The 2022 Legislative Session starts tomorrow. Below are my thoughts on a number of issues I expect we will take up this session. As always, I welcome your thoughts on these or other proposals I’ll be asked to vote on.
The Vermont House Rules Committee met last week and unanimously voted on a resolution to legislate remotely until January 18th. When the Vermont House reconvenes tomorrow, it will be in person, briefly, and for the purposes of voting on a resolution to go back to remote legislating.
Due to tremendous amounts of work by the General Assembly’s administrative, legal, fiscal, IT and security staff, the legislature is prepared to meet safely 1)in person, or 2)remotely or in a 3)hybrid manner. All committee rooms have been reconfigured with monitors and cameras allowing for remote participation and all committee meetings will once again be broadcast on YouTube. There are posted occupancy limits on all rooms. There is a mask mandate in the statehouse for all, and legislators and staff must either be vaccinated or test weekly.
I have significant concerns about going back to remote legislating which was how we did our work in 2021 and the second half of 2020. Some of the reasons for my concern are that the General Assembly is going to be voting to change the constitution and reapportion legislative voting districts. We are going to discuss major contentious policies related to policing, abortion, climate change and education. Remote legislating is doable. But it requires less conversations and less legislators. That is not good for the minority party or for public transparency. Remote legislating should be used to the least extent possible on the least amount of proposals necessary.
At this point in the pandemic Vermont has two big objectives:
- protect kids under 5 who can’t get vaccinated yet as well as their schools and childcare buildings
- protect our healthcare workers and our hospital capacity which are stressed by both the pandemic and existing workforce shortages.
We are not going to forcibly vaccinate all adults. And it is almost exclusively unvaccinated adults who are getting the sickest and putting stress on the healthcare system. But we can put in place policies to try to slow the rate of unvaccinated adults needing the intensive care units and ventilators. There is concern that meeting in person will encourage unvaccinated adults to gather publicly and increase infections and therefore stress on healthcare facilities. Given that remote participation is possible for legislators, lobbyists and members of the public, I’m in favor of requiring vaccinations in order to work in the statehouse.
The education community has worked hard to support student learning in the classroom instead of attending remotely and being isolated from peers. I’m in favor of mask mandates in schools, requiring vaccinations for all students and staff that can be vaccinated and setting up supportive remote learning for those who choose not to be vaccinated. And I know our schools want more testing asap.
If the legislature has the opportunity to require a statewide indoor mask requirement, I would support that, at least until such time as everyone is able to be vaccinated.
With these policies and the major investments that have been made in the statehouse to increase health and safety, we can and should return to legislating in person in the statehouse.
Pupil Weighting and Vermont’s Education Finance System
The final version of the Weighting Task Force Implementation Plan has been transmitted to the House and Senate Education and Taxing Committees. The report includes the results of a lot of good work from House and Senate members on the Task Force, the Scott Administration and legislative staff including tightened up definitions for weights, improvements in calculating weights and recommendations on small schools grants.
The report also includes two proposals that have been nearly universally panned by education stakeholders, witnesses and public testimony – removing English Language Learners (ELL) from the equity calculation and, rather then correcting the weighted formula, creating a new state reverse foundation formula and grant for students in poverty, rural districts and middle and high school grade levels. The “Cost Equity” model distorts student need, providing an average multiplier in a model that needs to provide actual cost in order to meet the state obligation. It would award categorical aid grants based on those distortions. The proposal maintains local control and unrestrained statewide funding levels for students and districts without increased student need. This could result in significant increased education spending statewide if current spending levels of those districts that have benefited from the harm caused to poor and rural districts are unchanged.
Despite the testimony from districts and stakeholders about the harm the flawed system has caused, the report characterizes the underweighting of poor, rural and ELL districts as something that has gradually happened over time, rather then a stubbornly denied flaw from the inception of Act 60 and 68. Amongst a lot of excellent work, there were also a few missteps. Some educational leaders from poor districts were questioned about their communities ability to make good decisions while others had their claims about the effect of this system on those who were denied access to equitable funding openly questioned. Ironically, and also unusually, the Task Force plan asks for all to proceed with empathy as the work in the plan is considered.
