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 firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 802-384-0233
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356
The final Budgetand 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 from 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 funding 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
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 BrokersH.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 blocking 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.
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 design 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 PayH.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 old 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.
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:
Provide regulatory relief for the forest products industry and for additional ways to support their industry.
Expand high speed, broadband technology into rural Vermont to give communities the opportunity to participate in today’s economy.
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.
2019 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
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. This report is also available online at www.laurasibiliavt.com where it contains live links to supporting documents and sponsored legislation. Please stay in touch on issues of importance to you: (802)384-0233 or email@example.com
PROPOSED INCOME TAX CHANGES: H.911Lowers all income tax rates by 0.2% and collapses top two income tax brackets, creates a VT Standard Deduction, equal to $6,000 for single filers and $12,000 for married couples, creates a Vermont Personal Exemption equal to $4,150 per exemption, expands the Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit, from 32% of the Federal EITC to 35%, creates a 5% tax credit for the total amount of charitable contributions up to $10,000. Taxpayers who contribute up to $10,000 will be eligible for a $500 tax credit, provides tax relief to Vermonters receiving Social Security benefits, taxable Social Security benefits below $45,000 for single filers and below $60,000 for married filers will be 100% exempt from State income tax.
EDUCATION and PROPERTY TAXES:
Education Finance Proposal: 911 Adds a School Income Tax Surcharge, built upon the reformed income tax system (noted under Proposed Income Tax Changes). Rates are 0.1% of lowest bracket, 0.5% for middle brackets, and 1% on highest income brackets; Raises approximately $59 million for education; Uses the $59 million to reduce average homestead property tax rates (on both property and income) from projected FY19 rates (average reduction of $0.15); Cost containment: future tax rates will rise faster for all spenders; Non-residential property tax rate: stays at current law = $1.591; Homeowner rebate: split into two components: education and municipal; Renter Rebate: maintained and transferred to General Fund; Separates municipal and education tax bills; General Fund transfer to Ed Fund repealed; Dedicates to the EF: 100% of sales tax and 25% of rooms and meals; Transfers adult education, flexible pathways, community high school of VT, renter rebate to GF ($21.5 million); Repeals excess spending penalty. The excess spending penalty is replaced. I am concerned that this proposal doesn’t address the current lack of accountability to businesses and nonresidential taxpayers, that it doesn’t address the substantial inequities that exist for our students, and I am deeply concerned that the replacement cost containment measure will add insult to injury for rural students while failing to capture significant needed savings throughout the system.
Weighting study: A student Weighting Study passed by last year’s House, Senate and signed into law by the Governor has not yet been conducted. The administration made a request for 300K in this year’s budget adjustment to conduct the study which has been turned down by the House and Senate. The administration is required to conduct the study and has communicated that they have begun pulling together some of the pieces. The House Education Committee has included the study and funding in it’s recently passed Special Education bill. An accurate weighting (equalizing) of students is critical for sustained property tax relief that reflects the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for equity.
VT/MA Interstate district: Kudos to the Stamford School Board and Interstate Committee for driving to Montpelier in a snow storm to attend an important hearing in front of the House and Senate Education Committees on their Interstate School District proposal with Clarksburg, MA. This proposal has been developed in response to Act 46 requirements. Several elements of support for this proposal continue to move forward in both the House and Senate. The proposal has been awarded financial support from the MA Legislature.
HEALTHCARE: The House Healthcare Committee advanced a bill H.696 out of its Committee on Friday that requires individuals to be covered by insurance and establishes a working group to report on administration and enforcement of the Individual Mandate requirement.
SALIVA TESTING: The House voted in favor of allowing law enforcement officers to administer a saliva test. The test will indicate the presence of some drugs, including marijuana. A person is driving under the influence of alcohol, can be asked to take a Breathalyzer test to measure their blood alcohol level. There’s no roadside test to determine if a person is impaired because of the use of certain drugs. If an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that a person is driving impaired, they can be asked to do a series of roadside tests to screen for sobriety. If a driver failed those tests, and the officer didn’t think that alcohol was a factor, if this bill passes they can ask the driver to take a saliva test. This test would not measure an impairment level, but would confirm the presence of certain drugs in the driver’s system.
VUSF Increase: The House passed a bill to raise more than $6 million to build out broadband infrastructure across the state. 582, would temporarily increase a fee on telecommunications services from 2 percent to 2.5 percent for four years, ending in 2022. The money raised from the increase go to a fund that distributes grants to internet service providers that expand networks in underserved areas. Readsboro and Stamford town internet committees each have projects that have recently been awarded VUSF funds. The House approved the measure on a vote of 109-27. The measure is now in the Senate Finance Committee.
Net Neutrality: Two bills in my Committee are seeking to ensure Vermonters have Net Neutral internet access. Senate bill 289, was approved by a vote of 23-5, and requires internet service providers to certify compliance with net-neutrality provisions as a precondition for winning state contracts. I am one of the lead sponsors on House bill, H.680, takes a wider approach to regulation, requiring internet service providers doing business in Vermont to apply to the Public Utility Commission for net-neutrality certification. Governor Scott signed an Executive Order similar to the Senate bill, but with flexibility for State Agencies to grant exceptions to some internet service providers.
PAID FAMILY LEAVE: Passed the House last year.If approved by the Senate, and signed into law by the Governor, 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. 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 and to 40 hours a year.
MINIMUM WAGE INCREASE: Passed the Senate last month. If approved by the House, and signed into law by the Governor, employers would be required to increase hourly pay every year through 2024. The first increase would come January 1, 2019, with a minimum wage increase from $10.50 to $11.50 an hour.
MARIJUANA: Recreational use of marijuana and a policy of limited “home grow” was legalized on January 22nd. I support taxing and regulating marijuana use like we do with alcohol and tobacco. This was not a tax and regulate bill and therefore I voted against this bill. Thank you to all who contacted me regarding this legislation. I expect Vermont will be working to adjust marijuana legislation on an annual basis for the next decade. Details of the bill can be found on my website.
GUN SAFETY LEGISLATION: There is a significant discussion about school safety happening throughout Vermont, and a sense of urgency to the conversations happening in Montpelier, led by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Pro Tem. A memo from Governor Scott to legislators outlining proposals he is open to working on can be found on my website. New school safety measures as well as legislation increasing regulation of guns are proposed. Rep. Gannon and Rep. Sibilia are working with school, law enforcement and community groups a public forum for residents, students or employees who work in the Deerfield Valley on Sunday March 18th from 4-6 pm at the Twin Valley Middle/High School in Whitingham.
The 2018 Vermont Legislative Session began on January 3rd. We’ve already seen marijuana legalized in the Session and it looks like we will be spending a considerable amount of time on education cost, delivery and equity. I was pleased that both both House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s opening comments and Governor Phil Scott’s subsequent State of the State address noted the need to ensure rural Vermont is included in economic and community growth, and each made promises regarding addressing the current state of Vermont education – the Speaker on funding and the Governor on spending. The critical piece that binds those two together – equity for all students – will be significantly served by the completion of the weighting study passed last year. Here are links to both opening addresses:
Recreational use of marijuana and a policy of limited “home grow” was legalized on January 22nd. Given the increased legalization surrounding us, particularly in MA, as well as increased public safety and education costs associated with that legislation, I am in support of taxing and regulating marijuana use like we do with alcohol and tobacco. This is not a tax and regulate bill and therefore I voted against this bill. Thank you to all who contacted me regarding this legislation. I expect Vermont will be working to adjust marijuana legislation on an annual basis for the next decade. Details of the bill can be found here: Marijuana Rules signed into law on January 22, 2018 and effective July 1, 2018
Community-Based Public Hearings on the Governor’s recommended FY 2019 State Budget
The Vermont House and Senate Committees on Appropriations are seeking public input on the Governor’s Recommended FY2019 State Budget and will hold community-based public hearings on Monday, February 12, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the following 5 locations.
