Issues/Policies

Housing Update

November 2016

The 2016 Vermont Statewide Housing Conference, our biennial gathering of housing professionals, was held November 14th and 15th in Burlington.  Over 200 people gathered to connect with each other and absorb new information about housing.

The conference’s first workshop focused on creating housing partnerships.  Speakers focused on unique ways that we are addressing homelessness here in Chittenden County.  Armed with first-hand knowledge and confirming research, we know that housing is a vaccine.  Increasingly, we are housing vulnerable people in supported housing rather than in motels.  A representative of Champlain Housing Trust spoke of housing over 600 households a year at Harbor Place in Shelburne.  Safe Harbor Health Center, a project of the Community Health Center’s Homeless Healthcare Program, provides on-site services at Harbor Place and other locations.  Jason Williams, the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Senior Government Relations Strategist, spoke of the hospital’s investment in services. Their research has shown far better outcomes for patients who are discharged to secure housing vs. those discharged without homes.

Subsequent sessions featured several key topics.  An economist and demographer made predictions for our state and region with an emphasis on housing. The presidents of the National Housing Conference and National Low Income Housing Coalition assessed the impact of the election on the national political landscape and its projected effect on housing.  Similarly, a Vermont journalist and a leader of one of the top government affairs firms in Montpelier discussed the state landscape in the wake of the election.  How to address homelessness and poverty was again the focus of a panel featuring state and national analysts.

The fast-paced conference concluded with two sections of concurrent workshops.  Housing 101 supplied the basics of Vermont’s affordable housing landscape.  “Lend Affordably” was geared toward lenders and realtors looking for ways to bring first-time homebuyers and working Vermonters into their customer bases with targeted loan products.  There was a workshop for housing developers exploring the myriad of decisions they encounter.  More focused discussion of the links between housing and healthcare, local and regional planning for housing, and federal housing policy took place.  Housing as economic development was explored by Vermont’s leaders in municipal and regional planning.  Housing 201 examined the supportive services developed to help elders and people with disabilities remain living in dignity in their homes.

This conference was produced by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency in collaboration with its partners in Vermont’s housing network. I came away with several conclusions.  First and foremost, I am proud of the work our housing partners have achieved in addressing the needs of Vermonters, particularly our most vulnerable citizens.  We have an internationally recognized system of producing and managing affordable housing right here in Vermont.  That system has faced funding challenges that are likely to increase in tough financial times and shifting federal priorities.  Working with other rural states may give us clout in sustaining federal funding.  A greater interest in supporting housing for moderate income Vermonters may produce challenges unless we are able to increase overall funding to our housing system.  We will address those challenges in the next legislative session, which begins January 4th.

Following a visit with my mom to celebrate her 94th birthday, I will be meeting meetings with individuals and community organizations before the session’s start.  The first meeting will be our South Burlington Legislative Forum on November 28th at 7:00 pm at the Community Library.  Join us for a pre-session discussion of issues likely to be front and center at the Statehouse in 2017.  And, as always, please be in touch by phone or email with your questions.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Veterans Review

October 2016

Over the last decade I have chaired the General, Housing & Military Affairs (GHMA) committee of the Vermont House of Representatives.  During that time, GHMA has shepherded a number of bills through the Legislature related to veterans, Vermont National Guard members, and their families.  Those measures have increased educational scholarship and tuition benefit programs and enhanced recognition of service through medal award ceremonies.  The Legislature paved the way for municipal approval of property tax relief for veterans with disabilities.  We instituted the service officer program based in the Vermont Department of Veterans Affairs.  Service officers help our veterans accessing services offered through the federal Veterans Administration – cutting through red tape to get much needed benefits.

At the federal level, Bernie Sanders has been a champion of funding for post-deployment mental health services. The program is known for sending counselors out on motorcycles to visit our service members throughout rural Vermont.  Veterans’ health clinics have expanded beyond White River Junction to Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Newport, and Rutland.  The Vermont Department of Veterans Affairs explains that no service member need travel more than thirty miles to visit a service officer.

Outreach is essential in a rural state and at a time when we rely increasingly on the National Guard to replace active duty military in international conflicts.  National Guard members, sometimes referred to as our “weekend warriors,” return to their civilian lives and jobs following conflict.  To its credit, the Yellow Ribbon program provides both pre-deployment and post-deployment gatherings for service members (45 and 90 days post-deployment).  Some people argue that mental health outreach and post-deployment gatherings are not enough.  Last year, GHMA heard compelling testimony from a grieving mother.  Her son, who served in the Guard and committed suicide post-deployment, felt isolated from his comrades – his support system during combat – when he took his life.    

GHMA has also focused on military sexual trauma.  Over the last three years, the Vermont National Guard has created support services and in-depth reporting processes for members experiencing sexual trauma.  The Vermont Legislature will review the Guard’s 2016 annual report on military sexual trauma in January.  

One area of success is veterans’ homelessness.  Vermont Homeless Veterans Action Committee is confident that it has reached all Vermont veterans who are homeless and helped all but five (who continually refuse assistance) attain temporary housing.  Achieving permanent housing is the next big hurdle.

On Veterans’ Day, November 11th, the Vermont Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Randolph will showcase major upgrades at a 2:00 pm public ceremony. New facilities include a public information center that will house the cemetery’s director and space for an honor guard to assemble. A maintenance building will accommodate bays to store equipment.  Work is complete to accommodate 190 additional graves plus a new columbarium.  Soon to follow:  a kiosk to help family members and the general public identify the burial sites of veterans and their spouses.  I encourage you to visit this beautiful, serene site in Randolph.  It is a short, well-marked drive off Interstate 89 adjacent to Vermont Technical College.

The state funded some planning for the cemetery upgrades, while the bulk of financing came from the federal government.  This is a persistent theme in much of our work to honor and support Vermont veterans and their families.  Our small state does not have the significant resources needed to address all veterans’ concerns.  Yet we can often provide the knowledge and drive needed for change.

This Veterans’ Day, our veterans will be honored at a public South Burlington High School ceremony, the cemetery in Randolph, and other events around the state.  Please stay in touch with ideas on how we can continue to highlight and expand this important work.  I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Weatherization

September 2016

Recently I was asked which of the Legislature’s environmental initiatives I am most proud of.  My answer was the Weatherization program.

Weatherizing the homes of Vermonters is a triple win.  Burning less fossil fuel is a win for the environment.  Spending less on heating fuel leads to household budgets better able to support a mortgage, food, child care and health care.  Hiring Vermonters to work on weatherizing homes boosts our economy, allowing wages to flow to their families, who spend on community based goods and services.

The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity is one of five Vermont agencies offering weatherization services to low-income elders, people with disabilities, and families.  The agency first conducts an energy audit to identify potential improvements in energy efficiency comfort and ways to save money on fuel bills.  Heating systems are fully checked to ensure safety, efficiency, and effectiveness.  Lighting and appliance upgrades are made when needed through a partnership with Efficiency Vermont.  Finally, renovation construction services, including materials and supplies, are provided by a qualified crew.

Last year, 268 households received weatherization and energy efficiency improvements through CVOEO, impacting 709 individuals.  Seventy-five percent of these households previously received state fuel assistance.  The Vermont families receiving weatherization services saw a $600-1900 reduction in annual energy bills.  The national average was $437.

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the Weatherization Program.  Over the program’s lifespan, responsibility for funding has increasingly shifted from the federal government to the states.  In recent years, Vermont used federal stimulus funds to support the program and proceeds from the Green Mountain Power / Central Vermont Public Service merger to help build program capacity.  Yet, approaching fiscal year 2017 (July 2016 – July 2017), these funds were exhausted.  Further, this year we saw a shortfall of $1.2 million in the state’s gross receipts tax revenue (GRT), the primary funding source for the program.  The GRT shortfall was due to a sharp drop in heating fuel oil prices last year.

