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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More on rural phone service and Readsboro telephone meeting

Many thanks to the Town Clerk’s Office, Selectboard, Schoolboard, Codogni Plumbing and Readsboro Broadband Committee member Omar Smith for making themselves available in the middle of the day to talk with the Secretary of Digital Services John Quinn and the Commissioner of Public Services June Tierney.  The pair were in Bennington County for Governor Scott’s Cabinet for a Day program and asked to come meet and listen to what has been going on with phone service in one of our isolated towns.

VTDigger posted a story on rural communications issues last week which you can find here. I’m relieved to find no one willing to defend 10 day repair times for folks who only have a land line phone, but that doesn’t actually solve the problem many have been facing.  Please make sure to report outages or poor quality connections to your telephone company right away and stay in touch if you experiencing troubles getting a timely repair. In the short term an investigation and possibly work to change rules which impact repair times in rural areas may provide some immediate relief – but the big picture long term is going to require us to consider Vermont’s entire telecommunications system and providers to ensure reliability for all.

      

Time to eliminate the Venn of Doom

“By the 1930s nearly 90% of U.S. urban dwellers had electricity, but 90% of rural homes were without power. Investor-owned utilities often denied service to rural areas, citing high development costs and low profit margins. Consequently, even when they could purchase electricity, rural consumers paid far higher prices than urban consumers.” – from the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives  Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives

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Vermont has state-of-the-art communication technologies. We have cell service throughout much of our state and wireless internet solutions in areas where the topography works. We have middle mile fiber, cable and dsl that connects residents and businesses to the global economy, their doctors and public safety and even provides phone service through VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocols).  Modern life is possible in much of Vermont. Still it’s no secret that access to wired and wireless phone and internet is unevenly available in the Green Mountain state. What may not be as widely known is that in some of the most rural parts of Vermont this situation is not static, it’s deteriorating. We have a negative relationship of conditions which has developed; a Venn diagram of doom if you will.

An early morning call from one of my constituents this summer drove this point home. She lives in a community which is almost exclusively limited to dial up or satellite for internet, sadly VTel’s federally taxpayer funded wireless network is still not available in her town. The only cell service in her town, CoverageCo limited 2G, is non operational and has been for some time.  She recently had serious surgery and is also handicapped. It takes over 30 minutes to get the State Police to her town, at least 30 minutes for an ambulance assuming a volunteer and driver are able to respond immediately and the hospitals are 30 minutes away (when the roads are open and not closed with snow accidents or washed out roads). She called because her landline phone line was not working and the repair date she was given – more than a week – had her worried for her safety.

This summer I received an unusually high number of complaints about phone service repairs and installations. There has been a corresponding increase in complaints about repair times to the Public Utility Commission which regulates landline telephone service and other public utilities like electricity.  Because of this, it would not surprise me to see an investigation opened up and action taken against the rural landline telephone provider. The irony here is the regulated landline telephone provider is the ONLY provider required to supply service to those Vermonters who reside at the intersection of the “Venn of Doom” – the place where no cell service, no internet service, and long distances from emergency response and emergency healthcare meet.

Vermont – and all other state’s – have limited ability to regulate the build out of wireless (cell service) and wired internet (cable) due to federal preemption. These for profit providers compete in an extremely dynamic marketplace, with rapidly innovating technologies, in Vermont’s densely populated areas. They compete with each other and they also compete with the regulated telephone providers who must provide service and repairs of critical infrastructure to all Vermonters, not just those they can make a profit selling a high end product to. Guess which type of provider is losing landline customers in the easy – and cost effective to provide service to – densely populated service areas? Guess who still has to provide essential telephone service even when they lose landline customers? Guess who Vermont can penalize for poor service or lack of coverage?

This declining situation is not acceptable.  My colleagues in the legislature have heard me declare more then once that we aren’t just going to roll up rural Vermont and put it away – real people, families, students and businesses live there. Real businesses and towns are unable to participate in Vermont’s economy and services. We have allowed a situation to develop that is increasing risk and vulnerability in rural Vermont.