Johnson – Johnson State College
Rutland City – Rutland Public School
St. Johnsbury – St. Johnsbury House
St. Albans City – St. Albans City School
Winooski – Community College of Vermont
Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. in Montpelier.
Reforming our education system for students and taxpayers:
I wrote an OpEd in December which outlined the challenges we are facing with regard to a proposed 7-9% increase in property taxes. Here is what has been transpiring with regard to the situation since the beginning of the Session:
Weighting Study – the Weighting Study passed by last year’s House, Senate and signed into law by the Governor has not yet been conducted. The administration made a request for 300K in this year’s budget adjustment to conduct the study which has been turned down by the House and will likely be turned down by the Senate. The administration is required to conduct the study. An accurate weighting (equalizing) of students is critical for sustained property tax relief that reflects the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for equity.
Governor’s List – Governor Scott issued a memo to the legislature outlining 18 possible cost containment initiatives to work on collaboratively with the legislature. Without accurate weights, I’m opposed to a number of these initiatives, but not to all. Proposals to cap per pupil spending or implement staffing ratios need accurate weights and scaling in order to not harm students and achieve the most savings.
Ways and Means – has been looking at the current funding source for education and developing a proposal to move towards lowering property taxes by shifting to partial income tax, as well as replacing the general fund transfer and separating municipal and . The latest working draft can be found here and will likely undergo numerous edits prior to ever coming to the floor. Keep an eye on updated work the Ways and Means Committee is doing here.
New bills I have introduced and roll call votes I have taken can be found here. Please let me know if you have questions about either. Legislation I have been working on in January:
Stamford, VT and Clarksburg, MA Interstate District – Next month representatives
from the two districts will travel to the statehouse for a joint hearing with members of the House and Senate Education Committees on developing legislation to form the VT/MA interstate agreement.
H.581 and H.582 – I’ve introduced two bills to increase funding for build out of last mile service. H.582 temporarily increases the Vermont Universal Service Fee by one half of one percent to raise approximately $1.5M annually to be used in partnership with providers and municipalities to build our telecommunications infrastructure in undeserved areas. This proposed increase was supported by roughly 75% of the 200+ respondents to my 2018 Legislative Survey and has encountered limited opposition during testimony to date.
Net Neutrality – The recent history on this fight centers around a 2015 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote to re-classify internet service providers (ISPs) as Common Carriers and a December 2017 FCC voted to reclassify ISPs as information service providers; unregulated in a competitive market. In addition, in 2017 the FCC prohibited states from regulating Net Neutrality.
A common carrier is classified by what they do. Landline telephones and utilities are common carriers.
Common carriers have to serve everyone who wants to use the service. Everyone has the same right to pay to use the service.
Common carriers have to charge everyone the same price for the same service.
In our district, and in much of rural Vermont, it’s difficult to recognize the benefits of an unregulated competitive telecommunications market. The more that modern life relies on being connected for healthcare, education, safety, the less acceptable it is for our rural citizens to not have access because of the lack of a competitive market. For this reason I began working on a Net Neutrality bill prior to the session. We are currently taking testimony on H.680. IF you are interested in testifying, please contact me.
Sexual Harassment – I’ve also co-sponsored H.707 which would prohibit employee agreements that prevent an employee from disclosing sexual harassment or seeking rights or remedies related to sexual harassment. The bill requires settlements to be registered with the attorney general and other provisions and has broad support from all parties and independents in the House.
The Vermont House Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWnG) held a public hearing in Montpelier on November 7th. Below are four main areas that received a lot of input and provide a clear focus for legislative initiatives:
Extend high speed internet/broadband to every corner of Vermont.
Assist small towns and villages to establish community water and wastewater systems.
Strengthen the market and demand for Vermont forestry products.
Strengthen the integration of Career Technical Education in secondary schools
I co-chair this group which is comprised of House members from across the state and representing every party and independents. This group meets weekly to track legislative initiatives related to these areas.
Public Hearing regarding Vermont Firearms Laws
The Senate Committee on Judiciary of the Vermont General Assembly is holding a public hearing about Vermont firearms laws on Tuesday, January 30, 2018. The hearing will be held at the State House in Montpelier, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
The hearing will be held in the House Chamber, second floor. Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 4:30 PM. Witness testimony will be limited to three minutes. The Committee will also accept written testimony. Due to space constraints, please consider viewing the live feed channel and submitting written testimony. https://youtu.be/vhfhCLYrgNk
Happy late summer! I’m looking forward to seeing you all at a number of events in the coming weeks and months in the valley.
An update on the end of the 2017 session: This year I served on a new committee focusing on Energy and Technology which was created by Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson. There was previously no single committee responsible for state IT projects and telecommunications was a a commerce function. This committee has jurisdiction over both the Public Service Board (now the Public Utilities Commission) and the Department of Public Service, energy, IT projects, and telecommunications. I was also appointed to the House Ethics Panel.
Highlights from 2017 bills:
Telemarketers Legislation: After hearing from many constituents about fraudulent calls, Bennington County Senator Brian Campion and I introduced mirror bills in the House and Senate and with support from the Attorney Generals office, this bill passed. S.72 An act relating to requiring telemarketers to provide accurate caller identification information and established a data broker working group. Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of dealing with what at best are nuisance calls and at worst criminal fraud activity. Enforcement will present its own challenges.
The Attorney Generals office maintains a Consumer Assistance line to resolve problems you may be having with a business and to also report suspected scams. I’d strongly encourage residents to call and sign up for their scam alert system 800-649-2424 (toll-free in Vermont) or 802-656-3183. Please consider checking out the “Stopping Scams” page at https://www.uvm.edu/consumer to better understand the tactics being used and how to protect yourself and your family.
Rural Economic Development Infrastructure districts: Allowed the formation of Rural Economic Development Infrastructure Districts Working with the Rural Economic Development Working Group, Rep. Chip Conquest and I introduced legislation to form REDI Districts . These special municipal districts can finance, own, and maintain infrastructure that provides economic development opportunities in rural and under resourced areas of the State, in designated areas within one or more municipalities.
Our committee recommended House agreement of an Executive Order establishing the Agency of Digital Services. The executive order elevated the Chief Information Officer to a cabinet level post charging the Agency of Digital Services to join IT personnel, software and hardware across state government to achieve the overall objective of improving the coordination and effectiveness of providing services to the public.
Reauthorizing Act 248A: Act 248A provides an ease in permitting for telecommunications facilities. In addition, we passed legislation providing authorization for the Department of Public Service to issue administrative citations for alleged violations of statutes and approvals related to in-state energy and telecommunications facilities.
Energy Storage Bill: The House passed legislation I sponsored which requests a report from the Department of Public Service relating to fostering energy storage on the Vermont electric system and authorized the Clean Energy Development Fund to fund energy storage projects that support renewable resources. Given Vermont’s abundance of renewable energy, our rural nature and our MA neighbors investments in energy storage, energy storage infrastructure is critically important for electric grid stability, protecting existing rate payers and efficient use of renewable energy.
10 Year Telecommunications plan: The plan is being rewritten and requires a survey of residents and businesses as part of its development. I successfully advocated for adding specific surveying requests from our healthcare, education and public safety sectors. As many in our district know – our challenges with broadband and cell service can become life threatening when police, rescue or social service personnel are unable to utilize modern communications to assist citizens in need. Representatives from Dover School, Grace Cottage and Rescue Inc. testified in support of this needed change.
Additional local interest items – Marijuana legalization: Voters in our district have communicated passionately on this issue – both for and against. In the past I have been a no vote on full legalization, and voted no for a home grow only proposal at the beginning of this past session. With recreational use being legalized just over the border in MA, we are going to see an increase in legally acquired marijuana in traffic stops and possibly impaired drivers in our district. For this reason I voted yes for a taxed and regulated recreational market. We can’t ask Vermont law enforcement to deal with stops where drivers possess legally acquired marijuana, and may be under the influence, are increasingly crossing over the border without increasing funding for them to do so. My sense is that there will be agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana sales and use in Vermont and we may see full legalization in the coming year. It might have been possible to get agreement between the governor (who vetoed a legalization bill, but then provided a means for agreeing) and the legislature during the June veto session, but that would have required the legislature to be in session for a week, incurring additional costs .