The 2016 Legislature needed to agree on base funding for the program and to balance expenditures between Weatherization and LIHEAP, the emergency fuel program.  The final resolution was to raise the tax on fuel oil and propane by 2 cents per gallon.  The tax on natural gas and coal was raised by 0.25%, from 0.5% to 0.75%.  These changes result in a sustainable funding source for Weatherization and enable a modest increase in program capacity.  Unlike a percentage-based tax, this fuel tax does not yield additional revenues when fuel prices go up.

We expect that hundreds of additional households with low income elders, people with disabilities, and families with young children will see their homes weatherized this coming year.  Across the state, weatherization programs will be able to hire many new workers and train them in skilled jobs.  And Vermont will be making better progress towards meeting its low-income energy efficiency goals.  The cost to the average Vermont family will be no more than $5 per year.

As we begin to button up for winter, I am grateful for my family’s weatherized home.  And I’m also grateful for many wonderful warm weather memories this year.  They include visiting family far and wide, starting with a May visit to the 8th Vermont Monument Trail at Cedar Creek National Historical Park in Virginia.  Taking early morning walks on the bike path, hearing fantastic concerts at Veterans Memorial Park, and boating on Lake Champlain all reminded me of how special it is to come home.  

Walking through the district this fall, I have seen and talked with many of you on your doorsteps.  If we didn’t connect, please call or email with your questions and ideas.  I look forward to hearing from you.  

 

Environmental Progress     

August 2016

This summer’s hot weather reminds us of the biggest area of environmental concern:  global warming.  Over the last two years in the Vermont Legislature, these concerns have translated into policies paving the way to greater renewable energy development.  As a result, we expect to address global warming by significantly reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Last year, the Legislature established a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for the state.  Under the RPS, renewable energy credits (RECs) may be retired, and our energy policies will align with our New England neighbors.  This law sets standards for three tiers of energy resources: (1) total renewable energy, (2) new renewable distributed generation, and (3) energy transformation projects.

In the first category, the law requires that total renewable energy comprise 55% of each utility’s sales by 2017, increasing to 75% by 2032.  This category could be met through the purchase or contracting of renewable energy with RECs attached, or purchasing RECs alone.

In the second category, the law requires that new distributed generation comprise 1% of each utility’s sales by 2017, increasing to 10% by 2032.  If this tier were met by solar only, it would require 400 MW of solar capacity or roughly 25 MW of new solar capacity every year starting in 2017.  Like efficiency, distributed power minimizes the need for expensive transmission lines, promotes reliability, and reduces line losses.  These changes are expected to lower the cost of electricity for Vermont consumers.  And through distributed renewable generation, we can become our own power suppliers, keeping some of the $830 million we spend annually on electricity right here in Vermont.

The third tier is energy transformation projects, defined as energy-related goods and services other than the generation of electricity that result in a reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Examples include home weatherization, air source and geothermal heat pumps, electric vehicle charging stations, and energy storage.  Energy transformation projects will provide more sales for utilities.  When coupled with demand management to avoid peak consumption periods, electricity rates can be lowered by increasing revenues over the same fixed costs.

From a total energy perspective, Vermont consumers are expected to save $275 million in total energy spending over the next fifteen years as a result of this law.  These changes also encourage the strategic electrification of the transportation and heating sectors, helping us cut fifteen million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.  We can stay on track to achieve a quarter of our statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 75% by 2050.

This year’s energy project siting bill answers the call of many of our communities to have greater ownership over their energy future.  It integrates energy planning into land-use decision-making through our regional and local planning commissions.  Towns that choose to work with the regional planning commissions on enhanced energy planning have a path to receive substantial deference before the Public Service Board on specific siting decisions.  This bill is the product of meaningful input from citizens affected by sound from wind generation facilities.  The Public Service Board will be required to issue emergency and then permanent sound rulemaking that all new projects must come under.  Vermont is now the first “lights out at night” state, requiring large wind projects to have radar-controlled lighting that only turns on when it detects the passing of a plane.

 

Food and Economic Development

July 2016

The most exciting economic development action of the last decade in Vermont has happened in our food system.  We lead the way among states in farming innovations, as we not only export, but consume, increasing amounts of Vermont- grown agricultural products in state.

