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

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

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

Qualifying conditions include:

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

greeneconomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura H. Sibilia

 

 

 

 

 

Budget, Taxes and Act 46 public hearing

“We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation”
~Wynton Marsalis
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
mzunder@leg.state.vt.us

802-828-2258

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.

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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)

An abundance of information, previously posed questions and answers, and the proposed merger articles can be found at http://wcsu-committee.blogspot.com/

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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 lhsibilia@gmail.com.

Please stay in touch, and stay engaged,

 

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

2016 End of Session Report

Dear friends and neighbors,

This year’s session ended Saturday, which also marked the completion of the 2015/2016 biennium.  The last days of the second year of a biennium are incredibly chaotic, as any legislation introduced in 2015 or 2016 Sessions must pass or start the process all over again next year.

Below are some summaries of how key legislation, and legislation important to our district ended up:

Possible state purchase of TransCanada Dams:
Glory Hole Empty May 2009A seven-member working group was formed by the Governor, the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem to determine whether the state should try to buy 13 dams TransCanada has put on the market.  Windham county legislators were successful in our efforts to include a regional representative of impacted municipalities.  You can monitor this working groups progress here on the Agency of Administrations website.

On April 27th 2016 members of the Windham and Bennington County delegation met with Vermont Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson and Windham Region Commission Executive Director RC Chris Campany regarding the possibility of a State of Vermont purchase of TransCanada assets. Secretary Johnson outlined three items the state was currently working on:transcanada
1. Scope of work for an RFP to get a consultant to look at work done by the state 12 years ago when the possibility of acquiring power generation assets had previously been considered.
2. Develop legislative language that is modeled to set up authority to run dams needed; however, the Secretary indicated he didn’t see how the state would do this without without a partner.
3. Valuation of some of the dams under state ownership.

Marijuana legalization:
The House had three votes on marijuana policy.  The first vote on the Senate proposal to legalize marijuana failed by a vote of 121-28.  The second vote to hold a non binding referendum during the August Primary elections failed 97-51.  The third vote, to decriminalize home cultivation of two plants failed 77-70.  It seems likely that legalization will occur in the coming years.  Since marijuana is illegal federally, I believe thoughtful regulation needs the input of many more legislative committees than have been involved to date, and will require more time then one year.  Given the session’s time constraints and resulting lack of vetting, as well as the fact that we have very large healthcare and educational reforms happening during a historical state leadership transition, I voted against all three measures.

Budget:
The Senate and House agreed to approve total budgets of 5.76B which is a 2.4% increase over last year.  I voted to support this budget largely because of the process by which it was created. Every legislator had multiple opportunities to participate in its development, voters were provided additional multiple public forums to participate in, and the House Appropriations Committee required every Agency and Department to prioritize and justify its programs with outcomes.  Read the summary here: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/appropriations/fy_2017/2017_budget_summary_COC_May_2016.pdf

Taxes: The tax and fee bills to support the budget included an increased fee on mutual fund providers and an assumption of increased rooms and meals tax collection as a result of tax compliance initiatives aimed at internet based lodging providers like AirBnB.  The original House tax bill had included an employer health care assessment which included an assessment on some employees or dependents who had health care through their partner or spouse.  I vote against the original House tax bill because of that potential double coverage penalty and given the number of employers who dropped their health care coverage, made their employees eligible for Green Mountain Care, and paid the amounts previously spent on premiums to their employees for their deductibles – as recommended by state officials.  With the employer assessment gone, I voted to support these bills.

It is important to note that Healthcare reform initiatives remain the single biggest increased cost driver in our state budget challenges.  By a lot.  We have significantly increased the number of Vermonters who are eligible for publicly funded healthcare but have not significantly increased taxes to pay for that care.  We are going to have to kick people off of publicly funded healthcare, dramatically reduce other programs, or raise more money in order to sustain this current system.

Telecom: The House overwhelmingly passed a bill which required providers to provide mapping data on their coverage areas or lose access to public funds, made changes to Act 248(a) which deals with equipment siting, funded restoration of services to the blind, and raised the Vermont Universal Service Fund fee by half a percent to raise 1.6 million annually to expand broadband in unserved areas.  The Senate refused to take the bill up.  Rep. Sam Young (D) Glover led an effort by the Ways and Means Committee to attach the entire telecom bill to another bill sent to the Senate which provided long awaited reforms to the estate tax, but in the end, the Senate still refused to take up the bill.  This represents a temporary set back for towns and areas, previously thought to be covered by VTel, which are working to expand service, as their will be less state funding this year then expected.The Senate did include one claw back provision regarding VTel which received over 2M in state funds to purchase equipment meant to provide cell service to under-served areas.  Unless evidence of 2000 cell customers covered is provided, VTel will have to repay those funds in 2017.  Additionally the State Auditor has requested copies of VTel’s federal grant to develop a wireless network to provide service to unserved Vermonters and expand it’s existing fiber to the home.

Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone: This year’s Economic Development bill included50K in funding to support the development of regionally based economic development collaboration in

Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D) Windham Chairs the House Agriculture Committee

Bennington County.  This process is needed to support future plans to develop a comprehensive economic development plan with Windham County.  I’ve championed this zone initiative, which began last year, along with Rep. Oliver Olson (I) Londonderry and Rep. Kiah Morris (D) Bennington.

Gilfeather Turnip: Wardsboro’s Gilfeather turnip will officially become Vermont’s state vegetable on May 24th when the Governor signs the bill in Montpelier.  Kudo’s to the Wardsboro students and Wardsboro library volunteers who worked so hard, over two years, making the historical case for this to happen.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge and Senator Bobby Starr were instrumental in the bills passage, and in patiently explaining to Wardsboro’s students how long the process would take.

Please don’t hesitate to be in touch on issues of importance to you.  The best means of contacting me is email lhsibilia@gmail.com or cell 802-384-0233.

Warm regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia

Marijuana hearing and connectivity update

Dear friends and neighbors,

We are more then halfway throughway the session and have begun to send House bills to the Senate for consideration of passage this year

and vice versa.  This past week the House passed the first version of both the budget and tax bills.  The bills now go to the Senate who will make changes, perhaps significant ones.  Then the House will need to vote on the revised budget and tax bills.  I hope to go into more depth about the budget process, which I was more involved in this year then last, in an upcoming post.  Below is information on an upcoming marijuana hearing in the House as well as a second request to hear from folks in the district who have VTel wireless internet service.
 
Marijuana Legislation:

There is a public hearing on marijuana legalization this Thursday evening in Montpelier –  https://laurasibiliavt.com/2016/03/25/public-hearing-on-marijuana-legalization/

This hearing will likely have a lot of people showing up to testify both pro and and opposed.  The House Judiciary Committees Press Release notes that not everyone may be able to testify due to time constraints.  The hearing will start at 5 pm and individuals will have two minutes to testify. Sign up to testify begins at 4:30 – if you plan to attend I would urge you to arrive no later then 4:15 to get in line. This is frequently how public meetings occur, though I would note that Senator Sears held two meetings in Southern Vermont earlier this winter on marijuana legalization. If you feel strongly either way about marijuana legislation, I would encourage you to testify – it’s a lot easier then you might think.

If you would like to testify: To prepare for two minutes of testimony, I would strongly encourage you to write your testimony in advance.  You can provide more written testimony then two minutes worth – in that case you would just submit it via email to the Judiciary Committees clerk, or give the written documents to the clerk at the hearing.  Her name is Jeanie Lowell and her email is jlowell@leg.state.vt.us

If you would like to follow the bill: The bill is S.241 and the version that passed the Senate can be found here: http://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2016/S.241   It is now in the House in House Judiciary where changes are almost certain.  You can follow the House Judiciary Committee’s work on this bill here: http://legislature.vermont.gov/committee/document/2016/18/Bill/4064809

If you decide to come and testify, please let me know – use my cell phone below 802-384-0233 Let me know if you have any questions!

VTel service and Municipal Connectivity Planning

The VTel Wireless project, WOW, was purportedly to design, engineer and construct a fixed wireless internet network for 57,000 homes and 3,700 businesses. This was one of two projects which received 116 million dollars in federal funds.  The second project, a fiber to the home project in the VTel phone coverage area is completed and working.  However, five and a half years later, neither my constituents working (for years on a volunteer basis for their rural town and fellow citizens) on this issue or my calls to VTel and the state Department of Public Service have been able to turn up address specific evidence from VTel that anyone in Vermont is being served by the VTel WOW project.
I am continuing to work to understand what has transpired, and why folks that were to have been covered by this project remain uncovered.  If you are currently a VTel customer in Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg,

Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro or Whitingham, I would very much like to hear from you as our towns begin to consider developing a “Plan B” for connectivity.

In the interim, my committee has sponsored H.870 which would require telecom companies to provide connectivity data to the Department of Public Service or forgo public funding for providing high cost telephone service. The bill also seeks to raise the Universal Service Fee by half a cent, all of which will be dedicated to a fund which is used to expand connectivity

Wardsboro VTel info meeting (from their Facebook page) 
WARDSBORO INFORMATION SESSION Join us Wednesday, March 30 from 6:00-8:00pm for an informational and sign-up session at Wardsboro Elementary School, 70 School Road, Wardsboro, VT 05355. We’ll have exclusive promotional offers as well as free cider and donuts! Learn more about our service at http://www.vtelwireless.com/high-sp…/how-vtel-wireless-works

Whitingham connectivity meeting
A community wide public meeting with the Vermont Department of Public Service, Telecom and Connectivity Division and interested Whitingham  citizens is being scheduled for April 18th at 5:30 pm in the main hall of the Jacksonville Municipal Center.  The purpose of the meeting is to share data about existing broadband availability and broadband and cell projects and upcoming deployments happening in the Whitingham area. This public meeting will help inform the next steps in determining how Whitingham may choose to participate in expanding cell and broadband services in the town.
The Connectivity Initiative Program run by the Department of Public Service, seeks to provide funding for hard to serve areas. More information on the DPS and their various programs is available at: http://publicservice.vermont.gov/topics/connectivity.

The meeting is open to the public.
Independent Contractors. In my last newsletter, I sent you information on H.867 which is an act related to the proper classification of employees and independent contractors.  This bill seeks to allow our workers, employers and entrepreneurs to keep pace with today’s rapidly changing economic delivery system. While it codifies in law that everyone is presumed to be an employee, it also adds a definition of what and an independent contractor is.   Read more about how you can determine if you can be an Independent Contractor, or if you are an employer the risks and benefits of hiring an Independent Contractor.  Our committee spent more then a month on this bill this session and passed it out with bi-partisan support 11-0.  I am hopeful that the full House will be able to vote on this bill this session.

A reminder that you can monitor the work my committee is doing and check in on how I am voting on issues by going to the legislature website

As always, I encourage folks to weigh in on issues that you care strongly about.  The best way to reach me is email at lhsibilia@gmail.com or cell at (802) 384-0233.  And if you are in Montpelier on business or to testify, give me a call and let me know if you’d like to try and meet.