Here is an article about the passage of the draft report Two for the money: Task force offers pair of school spending formula options and a statement I issued with Rep. Selene Colburn, a colleague from the Burlington Delegation.
Many thanks to our local boards throughout the Valley and Southern Vermont that are working so hard to correct this 20 year injustice to our students, communities and taxpayers. We have made a lot of progress, and the work will continue this year in the legislative session beginning January.
Climate change mitigation and adaptation
The Vermont Climate Council recently voted 19-4 to approve the state’s first Climate Action Plan which outlines pathways to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emissions requirements established through the Global Warming Solutions Act.
I to serve on the Energy and Technology Committee in the House. Our committee will be working on a Municipal Fuel Switching Grant Program and taking testimony on how Vermont can consider a Clean Heat Standard, while not placing undue burden on fixed income Vermonters, and structurally support Vermont’s fossil fuel companies in transition to deliver other energy sources and efficiency. There are also significant federal funds for programs to increase weatherization of buildings and electrifying transportation systems.
Vermont also has a new draft 2022 Comprehensive Energy Plan which has been receiving public comment and will be factored into work to increase resilience in our electric grid.
Amending Vermont’s Constitution: Proposition 2 & Proposition 5
Amending the Vermont Constitution requires a multi year process with two separately elected legislatures voting to approve the exact same language and then a final vote by the people is needed in order for the amendment to pass. In the 2019/2020 Biennium (two year session) two proposed amendments passed. This session there will be public hearings and votes in the House on both.
Proposition 5, is Declaration of rights; right to personal reproductive liberty
This amendment enshrines current access to reproductive healthcare under federal law into Vermont statute. If the amendment passes the House and is approved by the People in the November election, there will be no change, expansion or decrease to a woman’s current access to abortion services in Vermont. Because this is an emotionally charged issue, it is important to be clear on the facts. This bill does not change current practice in Vermont, or in fact, the practice as it has been for more than 40 years since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. This bill does not allow for partial or full birth abortions which are specifically prohibited by the 2003 “Partial Birth Abortion Act” enacted by Congress. All medical providers must comply with this federal law. In Vermont, no elective late term abortions are performed.
The Reapportionment of Vermont’s House and Senate Districts
This year all Vermont Legislative Districts will be realigned to ensure they are of equal size after the latest census. The non partisan Legislative Apportionment Board has finalized their proposed changes which includes doing away with all two member districts.
Next the House and Senate will vote on whether or not to accept those recommendations. If they are not accepted, a new set of districts will be proposed by the House and Senate Government Operations Committees and voted on by the entire legislature.
State Employee and Teacher Pensions
The Pension Benefits, Design, and Funding Task Force was tasked with reviewing and reporting on the benefits, design, and funding of retirement and retiree health benefit plans for the Vermont State Employees’ Retirement System and the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System. They have been meeting all Summer and Fall. It is not clear whether or not they will come forward with a recommendation for shoring up the pensions.
Noteworthy legislative items:
- Vermont Legislature to consider ending qualified immunity for police officers
- A look at new laws going into effect in Vermont in 2022
- Vermont lawmakers say state’s long-standing nursing workforce shortage is at a crisis point
- Covid-19 set to bring changes to 2022 town meeting season
Latest OpEds and Blog Posts
- Rep. Sibilia: Join Team Schools and Hospitals in 2022!
- Register for free student rapid tests
- Southern Vermont holiday testing and vaccination sites
- Rep. Sibilia: Update December 15th
- Representatives Sibilia and Colburn statement on the recommendations of the Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report
Stay in touch and keep track of the legislative session
Join me on the 3rd Thursday of the month at 6 pm when I will be zooming with the Wardsboro Library from the statehouse or the 3rd Saturdays at 11 am when I host virtual office hours and you can join here or by calling +1 646 558 8656 Meeting ID: 734 376 857 Passcode: 003089.
As always, if you have suggestions, concerns or critiques please be in touch so we can schedule time to discuss. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow my regular posts online at http://www.laurasibiliavt.com
Rep. Laura Sibilia Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham