An opportunity to create significant quantities of housing for low and moderate income Vermonters emerged this year. Key legislators championed a major housing investment before the session began. The governor called for a $35 million bond in his January budget address. This effort became the most universally accepted initiative of the 2017 legislative session.
It is easy to see why a big housing investment makes sense. The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment for 2015 – 2020 found that an additional 5,954 units of rental housing and 10,600 units of home ownership are needed across the state. The National Low Income Housing Coalition and Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition’s recent release of Out of Reach reflects that Vermont’s average Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom apartment is $1,139. In order to afford this – without paying more than 30% of income for rent – a household must earn $45,445 annually, translating to $21.90 per hour. This is unaffordable for a large percentage of Vermonters. Out of Reach found that Vermont has the 5th highest affordability gap for renters of any state in the nation. High rents, along with low vacancy rates, continue to be barriers for finding and retaining housing.
Business leaders have long cited housing shortages (particularly here in Chittenden County) as obstacles to recruiting middle income employees from out of the area. Home buyers looking to spend between $200,000 and $400,000 face very tough competition and are increasingly paying more than the seller’s asking price.
My House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – was proud to advocate for a $35 million housing creation bond in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget bill (covering the period from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019). A quarter of the new housing will be targeted to Vermonters of very low income (30% or less of median income). Another quarter is targeted at those with moderate incomes (80% – 120% of median income). The remaining housing will target Vermonters with income that is less than or equal to 120% of area median income.
The challenge has been how to cover the $2.5 million annual debt service for the bond. The Appropriations Committee found $1.5 million from available sources in the budget and proposed that the additional $1 million come from a portion of the Property Tax surcharge. However, the surcharge was established specifically to go to the Clean Water Fund to pay for ongoing and important work to clean up Vermont’s watersheds.
The final compromise between the House and Senate calls for extending the Clean Water surcharge until 2027 and then reducing the rate from .2% to .04% for the 20-year period required to pay off the bond for affordable housing. This creates roughly $40 million in funding for cleaning up the waters of the state while making a critical investment in affordable housing.
Despite his strong support for the housing bond and several other components of the budget bill, the governor has vetoed the bill. By the time you read this, disagreements between the Legislature and the Scott administration may be resolved – an outcome needed to secure the future of this important housing bond.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 862-2267 if you would like me to email or snail mail you a copy of my end of session summary. It will also be up on my website, email@example.com, along with updates related to this week’s special legislative veto session.
Serving at the Statehouse is an amazing honor and privilege. Yet, nothing beats being home in South Burlington. I count on seeing many of you around town, on the bike path, and in the parks this summer and fall. Meanwhile, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with questions about this year’s session or the work to come.
As I begin this column, lawmakers are working overtime to wrap up the 2017 Legislative session. I am here in the Statehouse after hours as key conference committees wrap up their work. Discussions are centering on the budget, the housing bond, economic development, and school finance. This is the time when the most significant policy choices are made.
Much of the media focus of the last month has been on the governor’s proposal to shift teacher collective bargaining from the local to state level. I opposed this shift. School employees, school board members, and other citizens from across the state contacted me on this issue. What I heard most often was a plea to “keep it local.” We know that savings can occur because the Vermont Educational Health Initiative is offering lower cost health care plans available for school staff. I worked to ensure that property taxes are reduced based on expected savings and that a commission is appointed to examine the potential for further change in the system.
The Fiscal Year 2018 budget makes several important investments while containing no new fees or taxes. This budget represents a 1.5% growth in the state’s General Fund, which is below the 3.7% forecasted revenue growth and below the 2% projected Gross State Product growth. It also strengthens and protects our reserves.
This budget adds a total of $8.37 million ($5.9 million for mental health and $2.5 million for developmental services) to increase pay for workers. Investments in mental health crisis staff services are included. There is also an increase of $2.5 million in child care services, appropriated to bring family eligibility services up to the current Federal Poverty Guidelines and to increase subsidies to child care centers and home-based services for infants and toddlers.
Some correctional system reforms are supported through budget provisions. The Southeast Correctional Center (Windsor prison) will be closed, coupled with planning for reuse of the facility for coordinated reentry. The Department of Corrections’ plan for increased use of electronic monitoring is supported. The budget captures federal funds available to secure policy camera equipment. Judiciary system provisions include retroactive pay, Guardian ad Litem and court security improvements, and initiatives in the Attorney General’s office related to civil rights and small businesses.