Education Between advocating for needed changes to Act 46, continuing to try to illuminate that the funding mechanism is creating inequities in our rural districts, working with Rep. John Gannon and others to try and secure Act 46 benefits for Twin Valley and other districts that merged prior to Act 46, and advocating for a statewide employee health benefit, no issue consumed more of my time this year then education. I’ll be writing more about education and what I see on the horizon for impacts in Southern Vermont before the next session.
State Budget The final budget passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the governor this year did not raise taxes or fees. Given the federal budget uncertainties, this was especially good news. The Legislature invested $8.3 million in Vermont’s mental health care system, $2.5 million in child care services for working families and $3 million to the Vermont State College system. Some programs of value to rural Vermont were prioritized including working lands, Farm-to- School programs, and the logging industry. There was no additional funding for telecommunications infrastructure build out.
Though I noted my appointment to the House Ethics Panel, there is no state Ethics Commission for all of state government. Vermont is one of only a handful of states without an Ethics Commission which can be an important factor in government accountability. Vermont’s first ethics law, S.8, establishes an independent State Ethics Commission which prohibits legislators, statewide office holders, and executive officers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office, imposes restrictions on no-bid contracting and requires financial disclosures for legislative and statewide candidates and executive officers. It requires the creation of a state code of ethics and each municipality to adopt a conflict of interest policy for all its elected officials, appointees, and employees.
A payroll tax increase on every Vermont employee passed the House year. The tax will pay for a new paid family leave program. Employees who currently received paid family leave are not exempted. I expect there will be a big push to pass this in the Senate next year.
Push for a $15 minimum wage continues. Some Burlington area lawmakers, surrounded by national chain establishments, have explained they see this push as adding revenue to Vermont. Wages are rising which likely relates to Vermont’s continued shortage of workers, employers have to pay more to get qualified staff. It’s my hope that we will spend equal or more energy trying to bring in new workers as we will spend trying to raise the minimum wage.
Be assured that I’m carefully monitoring the EB-5 Regional Center conversations and have been maintaining communications with federal and state officials and Mount Snow on both federal and state support for the local projects.
As always, thank you for providing feedback and suggestions. I plan to hold several public forums later this fall and hope you will consider coming out and sharing your thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to call or email with questions or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
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.
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 elected 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 Constitution 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:
That we approve moving healthcare negotiations for school employees to the state level.
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.
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 email@example.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!
“We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation”
April 1, 2017
Public Hearing on possible changes to Act 46: The Senate has passed S.122, which would make modifications to Act 153 and Act 46. The bills stated purpose is to provide increased flexibility for school district mergers.
The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing on S.122 on Tuesday evening, April 4, 2017. The hearing will be held in room 11 at the State House in Montpelier from 5:30-7:30 PM.Witnesses may begin signing up at 5 PM for time to speak. Testimony will be limited to three minutes per person with witnesses speaking in the order of sign up. The Committee will also accept written testimony. Testimony and questions may be directed to:
Marjorie Zunder, Committee Assistant, House Education Committee
This is an important opportunity for boards and members of the public to share information that can assist the House Education Committee as they consider the changes the Senate has suggested and whether or not to accept those changes and whether or not to make additional changes themselves.
This is an important hearing. Testifying is easy. Consider writing out your three minutes of testimony, and also consider framing it the form of a suggestion. What could the legislature do that would make the job of improving opportunities for students easier? If you do plan to come up and testify, please send me an email or text to let me know so I can plan to meet up with you.
