End of Session Report – 2017

The chaos in Washington DC has dominated much of the conversation around governing in Vermont this year.  Yet, my colleagues and I in the Vermont House have made the first year of the session a productive one. All of the policies described here have been finalized.  See below for the budget highlights.

Know that we fought back against President Trump’s discrimination against immigrant Vermonters, locked in rules to protect our environment against federal encroachment, initiated a major infusion of bonding for affordable housing development, advanced criminal justice reform, and passed paid family leave in the House.

Please stay in touch over the summer and fall to learn more about these changes, other initiatives too numerous to include here, and the work to come. I welcome your thoughts.  

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

As the legislative session closed for the year, a number of high value economic development programs were combined into one comprehensive bill. This economic development package addresses multiple needs including retirement security, downtown growth, workforce development, affordable housing, minimum wage, and small business growth.

About 45% of working Vermonters have no employer-provided pension plan.  Nearly half do not have an IRA or other private plan. The Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan proposes a portable, voluntary, simple and affordable way to supplement Social Security income in retirement years.  The plan will be funded by employees, but employers may offer to contribute as a benefit.  All employees will be auto enrolled in the program, with the option of withdrawing their enrollment. Details are being worked out by the Public Retirement Plan Study Committee and will be submitted by 1/15/18.

Every year, 3000 young Vermonters enter the workforce with no job skills.  They are 50% of our high school graduating class and 25% of that year’s graduating class who leave postsecondary education after the first year. This bill creates exciting initiatives to address those needs: funding for career training and planning, focusing on apprenticeships; creation of advanced level courses through our Career and Technical Education Centers (CTE); and creation of a career pathways coordinator within the Agency of Education to work with our state colleges, UVM, and Career and Technical Education Centers.

The 2016 Vermont Livable Wage is $13.03 an hour for a single person in a two person household. That goes up to $21.97 per parent in a two parent and two child household in town and $20.30 in the country. A comprehensive study on the impact of an increased minimum wage to $15.00 over time and a public benefits cliff study will be made to the Legislature in January 2018.

The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment found that building 5000 new housing units per year would reduce housing as a constraint to economic success and produce the homes and communities Vermont needs to attract talent. This bill streamlines and sets permitting priorities to encourage affordable housing for low and middle income Vermonters.

Small business development is fostered in three ways under this bill. Funding is expanded for the highly successful Micro Business Development Program that helps low and moderate income Vermonters launch businesses.  A new program is created to foster climate economy startups.  More business advisors affiliated with the Small Business Development Centers will be sent to underserved regions of the state subject to available resources.

The cost of workers’ compensation is one of the biggest challenges to a business.  This year’s economic development bill lowered the business workers compensation rate from 1.75% of their insurance premium to 1.4%.

PREGNANCY PROTECTIONS IN THE WORKPLACE

Pregnant employees can face specific challenges that require certain protections. They may not be able to fit into the clothing specified at the workplace; they  may need to drink more water and have access to it at their workstation; and they may need more frequent bathroom breaks. These are all examples of actual cases in which the employee requested accommodations and was refused, and in more than one case, fired.

The pregnancy accommodations bill requires employers to grant reasonable requests for accommodations – work changes that do not cause undue harm to the business.  Simple examples include permitting a cashier to use a stool.

ETHICS

Vermont is one of only a handful of states without an ethics commission and has consistently received a very low grade when it comes to government accountability. While the vast majority of our elected officials are trustworthy, corruption, even in small doses, undermines public trust. An independent State Ethics Commission will prohibit legislators, statewide office holders, and executive officers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office.  Additionally, legislative action imposes restrictions on no-bid contracting and related campaign contributions involving statewide candidates/ office holders; requires financial disclosures for candidates for legislative and statewide offices; and creates a state code of ethics.  The ethics bill also requires each municipality to adopt a conflict of interest policy for all its elected officials, appointees, and employees.  This legislation helps to provide the public assurances of governmental transparency, integrity, and propriety.

HEALTH CARE ADVANCES

Vermont’s entire mental health care system has been struggling due to a lack of resources, inadequate staffing and scope of community programs, and major gaps in housing availability.  The 2018 budget increases mental health and developmental services funding by $8.3 million. Meanwhile, key stakeholders were directed to provide a thorough analysis of the problems and a corrective action plan by September 2017.

Since the 1990’s our laws have required that insurance cover mental illness on par with physical illness. However, the test for mental injury in Vermont’s workers compensation system has made it next to impossible for a firefighter, police officer or EMT to get coverage for a mental injury.  The bill that passed this year corrects an unfairness that kept many injured first-responders from being able to access treatment for post-traumatic stress they sustained in the course of responding to emergencies.

The Legislature passed legislation that would provide minors with access to mental health treatment without receiving consent from a parent or guardian.  The original legislation limited treatment to children with sexual orientation or gender identity issues.  However, testimony demonstrated that nearly 20% of children suffer from some sort of mental health issues and many of them are not receiving treatment of any sort.

The state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program serves older Vermonters and their families when they have issues with service providers.  A new state law brings the program into compliance with federal requirements, while ensuring that new long term care programs must comply with consumer protections.  The law also provides a “private right to action” in court to vulnerable Vermonters if they have been financially exploited. A vulnerable Vermonter, or their designee, may now bring a civil suit against someone who has exploited them. If the person is found guilty of exploitation, the vulnerable adult receives the restitution. Previously, legal action was limited to criminal charges brought by the Attorney General and the state was recipient of any fines collected as a result of that action.

Sexual assault victims must now receive a medical examination without cost and be notified of exam results and available services.

Budget Highlights

  • No increased taxes or fees
  • Reduction in property tax rates
  • Protection of vital services for Vermonters
  • Commitments to pay obligations and maintain reserves
  • Investments in economic development, including small businesses, marketing, and career/technical education
  • Growth in working lands, rural economic development, and Farm to School programs
  • Increases in child care services for working families ($2.5 million)
  • Supports for the state college system ($3.88 million)
  • New $35 million housing bond to create homes for low and moderate income Vermonters
  • Clean up for the state’s waters ($54 million)
  • Increases in mental health and developmental services  (8.3 million)
  • Reinforced funding for home and community based services, including Adult Day Centers and Meals on Wheels

For more information:   www. legislature.vermont.gov