This budget makes vital investments in housing. On the homelessness front, it maintains the cold weather exemption and adds $600,000 to increase shelter capacity in Rutland and Barre, the two areas that need it most. Even more significantly, this budget provides the means to finance a $35 million bond for the creation of affordable housing for low and moderate income Vermonters. This investment is expected to create up to 650 new homes, leverage an additional $70 to $100 million in investments across the state, create as many as 780 construction jobs, and generate significant additional property tax revenue. I am especially proud of this provision, which is strongly supported by virtually all legislators and the governor.
Sadly, as I conclude this article, the Governor has pledged to veto both the budget bill and the school financing bill. If this occurs, legislators will return to Montpelier on June 21 – before the June 30th end of the fiscal year. Our goal will be to prevent a shutdown of our state government and education systems.
I am eager to be home more than in Montpelier, but know that with uncertainty at the state and federal government levels, the work is far from over. Please stay in touch with your representatives at all levels in the weeks and months to come.
Health Care and Consumer Protection
The Vermont Legislature is hard at work wrapping up the 2017 session. With only two or three weeks to go, key pieces of legislation are passing the House and Senate. Several of these measures involve changes in health care and consumer protection policies.
Last week, the House passed a bill that focuses on workers’ compensation for first responders with post- traumatic stress disorder brought on by extraordinary and unusual work related circumstances. This bill, H.197, was thoroughly reviewed by the Commerce and Health Care Committees before passage by the full House. Several years ago, my committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – was instrumental in securing passage of legislation that establishes a presumption of workers’ comp eligibility for firefighters who experience heart attacks. Research and direct experience establish a link between carbon monoxide exposure experienced by firefighters and heart attacks. H.197 continues support for our first responders who put their lives on the line and can experience adverse health conditions as a result.
The House also took action to expand the current law governing health insurance, under which plans, including Medicaid, need cover only in-person consultation as long as the patient is in a health care facility. S.50 extends the same coverage for telemedicine as for in-person visits, as long as there is a secure connection that is HIPAA- compliant (assuring patient privacy). Insurance plans may not charge more for telemedicine than in-person visits. Expanding telemedicine is expected to reduce transportation costs and inconvenience for patients who have difficulty traveling to see their providers. It also promises to be more efficient in situations where health care providers are in short supply.
The House Health Care Committee has been hard at work on a bill that addresses concerns about the number of psychiatric patients waiting in emergency rooms to receive proper care. There are more than 400 vacancies in Vermont’s mental health care workforce because of difficulties in recruiting and retaining workers. These conditions are severe, and there are no easy answers. The bill under consideration, S.133, calls for the development of a comprehensive action plan by the Secretary of Human Services by September 1, 2017.
Several consumer protection bills have passed or are near passage by both the House and Senate. These bills include initiatives that require telemarketers to provide accurate caller identification information to consumers; require that home improvement contracts be in writing and contain specific provisions, including warranty provisions; and require that home loan escrow accounts provide additional protections for consumers. Last year, the Legislature considered regulating fantasy sports contests but failed to reach agreement on how to proceed. In the fall of 2016, I requested from the Dartmouth College public policy program an analysis of other states’ legislative and court activity related to fantasy sports contests. The House Commerce Committee is utilizing the Dartmouth research in framing its recommendations for action this year.
When I sit down to write next month’s column, I expect we will have adjourned. I will report the final outcomes of initiatives discussed over the last four months: the final budget, housing, paid family leave insurance, economic development, alcohol policy changes, and more.
Meanwhile, thanks to all who have attended the South Burlington Legislative forums held at the Library on the fourth Monday night of each month during the Legislative session. Please join Representatives Ann Pugh, Maida Townsend, and Martin LaLonde, as well as Sen. Michael Sirotkin, moderator Vince Bolduc, and myself at our session wrap-up on Monday, May 22nd at 7pm. Whether at the forum, over the phone, or via email, I look forward to hearing from you.
Focus on Families
My Vermont House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – passed two important family-focused bills last week. One of these bills would provide accommodations for pregnant workers, while the other establishes a family and medical leave insurance program.
The first bill to pass committee allows pregnant employees to request reasonable workplace accommodations. If an employee needs accommodation because of her pregnancy or a pregnancy-related medical condition, she can request changes or modifications in the workplace, duties or other working conditions. Employers may refuse the accommodation if it would result in an undue hardship for the business. “Undue hardship” is defined as an action requiring significant expense or difficulty. That can vary widely depending on the nature of the work and the size of the business.