Important Wardsboro Meeting also happening on April 4th:
Wardsboro has scheduled a re-vote on the Dover/Marlboro/Wardsboro Act 46 merger articles to be held on May 1, 2017. The board has warned the following meetings:
April 4, 2017 @ 6:30 p.m. at Wardsboro Elementary School – regularly scheduled school board meeting which will be attended by Brad James and Donna Russo-Savage from the Agency of Education. Brad is a long time AOE staffer and Donna literally wrote Act 46 when she was employed as one of the lawyers for the legislature. This will also be a good opportunity for Wardsboro residents to get answers to questions they have prior to the re-vote.
April 24, 2017 @ 6:30 p.m. at the Wardsboro Town Hall (public forum specifically for Act 46 reconsideration vote)
This past week the House passed the tax bill unanimously – raising virtually no new taxes, but banking on increased enforcement for a small amount of funding. There was nearly unanimous support for the budget which increased by 1%. The budget was largely uncontroversial with the exception of a study on education spending. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann from Stowe and I, both proponents of property tax reform, spoke at length in opposition to this proposed study which calls for identification of cost drivers in education and legislative proposals to address the cost drivers. Rep. Scheuermann spoke to dozens of studies which have been done on cost drivers in the past and called for action on the funding formula. I spoke to the statutory definitions that make per pupil spending the definition of equity of opportunity called for in Brigham and also called for action on the funding formula. Our request to strike the study received tri-partisan support but was was ultimately defeated 86-42.
Thank you to all who have been contacting me on issues impacting or interesting you individually and our communities collectively. I want to take a moment to share a few thoughts on particular bills I have heard from a number of folks on:
H.422 An act relating to removal of firearms from a person arrested or cited for domestic assault. This bill passed the House 78-67. This bill was initially troubling for me. I am a strong supporter of our Constitution, but also know very well the danger and unpredictability in domestic violence situations. Ultimately I voted against this measure because the law basically changed only one thing, whether or not a judge was contacted prior to removing a firearm after a crime had been committed which did not convince me made anyone safer and did infringe on due process for the accused.
H.170 An act relating to possession and cultivation of marijuana by a person 21 years of age or older. Voters may recall I voted against last years (very different) marijuana legislation. I’m convinced legalization will happen, but as long as it is still illegal federally, Vermont legislation needs to thoroughly consider taxation, regulation, impaired driving and youth prevention in order for me to consider voting for it. This past week H.170 came to the floor for a vote. I made a motion to send it to the Human Services Committee for additional considerations on youth prevention, which was agreed to. My sense is the bill may yet emerge for a vote in the House. If a vote passes the House it is expected to pass the Senate which overwhelming approved last years bill.
H.316 An act relating to renewable energy goals for Vermont’s total energy consumption. This legislation seeks to put Vermont’s renewable energy goals into law, that is that we will provide 90% of our energy by renewable resources by 2050. I am not opposed to this legislation, which was also introduced in the Senate. The bill is in my committee for consideration this year or next, along with about 30 other bills. We have taken zero testimony on this bill, and that will definitely happen prior to us taking it up. Given that the session is 3/4 over, the chances for this bill this year are pretty slim. I was surprised to be contacted by a number of constituents asking me for action on this bill, notifying me that VPIRG had been persistently contacting them and urging them to contact me. VPIRG is the largest nonprofit consumer and environmental advocacy organization in Vermont. They are in the statehouse every single day, and in my committee more days then not. To the best of my knowledge, they never even asked our Committee Chair, never mind me, if he would take this legislation up this year. VPIRG does some good work including grassroots outreach. Unfortunately, this is not my first experience with them misleading my constituents – unnecessarily I might add. Thank you to the folks who reached out to me to ask me about this!
We are starting to hear talk of coming back in October to address federal impacts on the Vermont budget. There may be significant impacts to healthcare, education and environmental programs. As soon as more is known definitively, I will share that information.
I am honored to represent you in the Vermont Legislature. In order to do so effectively, I need to hear from you about ideas, issues or opportunities. My cell phone is 802-384-0233 and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.