Readsboro talks!

Many thanks for the enthusiastic conversation and questions on phones and internet, Act 46, Irene recovery (still!), telemarketers and carbon.

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Public Forums on a Cost and Benefit Analysis of Policies to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in #Vermont.

PRESS RELEASE: Public Forums on a Cost and Benefit Analysis of Policies to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Vermont.

The Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) has finalized a contract for independent professional assistance to complete a study of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, per Act 11 of 2018.

That contract is with Resources for the Future (RFF), an independent, nonprofit research institution whose mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decision making through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF has decades of experience delivering solutions to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advance a reliable and clean energy system.

Two public forums are scheduled to gain an understanding of Vermonters’ interests and concerns regarding policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont. RFF will use the information from these public forums to help inform their study. The general public is invited to participate in these two public forums. The Forums are scheduled from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. and details are as follows:

Wednesday September 26, Room 11,Vermont State House, 115 State Street, Montpelier, VT.

Thursday, September 27, Theater room, Billings Farm, 69 Old River Road, Woodstock, VT.

Please RSVP here https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/XF98YTJ

RFF will examine 4 decarbonization policy approaches and will provide qualitative analysis for other options to reduce carbon.  Currently, the plan is to investigate the following policy scenarios:

1   Carbon fee-and-rebate, as in H.791 or S.284 (2018) – The ESSEX Plan;

2   Expanding cap-and-trade if Vermont joined the Western Climate Initiative (WCI);

3   Expanding cap-and-trade if the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) covered transportation fuels as considered in the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI); and

4   A carbon pricing policy based on further research and input from stakeholders.

People attending the forum are asked to address the following questions:

A What do you think are two or three things that a study of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont ought to take into consideration, in order to be helpful in answering your questions and in advancing the climate and energy policy dialogue in Vermont?

B  Starting by considering the policy approaches listed above, which approaches do you think RFF ought to focus on?

RFF will be represented by Marc Hafstead and Wesley Look. They will attend both public forums and will be available to answer questions about the study, as appropriate, during the times outlined above.

For those unable to attend, please feel free to email comments by September 28, 2018 to CarbonComments@leg.state.vt.us.

Final update of the 2018 session

The eventful 2018 session has come to an end and my final review of the session follows.  Over the summer and fall you can expect to hear more from me on updates to the State’s Act 46 plan, telecommunications and CoverageCo, the scheduling of a public forum on healthcare.  I did previously announce my intention to run for re-election and I’m writing a piece about what it is like to run and serve as an independent in Vermont.

As always, please be in touch with your thoughts and concerns through email at lhsibilia@gmail.com or phone at 802-384-0233

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

PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356
cell: 802-384-0233

The final Budget and Tax bills

The total FY 2019 Budget of $5.8 billion is up .5% over current fiscal year.  The budget adds beds for mental health care and also increases child care provider reimbursements. It also provides $5 million in revolving state funds for home weatherization and pays off $3.9 million in debt at Vermont Life Magazine, which will no longer be published.

Related to education, the budget and tax bill pay down a portion of the $1.3 billion existing liability in teacher pension fund by $100 million.  We have also moved expenses img_1392from education fund into general fund (renter rebate, community high school of Vermont, Adult Education, Flexible Pathways). This is something voters in the Valley have repeatedly asked for in the last decade and a half and was part of Speaker Johnson’s education financing proposal at the beginning of the session.

Property Tax Adjustment for education rates will be reduced by lowering the value of house site for those paying property tax based on income.  This change effects 16,000 households across the state.

Statewide bargaining for public school employee’s health care contract has been agreed to – Governor Scott had asked for this to happen last year and this issue was the cause of the 2017 budget disagreement.

There is also a commission to study student/staff ratios in public schools, supported by the Vermont School Board Association Board of Directors. This work must be done in conjunction with the twice passed and funded student weighting study if it is to result in tax savings and maintain constitutionally required equity on opportunity.

There were several personal tax changes this year, including some necessitated by increases that would have resulted from the federal tax changes. Vermont will reduce personal income tax rates by .2% and collapse the top two income brackets.  The legislature also established Vermont standard deductions ($6,000 single, $12,000 joint) and personal exemption of $4,150.

There is now a 5% tax credit on charitable donations (limited to $1,000), and Social Security Income for low and moderate-income households (under $55,000) is exempted from income taxes.

The Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit has been increased from 32% to 36% of federal level and a Vermont Tax Structure Commission to review current  guardfunding sources to support state government has been created.

Tuition reimbursement for Vermont National Guard soldiers, the only remaining New England state not to have offered the benefit, was agreed to.

The budget also included a study on carbon pricing.  I support this study, because it will outline issues that will need to be addressed prior to any kind of carbon tax being implemented.

New gig/sharing economy regulations:

  • Act 10 creates a registry for all short-term rentals in the state by requiring hosts to
    gig-economy-032116
    Image credit: Crunchbase

    register online and acquire a rooms and meals tax identification number, which they will need to publish on all their advertisements and visibly post that number in their rental units with emergency contact numbers. (AirBnB, Homeaway and other short term rentals)

  • H.725 Regulating Transportation Network Companies established insurance requirements for companies like Uber and Lyft to cover drivers and passengers for up to $1 million, plus med pay of $5,000.  The companies are also required to vet drivers using background checks and the records are subject to inspection by the Vermont Department of motor Vehicles.

Internet access and security:

  • Data Brokers H.764 will provide consumers with greater protection over their personal information by starting to regulate data brokers – those who buy and sell personal information of individuals with whom they have no other business relationship. Those brokers will be required to register with the state and provide the Attorney General with information about the nature of the information they collect and their means of collecting it.  The law also requires data brokers to disclose when they experience a breach of personal information.
  • Net Neutrality S.289 requires internet service providers (ISPs) that contract with the State of Vermont to adhere to net neutrality standards which includes not downloadblocking content, engaging in paid prioritization of internet services or acting to “throttle, impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service.” As part of the legislation, the Vermont’s Attorney General will:
    • determine whether internet service providers in the state follow net neutrality standards and report back prior to the next legislative session
    • make the ISP’s public statements about their Net Neutrality function information available to consumers by posting it on a website
    • conduct a joint study with the Department of Public Service to determine whether Vermont should put additional net neutrality rules for internet providers in place in the future

Governor Scott signed an executive order in February requiring internet companies that do business with the state to abide by net neutrality principles. I co-sponsored the House net neutrality legislation and secured a unanimous vote out of our committee on an amendment to the Senate bill.  Whether or not ISP’s are honoring net neutrality principals will need to be monitored vigorously in the future.  The whole world of telecommunications is rapidly changing and evolving and competition for future survival is fully in play at the national level.

Healthcare:

  • Individual mandate Vermont: With the repeal of the individual mandate federally, Vermont became the 3rd state to require the individual mandate after Massachusetts and New Jersey. Starting in 2020, residents of Vermont will be required to have health insurance or be subject to state tax penalties with the passage of a revised legislative bill H.696. The specifics for how the statewide mandate will exist have not been determined but will be determined by a working group in 2019 prior to the launch of the new requirements starting on January 1, 2020. In the meantime, no state penalties will be imposed on residents who do not obtain healthcare coverage prior to 2020. Vermont residents will be contacted by state officials as part of “educated outreach efforts” to answer any questions and inform residents of the policies and procedures as they are determined prior to going into effect in 2020.
  • Drug importation from Canada S 175 directs the state Agency of Human Services to Flag_of_Canada_(Pantone).svgdesign a program to import wholesale prescription drugs from Canada. Drugs included in the program would have to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards and “generate substantial savings for Vermont consumers.” The agency must submit a program proposal to the legislature by January 1, 2019, and a formal request to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by July 1, 2019.
  • Rep. John Gannon and I will be hosting a Valley wide info session later this Summer/Fall on both these items as well as giving residents an opportunity to share issues or concerns they are having with regard to healthcare.

Civil Protections:
Equal Pay H.294 prohibits employers from requesting a person’s salary history prior to making a job offer, a practice which often leads to unequal pay between genders.  Employers may still post a salary range, and an applicant may still post salary requirements, but asking for a salary history is now off-limits.

“MeToo”: H.707 I also co-sponsored this tri-partisan legislation which aims to shed some sunlight on habitual harassers and ensure those who were subject to the harassment are not the only ones suffering consequences.

  • Companies cannot require people to sign away their right to report sexual harassment as part of a pre-employment contract. 
  • All supervisors and managers, including those who oversee or contract with volunteers, interns and independent contractors, have an obligation to ensure the working relationship is “free from sexual harassment.”
  • Sexual harassment settlements cannot prohibit the person making the complaint from working for the employer in the future.
  • The Attorney General’s Office can visit workplaces and require employers to change their practices.
  • Vermont will create an online portal for making complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment.

