscal Office maintains detailed records and data on the budget which you can assess throughout the year here

These are the highlights from this year’s budget – which I voted to support:

Addresses Climate Change: Carbon emissions are a major factor in our planet’s warming climate and changing weather. Reducing fossil fuel use for heat and transportation are the largest ways for Vermonter’s to reduce carbon. This year various proposals added approximately $17M overall to Weatherization Programs. The budget also adds $2.9 million for Electric Vehicles and charging stations. Many of these proposals come through my committee where I continually question and elevate the need for reaching rural Vermonters with these important government supported programs.

Promotes Workforce and Economic Development Adds funding for Childcare system investments and workforce incentive pilots and broadband investments, Funds a variety of forest and agriculture development programs including: Grant writing assistance, Working lands with focus on the Dairy industry, Farm-to-School, outdoor recreation, logger safety and value-added forest products. Increase to Vermont State Colleges.

Children, Families, and Vulnerable Vermonters expanded Medicaid dental coverage for adults beginning Jan. 1, 2020 to allow for two annual cleaning visits. Additional investment in the child welfare system addresses caseload pressures.

Mental Health: Provides added funds to place complex mental health patients in appropriate community placements, reducing stress on hospitals. Funds operation of 12 new acute beds at the Brattleboro Retreat in 2020. Maintains school support program for LGBTQ youth with funding for the Ethnic and Social Equity and Campus Sexual Harm bills and the Human Right Commission outreach position. Provides an increase across the entire system of mental health and developmental services

Maintains Basic Government Functions Funds retirement obligations for state employees and teachers with roughly $200 million in general funds. Adds $500K for statewide IT network upgrades and security investment through Agency of Digital Services. Adds $948K to support known State match requirements for past emergencies, floods, etc.


H.541: An act relating to changes that affect the revenue of the State
I voted yes to the tax changes included in this bill. The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office put out an in depth report on the bill and the impacts to various funds. This bill makes numerous changes to various state revenue sources. These include:

  • Limiting the capital gains exclusion to $350,000 in total capital gains exclusions. This would effectively limit the exclusion to capital gains of $875,000 or less.
  • Creating a new deduction for medical expenses within the personal income tax. Taxpayers could deduct any medical expenses beyond Vermont’s standard deduction and personal exemptions.
  • Increasing the estate tax exclusion over two years. Beginning January 1, 2020, the estate tax exclusion rises from $2.75 million to $4.25 million.
  • Expanding the cap on the Affordable Housing Tax Credit and the First Time Homebuyer Tax Credit by $125,000 each.
  • Expanding the cap on the Downtown and Village Center Tax Credit program from $2.4 million to $2.6 million.
  • Changing the definitions of “operator” and “rent” to include online travel agencies (OTAs) and their associated transaction fees or commissions.1
  • Expanding the tax base for the Property Transfer Tax and Clean Water Surcharge to include transfers of controlling interests in a property. This would include property transfers where a business or entity takes a majority ownership stake in a property without a title change.
  • Making significant changes to the Land Gains Tax such that it would apply to a small number of land transfers. Only land subdivided by the transferor within six years prior to the sale or exchange would be subject to the tax.
  • Extending the sunset on the Fuel Tax for 5 years
  • Extending the sunset for the health information technology tax to July 1, 2021.
  • Extending the sunset for Home Health Provider Tax to July 1, 2021.

Property tax rates & keeping an eye on the Ed Fund

The average homestead education property tax rate will rise about a penny under this year’s education finance bill, H.536. The nonresidential rate, which applies to commercial property, rental property and second homes, will also rise about a penny. After this year, the nonresidential rate will be called the nonhomestead rate.

This year’s rates were bought down using one time funds for the third year in a row. This buy down is helping to offset the incentives we are still paying to school districts that merged under Act 46.

As I noted in a previous update, the Education Fund is going to need especially watchful eyes in the coming years. Last year, in an effort to both simplify some of the education finance mechanics and to provide greater transparency – we stopped the annual transfer of funds from the general fund to the Education Fund which adhered to a strict calculation and automatic increases (unless the legislature changed them). Instead, we now send all of the sales tax to the Education Fund. There is no minimum or maximum amount outlined in statute. As we see an increase in certain types of sales taxes (as we did this year – see below) or contemplate a new or increased sales tax (as we did this year – see above) the temptation will be great to pull some of those new funds out of the education fund, creating more instability and less transparency for voters, and with the potential to put increased pressure on property taxes.


Expanding taxes on online sales

Online retailers that host third-party transactions are now required to collect sales tax as a part of this year’s education finance bill.  It is estimated the expansion will add $13.4 million to the education fund next year. 


Water quality funding

From the Lake Champlain Basin Atlas site
  • The legislature put together a long-term funding plan in S.96 to provide ongoing funding to clean up Vermont’s waters. Vermont water quality efforts will be paid for by utilizing a portion of the rooms and meals tax. Six percent of that revenue stream, or about $8 million in the coming fiscal year, will be taken from the General Fund and dedicated to clean water (NOT the Education Fund as had been initially proposed). The new allocation of the rooms and meals tax money will begin on Oct. 1, 2019.
  • S.49 ensures that all public water supplies will be tested for PFAS contamination. This past week the State of Vermont joined a number of other states in filing suit against a number of manufacturers of PFAS
  • This year we also passed S.40 which requires all schools and childcare centers to test their water for lead which is extremely dangerous for children.

Healthcare

Association Health Plans continue in limited fashion

In March, a federal court determined that the federal Department of Labor rule allowing Association Health Plans wasn’t in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. That ruling was then appealed by the Trump Administration.  Because of the ongoing uncertainty federally, Vermont’s legislature elected to play it safe and leave the plans in place while the appeal is in place, but no new businesses can sign up for the plans – just new employees of existing businesses that are already enrolled with the AHP plans.