The seeds for this transformation were planted almost three decades ago.  While many Vermonters have always grown and processed their own food, community supported agriculture farms (CSAs) began to pop up twenty-five years ago.  My family joined one of the first, the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, at its inception in 1990.  We have enjoyed twenty-seven seasons of fresh produce from the farm.

Not only is CSA produce delicious, it is grown near home under conditions that protect the environment.  Farmers earn fair wages and can focus on growing rather than marketing their crops.  All members share in the bounty, as well as the rare losses that occur with very bad weather.  Crop excess is distributed to disadvantaged Vermonters, through reduced cost shares and food shelves.

While CSAs have sprouted all over the state, we have seen massive growth in farmers’ markets, development of a wide range of Vermont based agricultural products, and a focus on local food in restaurants.  The results are stunning.

The Vermont Legislature became involved through passage of 2009’s Farm to Plate law.  According to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), Vermont has added 665 new food businesses since 2009.  Local food also accounts for $8.6 billion in annual economic output (up 24 percent since 2007), and the state added 5,500 food system jobs from 2002 to 2013.  Food service giant Sodexo spent $3.2 million in 2014 on food produced in Vermont, while the UVM Medical Center buys nearly $2 million annually. The VSJF provides business development services in the agricultural and forest product sectors.

For decades, dairy products have ruled Vermont’s agricultural products list.  While our ice cream and cheese products are legendary, vegetable products are emerging, including a thriving bean-growing business and many more.  My House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – has focused on the growth of Vermont’s malt (beer), vinous (wine), and spirits (hard liquor) sector of the economy.  There are strong economic successes in these alcohol categories, aided by laws concerning product production and access to special events for distribution.

This year, the Legislature “beefed up” the Farm to School Program by establishing a universal meals pilot program to provide more free or reduced-price meals to Vermont students in underserved schools around the state.  In addition, we took the first steps toward increasing food security for low-income elders.

The SB School District’s Director of Nutritional Services, Rhonda Ketner, reports that when she was hired four years ago, virtually none of our school food was local.  Now the purchased Vermont chicken, eggs, potatoes, cheese, fruit, honey and maple syrup, as well as herbs grown in school gardens, constitute 28% of what is served in our cafeterias.

Locally, we can take special pride in two additional initiatives.  Common Roots, South Burlington’s non-profit farm to school program, grows healthy food for our schools, families, and Sunday farmers’ market.  Bread and Butter Farm offers its farm store and popular Friday summer burger nights, both featuring its farm-fresh food.

Growth in Vermont’s food economy provides a solid model for economic development.  Vermonters’ needs and opportunities are identified, especially those currently met by out- of-state products.  Vermont entrepreneurs step forward to address these needs and opportunities.  Public policies are adopted as needed to ensure that businesses can build on early successes and become sustainable.

 

Transportation

June 2016

Every two years, the legislature passes a transportation revenue bill to fund the many projects completed by state, municipal, and non-profit organizations across Vermont. From capital improvements to safety enhancements to infrastructure upgrades, these investments are vital to Vermonters. We depend on our railways, roads, and bridges to support our commercial and service industries. We recreate on bicycle paths and snowmobile trails. We rely on basic safety infrastructure – like lane markings, signage, guardrails, and rumble strips – to aid our safe travel from one place to another.

This year, the legislature did not pass a transportation revenue bill, and we saw a decline in federal transportation funding. But we did benefit from a triennial update to fees associated with the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Fees, unlike taxes, are only paid by the users of government services.) The legislature reviews groups of fees each year to keep changes current with costs.  Nine million dollars will be added to the transportation fund, thanks to these adjustments. Vermonters will see this money returned to their communities in the form of increased town highway aid, municipal highway water runoff improvement support, and other capital improvements.

Many of us are deeply concerned about the four 2015 Vermont cycling deaths. After careful consideration, lawmakers took three actions. First, we updated rules of the road to acknowledge the way cyclists use the roadway and to better protect them. Cyclists and motor vehicle operators both must signal before turning and make turns only when there is a safe distance between themselves and other road users. It is now recommended that vehicles allow four feet of roadway when passing a cyclist. Second, we created an enhanced penalty for negligent operation with death or serious bodily injury resulting. Third, we allocated resources for education about the new law. Education, particularly on the “right hook” turns, will be crucial to ensuring that all road users are safe.