Marijuana legalization:
The law took effect on July 1. Read the legislation here. Adults who are at least 21 years imageold are allowed to possess and grow marijuana: possess up to one ounce of marijuana or for growing two mature marijuana plants and four immature marijuana plants per housing unit.

  • The plants must be in a secure enclosure that is screened from public view.
  • Marijuana harvested from plants doesn’t count toward the one-ounce limit as long as it’s stored on-site, in an indoor place.

Convictions for possessing more than one ounce of marijuana, or more than two mature and four immature plants, are imprisonment up to six months and fine up to $500.  Providing marijuana to a person under 21 years old can result in imprisonment up to two years and fines up to $2,000. It is a misdemeanor crime to use marijuana in a car with a child, with penalties starting at $500 and two points on a driver’s license.  Impaired driving remains illegal under the law, and neither drivers nor passengers are allowed to use marijuana in a vehicle. Anyone with an open container of marijuana in a vehicle can be fined $200.

Marijuana use is limited to “individual dwellings” and is prohibited in any street, alley, park or sidewalk. Landlords can ban possession and use of marijuana as part of a lease agreement. Using or growing marijuana at a child care facility is not allowed.

Here is a summary of all legislation which passed in 2018.

Failed efforts:

img_1375
Making the case for funding for internet expansion & connecting rural Vermont.

Legislation mandating an increase in the minimum wage and paid family leave passed the House (without my support) and the Senate, but did not have enough votes to overturn the governors veto.

Legislation increasing the Vermont Universal Service Fund fee by .05% passed the House with a veto proof tri-partisan vote. This increase would have raised a very modest 1.5 Million a year for internet expansion and would have raised a $100 phone bill by .50 cents. Unfortunately, just like in 2016 when we passed this bill, the Senate refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Rural Economic Development Working Group: I’m a Co-Chair of this tri-partisan and independent group of House members with Rep. Chip Conquest and Rep. Charlie Kimbell.  With the support of the Speaker, we held a hearing last fall to hear about issues that were important to rural Vermont.  Based on that hearing, the House Rural Economic Development Working Group advocated for three primary issues during the 2018 legislative session:

  1. Provide regulatory relief for the forest products industry and for additional ways to support their industry.
  2. Expand high speed, broadband technology into rural Vermont to give communities the opportunity to participate in today’s economy.
  3. Provide small communities with planning assistance and access to financing to design, build and maintain community wastewater and potable water systems.

Several bills passed the legislature with REDWnG’s support and assistance that provided the following to rural Vermont:

  • Gave individual homeowners, including owners of multifamily homes, access to funding for wastewater systems that are close to failing, with very favorable terms.
  • Enabled private entities to tap into the state Revolving Clean Water Fund to build wastewater treatment systems.
  • Foresters were granted the right to conduct forest harvesting operations without risk of being shut down because of complaints of neighbors provided that they follow best forestry practices.
  • Certain forestry machinery was granted exemption from purchase and use tax to make it more affordable to purchase new equipment.
  • Funding for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, supporting agricultural businesses, was increased to $700K.
  • Freed up $1.2 million that had been parked in a now defunct telecommunications authority project to be used to support the expansion of broadband and cellular phone connectivity.
  • Created a pilot project to fund expansion of the outdoor recreation industry through “model communities.”
  • As a result of our advocacy, the Department of Environmental Conservation is working closely with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to remove regulatory obstacles for towns looking to replace or construct properly sized wastewater systems.

surveybumpstocks2019 Constituent Survey:

The results from last years survey were really helpful to me as I considered policy and the best use of my time during the session.  I’m interested in hearing any questions you think might be helpful to ask a broad valley audience

Voting to override the Governor’s veto

Thursday of last week Governor Scott vetoed the budget proposed in H.13.  This budget was virtually the same budget that a tri-partisan majority of senators and representatives approved during the regular session in H.911, but removed the items under contention between Governor Scott and the Vermont Legislature – namely how to spend unanticipated revenues from one time tax changes, tobacco and other settlements and – good news – growth in receipts from a recovering economy.