The time for patiently waiting for this situation to improve has passed. Concerns about vulnerable rural Vermonters landline access have been communicated to the Public Service Department. An RFP to find a provider to replace the CoverageCo cell service has recently been released – which is important to many towns and schools in our district. These short term actions will help. But going forward we need a shift in how we think about telecommunication access and the market for communication products, who is responsible for ensuring critical infrastructure is accessible everywhere in our state, we are going to need to develop a plan for empowering communities or regions to manage and finance connectivity expansions. In each of the last two bienniums the House has overwhelmingly passed funding measures to address parts of this challenge – we will need our Senate colleagues to join us in this next biennium. In the administration we need the DPS to have more resources and partners trying to solve this public safety, education, healthcare access, economic issue. As a state, and with our private sector providers, Vermont must take a long hard look at the regulatory structures that have produced this outcome and ensure our regulatory environment going forward supports reliable affordable essential communications infrastructure availability for all Vermonters.

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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
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    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:

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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

Important progress overcoming CoverageCo vulnerabilities

Please see the important announcement from the Governor’s office about Grace Cottage Hospital – one of a number of critical community facilities facing public safety issues as a result of the cell vulnerabilities of the CoverageCo project.

Thank you to Speaker Johnson, Governor Scott and AT&T for their preliminary response to the impending public safety issue. I look forward to participating in continued efforts to find solutions for Twin Valley High School, Readsboro and a number of other rural Vermont areas currently served by CoverageCo.

GOVERNOR SCOTT, AT&T PARTNER TO ENHANCE COVERAGE AT GRACE COTTAGE HOSPITAL

Townshend, Vt. – Governor Phil Scott today announced the arrival of an AT&T Cell Site on Wheels (COW) at Grace Cottage Hospital, which will reinforce and enhance wireless network coverage for the hospital and the surrounding area.

The hospital and surrounding area were facing a loss of coverage due to a potential shutdown of wireless provider CoverageCo. The Governor worked with AT&T to ensure there would be no coverage gaps in the hospital’s critical operations.

Within five days of the Governor’s initial request, an AT&T COW arrived in the Grace Cottage parking lot. This equipment will provide more AT&T coverage than was previously available.

“Ensuring Grace Cottage Hospital does not see a lapse in wireless network coverage was a priority as we work to support the entire area impacted,” said Scott. “I appreciate AT&T’s partnership in identifying and providing this solution for the hospital and surrounding area, and the continued work of our Department of Public Service, Agency of Commerce, the Legislature and local officials on this issue. This kind of civic-minded cooperation is commendable and essential to addressing challenges like these.”

Grace Cottage Hospital and Townshend are new coverage areas for AT&T. In addition to the COW, AT&T has plans for a permanent cell site in Townshend as part of the company’s FirstNet nationwide first responder network, which benefits public safety and citizens alike.

“We were happy to work with Governor Scott and be able to quickly respond to this need for coverage in a critical area,” said Patricia Jacobs, President of AT&T New England. “In addition to the immediate coverage provided by the COW, AT&T is committed to further reinforcing and enhancing coverage for this area through FirstNet and supporting public safety efforts in whatever way we can.”

Scott sought assistance with the Grace Cottage Hospital site when it appeared that the CoverageCo small cell network would shut down at the beginning of April. Beginning in 2012, CoverageCo has been under contract with the State of Vermont to build a wireless network of small cell sites in rural areas, completing 160 of a planned 500 nodes over the past four years. However, in the face of mounting management difficulties, CoverageCo’s small cell network in Vermont may shut down, jeopardizing cell coverage along rural roadways in some of Vermont’s most remote areas, as well as for some school facilities, public safety outlets and Grace Cottage Hospital.

“We’ve been working diligently to find reasonable and sustainable pathways to preserve the gains made in these rural areas, and we are grateful to AT&T and the many partners who’ve joined us in this effort,” said Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.

Tierney added that addressing the compelling and complex issue of expanding cell coverage in Vermont’s hard-to-reach areas will remain a priority for the Department. “CoverageCo is a small private enterprise that has taken a run at the large economic challenge of bringing cell service to parts of rural Vermont where a sustainable business model has yet to materialize,” she continued. “We will continue to explore all reasonable options to help find an enduring and affordable solution for these communities.”

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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

Rep. Sibilia 2018 Town Meeting Update

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 lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us

PROPOSED INCOME TAX CHANGES: H.911 Lowers 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.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: 

  • 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.