Raising the age for buying tobacco & e-cigarettes 

Vermont’s legal age to buy cigarettes or Juul or vape devices will be 21 starting September 1st. S.86, raised the age to match the legal age for buying alcohol and for possessing small amounts of marijuana. 

In addition, as of July 1st there will be a 92% excise tax on electronic cigarettes, as well as a ban on online sales to Vermonters. All sales will be required through licensed dealers.  

Health care records

Vermonters currently opt-in to allow their health care records to be shared in a statewide electronic system, run by VITL. S.31 changes the process so that information will be shared by default, unless you opt out. 

Substance misuse prevention

S.146 An act relating to substance misuse prevention Vermont’s existing substance prevention councils are being consolidated into a new, unified organization to allow programs and staff that previously focused on alcohol and tobacco prevention to expand their focus to opioid prevention. A new substance prevention position has been added to the Agency of Administration.

New England Opioid Report

A new report on the opioid epidemic in New England published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston is co-authored by Joyce Manchester of Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office.

Vermont had the lowest overdose death rate among the New England states in 2017 following its bold action early on to address the crisis by giving as many residents as possible access to medication-assisted treatment options. Analysis of relationships between opioid abuse and various economic indicators in New England counties over the last two decades suggests that an increase in the supply of (and access to) opioids is the most critical factor behind the crisis.


Hand gun sale waiting periods passes; then is vetoed

S.169 An Act Relating to Firearms Regulations passed the House on May 16th by a vote of 82-58. I missed this vote due to my unexpected absence. Though I would have listened closely to the debate and data presented on the floor, I was leaning towards a no vote due to the bill only applying to handguns and it’s billing primarily as a suicide prevention bill. Governor Scott ending up vetoing this bill. Though the bill passed both the House and Senate, it is questionable whether or not there are enough votes in the House to overturn that veto come January.

Limiting use of Bee-harming pesticides

H.205 An act relating to the regulation of neonicotinoid pesticides restricts the use of neonicotinoids which can be harmful to bees. 

No statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits 

H.330 An act relating to repealing the statute of limitations for civil actions based on childhood sexual abuse passed which will allow lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse in Vermont to be filed at any time. The new law applies retroactively to abuse cases where the statute of limitations already expired, but only in cases of “gross negligence.”

Paying people to move to Vermont

A number of folks in our district have talked with me about the highly publicized remote worker grant program we passed last year.  Support is mixed. I remain concerned about the demographics and workforce population in rural Vermont and I support efforts to attract new working age Vermonters into our workforce.

Starting in January 2020, people who are moving to Vermont to take a job may be eligible for reimbursement of moving expenses at several rates and up to $7,500 in areas of Vermont with high unemployment or low wages.

Vermont Logger Safety and Workers’ Compensation Insurance Program

This year, Governor Scott’s Forest Economy Task Force introduced two new occupational class codes in the workers’ compensation insurance system: “Safety Certified Mechanized Logger” and “Safety Certified Non-Mechanized Logger” and the requisite, occupation-specific training for logging contractors and their supervisors to meet the “safety certified” standard. Employers whose employees meet the training standards and demonstrate that they have implemented safe practices at their logging operations, through an onsite consultation and verification with a Loss Prevention Specialist, will be qualified to have their employees classified under these new class codes and eligible for a 15% discount on their workers’ compensation insurance premiums. For more information on the background and development of this program, click here.


Telecommunications & IT Oversight

Image may contain: 9 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor
Governor Scott signed the telecommunications bill in Dover last week

In my previously published end of session report for House Energy and Technology I reported on the rural broadband bill and several other energy and IT related bills.

This biennium I am also chairing a Joint IT Oversight Committee which has members of the House and Senate. We are spending time looking at large state IT projects and assessing the consistency and efficacy of our policies guiding online security and protection of Vermonter’s publicly held data.


this summer and fall

With the session ended, I’m back at home with my family and working at my full time job. Here in Goose City we are preparing for college visits for our youngest who will graduate high school next year. I’m very much looking forward to seeing folks out and about this Summer and Fall and appreciate invitations to come talk with your group, though I’d encourage thinking about nights and weekends for fastest scheduling.

Look for public listening events throughout the district after Labor Day as well as opportunities to gather and talk about next steps on healthcare, telecommunications and climate change impacts in our area.

I’m also planning to host an information session on Vermont’s redistricting process in the coming months. This is important for local folks to understand given the pockets of population loss we have seen in Southern Vermont in the past decade.

next year

Act 250 This past year I joined Democrats, Republicans and other independents in co-sponsoring H.197 An act relating to various amendments to Act 250. The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee has been working on an 84 page draft of changes to Act 250 a version of which I expect will pass the House and Senate next year.

Bills I anticipate we will see action on early next session include:
 minimum wagepaid family leaveretail sales of marijuana.


In the news:


Thank you for the kindnesses and condolences sent to my family this past month.

My father greatly influenced who I am today and my decision to run for office. From a young age he taught me to always have the courage to be truthful and that we have a moral responsibility to stand for those who are unable to stand for themselves. Because of my father I’m also fortunate enough to understand that knowing how to do something difficult isn’t a requirement for getting something difficult done. I will hold that wisdom and carry my gratitude for the family he helped to create for the rest of my days.

“A man is never lost at sea…”
from The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway

Click here to monitor the bills I introduce, my committees work and my votes on roll call votes on the legislative website. You can also see what the House and Senate will be taking up each day and listen to proceedings live on VPR


Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us. You can also sign up to receive my e-newsletters on my blogsite at www.laurasibiliavt.com

Kind regards, 

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

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