The legislature refused to negotiate the “tax bill” H.4 until the governor signed the budget.  The governor refused to sign the budget until the legislature agreed to use those funds to artificially lower all property taxes so that there would be no increase on property taxes for a second year in a row. The legislature won’t agree to artificially lowering this year’s property tax rates because it sets up a significant property tax increase next year.  The governor won’t move from his position because he believes Vermonters are with him, school-boards have issued a call to override the governor because they believe acquiescing supports a false narrative about how education property rates are determined and sets up a negative chain of events for next year.

We are at a stalemate.

On Friday I attended a day long series of hearings between the legislature’s relevant committees – appropriations, ways and means and education – and members of the administration, the Vermont State Treasurer and the Joint Fiscal Office.  Pretty much all agree that doing what the governor has requested – artificially zeroing out property tax rates – is going to cause a very significant property tax increase next year regardless of what locals decide to vote at next year’s Town Meeting. We could return those funds in some other less precarious way to Vermonters by paying down future debt, or even as straight up refunds, but the governor is insistent they have to be returned through the property tax. That’s a problem. And it’s bad policy.

With some limited movement from the legislature and even less movement from the administration, at this point I’m voting to support the school boards and communities working to change the system.  I can’t support the governor’s current position and will vote to override.

Governor Scott has successfully applied downward pressure on increasing taxes and fees.   I think many Vermonters, like me, thought we needed a pause to catch our breath from the rapidly increasing – and costly – new nation leading programming we were implementing year another year, and that – more then any other reason – is why our moderate Phil Scott is governor.

However it is important for all to remember that at the same time Governor Scott was elected, Vermont was also beginning to undergo massive education transformation through Act 46.  Last year and this year we have pushed forward additional MAJOR reforms in special ed, weighting and considerations for teachers healthcare being negotiated at the state level.  These are significant, difficult and cost containing state policy changes being implemented at the local level.  As a planner, I know these processes take years to be fully realized.  With our distributed governance system – we are on the locals timeline.  I can not willingly vote to undermine the work going on by communities and school districts by supporting a built in tax increase next year that will have absolutely nothing to do with educating Vermonts students.

I support the goal of returning excess funds to Vermonters.  I do not support the largely false narrative that we control property tax rates in Montpelier and that we should not “raise” rates, because it just isn’t true.

We are approaching unchartered territory with the reality of a potential government shutdown needing to be acknowledged by all responsible parties.

The vote tomorrow will be close and regardless of whether or not the governor is sustained there will be ongoing negotiations.  It is my sincere hope that during those negotiations House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe will not only work to return as much excess revenue as possible to Vermonters, but that they will steadfastly defend Vermont’s students and the integrity of our rapidly changing education governance and finance system to ensure Vermonters future access to high quality education throughout our state. I hope Governor Scott will agree to moderate his position on this issue and commit to those same goals.  And that all will respect and encourage the ongoing and extremely difficult work going on in our communities. If these goals are shared we will quickly finish our business, pass a budget, provide unexpected additional tax relief and let the rest of Vermont get on with their lives.

Time for a Special Session

The Vermont legislature adjourned on May 12th around midnight.  As of the writing of this update, several bills have been vetoed and several more including the budget and school finance bills are promised vetoes. Though the Governor had threatened to veto these bills, the legislature did not schedule a veto session but rather adjourned “sine die” which means without a date to return.  In the second year of a two-year biennium it is typical to adjourn with both a scheduled veto session or if the governor does not veto any legislation, sine die.

Given no veto session was scheduled, without any further action, the legislature would return to session after the November elections on the first Wednesday in January after the first Monday.  In this case, if the governor vetoes the budget and no veto session has been scheduled by the legislature, then the governor needs to call the legislature back for a special session to agree on a budget bill to fund government after July 1, 2018.  The legislature can also take up any bills it would like to in a special session, as opposed to a veto session which deals only with those bills that have been vetoed.

On May 23rd we were called back by the governor for a special session.  It is my hope that this session will be brief and will only deal with those bills needed to ensure the function of services for Vermonters and the funding of schools.  Given that so much hinges on the final passage of the budget and school finance bills, and that the legislature can take up anything during a special session, I am holding off on writing a final legislative update for this session.

Going into this session I’d like you to know that I will not support school finance bills which mandate student/staff ratios or lowering of excess spending thresholds until and if the state is responsible for the running of the schools or we have proper weighting of students which acknowledges that every child cannot be provided equitable educational opportunities for the same per pupil spending.  We can and should address property taxes, but it requires proper student weights to do so in a way that doesn’t harm the students in rural Vermont.  At the end of this Special Session, I will provide a comprehensive legislative update.

 

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