An additional $3.9 million will enable construction of several new bicycle and pedestrian trail projects during the state fiscal year that begins July 1.  Snowmobilers, bicyclists, and pedestrians will use the trails.

Park and ride facilities continue to be a high priority.  2017 funding provides for scoping (early planning) of two new park and ride facilities, along with funds to enlarge or upgrade five existing projects.  Seven additional projects are under design.  Next year’s work will result in the addition of over 159 parking spaces.

We required that the Clean Water Fund Board, when making recommendations on expenditures from the Clean Water Fund, prioritize fund awards to municipalities for the establishment or operation of stormwater utilities.  The 2017 budget supports positions at the Agency of Transportation to assist with stormwater runoff and water quality improvement efforts.  South Burlington’s stormwater utility continues to be a model in the Statehouse and throughout Vermont.

 

2016 Legislative Session Wrap-Up

May 2016

This year’s legislative session was one of the most successful of my fourteen years in the House.  We made important strides in policies related to health care, education, safety, housing, and economic development.

The year began with my committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – hearing about homelessness from state and local leaders.  We supported plans to move away from unsupervised motels as sites for emergency housing and toward more supportive, less costly shelters.  Chittenden County has demonstrated its ability to execute this plan.  While challenges remain in other parts of the state, serious discussions are taking place about ways to achieve more permanent housing.

My committee was front and center on initiatives that will increase access to work and help Vermonters stay in the workplace.  Because Vermont has “banned the box,” most job applicants will not be required to check a box on an initial job application indicating whether they have a criminal history.  This law provides an opportunity to get an interview, where history, along with current willingness and ability to work can be presented – a second chance.

There are currently 60,000 Vermonters without access to paid sick time. These working Vermonters are too often forced to choose between taking care of themselves or a sick family member and taking home a paycheck. Low-income workers, including food service and childcare workers, are the least likely to have paid sick days. When employees are forced to go to work sick, everyone is put at risk. This year, the Legislature passed the healthy workplace bill, creating a minimum standard for paid sick days starting with the ability to earn up to three days off after one year of full-time employment.

I am proud of many initiatives with roots in other parts of the Legislature. These initiatives include automatic voter registration at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles and placing greater weight on local and regional planning when siting new renewable energy projects.  Act 48, Vermont’s school consolidation law passed last year, is fueling district consolidations around the state – promising to increase the quality of education for thousands of Vermont students while decreasing overall education costs.

We balanced citizen safety needs with civil liberties rights in several instances.  These include changes to our sex offender registry and bans on firearm possession by violent felons.  We restricted the use of drones and the use of automatic license plate readers by law enforcement.  Additional protections were extended to vulnerable state employees, especially those working on child safety issues.

The FY17 budget responsibly allocates resources to stabilize existing programs and meet the obligations and needs of our state. It sustains support for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s housing creation programs, increases funding for home weatherization, and supports further modernization of the Vermont Veterans Home.

The budget funds programs needed to assure that 97% of Vermonters have health care and directs an analysis of the current functionality and long-term sustainability of Vermont Health Connect.  Child protection services are expanded, and the ability of the judicial system to respond to the demands created by the opioid epidemic is increased. Our infrastructure will continue to improve, thanks to the robust transportation funding in the budget. We maintained our commitment to water quality with funding for clean water programs.

The FY17 budget also looks responsibly to the future by not using any one-time funds for ongoing needs.  Additionally, over a million dollars was set aside for future needs, and retirement funds were put on a more sustainable track. This fully-funded budget restrains growth to just 2.4%. It acknowledges our challenges and addresses them in a fiscally and morally responsible way – the Vermont way.

Paid for by the Helen Head Campaign, Mary L. Gauthier, Treasurer 65 East Terrace, South Burlington, Vermont  05403