Testimony on this bill, H 136, revealed that pregnant worker needs can be as simple as the need to have access to more drinking water, a footstool available at a workstation, or more frequent bathroom breaks. Another identified need involves relaxing the requirement of wearing a uniform if it no longer fits. This bill encourages dialog between employer and employee.
Since the early 1990’s, both Vermont and the United States have offered family and medical leave for employees. But neither of these programs has evolved to include income replacement for those families who need leave to take care of their parents or themselves, or to bond with their children. Both the Vermont Paid Family Leave Act and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allow employees to apply for up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave a year for a number of family and medical reasons and they protect the employee from losing their employment, unless their absence creates an undue hardship for their employer. H.196 adds a fiscal element to the leave at a reasonable cost to employees.
Substantial statistical backup for H.196 is included in a report completed for the Vermont Department of Labor and the Vermont Commission on Women. The program would be employee funded and will provide employees with up to twelve weeks of income replacement.
The benefits for employees are numerous. Many families could spend more time bonding with their newborns, strengthening families and potentially saving thousands of dollars in child care. Workers would also be able to take time off for their own medical treatments and take care of a family member at the most vulnerable times of their lives.
The committee heard compelling testimony from mothers unable to take time off following childbirth, childcare providers, and elder care advocates. We also heard from employers who are unable to cover wage replacement for workers taking parental leave. At the same time, employers see financial leave support as key to keeping these valuable employees (often lower wage workers) in their workplaces for the long haul.
We chose to mandate an employee paid leave insurance program due to the fiscal realities of asking the state to pay for their potential share in a year when finances are tighter than ever. Many small businesses wanted to be able to help their employees with this contribution, and may do so voluntarily. H.196 does not extend the existing leave for employees and extends medical leave reasons to include care of grandchildren, siblings and foster children.
Passage of these family friendly bills in committee marks the end of the first phase of the legislative year. Over the next couple of weeks, we will shift attention to full House consideration of these and other committee-passed bills. Then we will take up bills passed by the Senate. I particularly look forward to consideration of the Senate’s housing bill.
I hope to see many of you at the March 27th Legislative Forum. Whether at the Forum, by email or phone, I look forward to hearing from you.
Building the Budget
The Legislature is focused on building the 2018 state budget, which covers the period from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018. Much of the work is happening in the House Appropriations Committee. At the same time, each policy committee is drilling down on several sections of the budget that fit within their areas of jurisdiction. In many ways, this is among our most important tasks. The budget represents funding allocated to the activities of state government and enables the realization of public policy goals.
Budget building begins with the Governor’s budget address in January. Governor Scott then asked most government agencies to level fund their budgets. He also proposed new spending of $17.3 million.
In her Other Paper column early this month, Rep. Ann Pugh talked about the Governor’s address with its focus on new spending and reliance on shifting costs to the Education Fund. Further research and discussions have illuminated the budget challenges.
Proponents of increased support for our state colleges and early childcare systems have been particularly encouraged by the proposal to significantly increase their appropriations. There are very strong needs in both these areas. At the same time, the Legislature is unwilling to accept the Governor’s proposal to balance the budget on the backs of local property tax payers. Without this shift to the property tax, the budget is $50 million out of balance.
The House Appropriations Committee has completed its public hearings on the budget. Two weeks ago, the committee held seven public hearings around the state, with more than 150 people attending. The committee heard strong concern about the urgent needs for mental health treatment and for funding higher education and early education, as well as support for programs like the working lands initiative. Testimony submitted in writing is posted on the Appropriations Committee website, as are all of the documents supporting agency testimony.
My committee – House General, Housing & Military Affairs – is focusing on three key areas in its budget review process. The first is centered in the Agency of Human Services’ Department of Children and Families. Our spotlight here is on emergency housing, home weatherization, and crisis fuel assistance. The proposal is to continue community focused services to alleviate homelessness, and to extend crisis fuel assistance in limited situations. There is also a proposal to expand home weatherization to households with incomes up to 120% of federal poverty guidelines.
The second area of our focus is the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). VHCB creates affordable housing and conserves agricultural and recreational lands, forestland, natural areas, and historic properties. The budget request includes repayment of a $35 million housing bond. I was particularly pleased to see Governor Scott recommend this bond for housing creation and am hopeful that we can make this a reality given our vital need for housing creation. This policy change would require that the first $2.5 million of the property transfer tax revenue repay the bond.
Our final area of review is a section of the state military budget dedicated primarily to tuition support for members of the Vermont National Guard. There is a proposed increase of $500,000 to this section.
General, Housing & Military Affairs is asked to work with designated members of the Appropriations Committee and report our final recommendations in these areas by March 1. Working together the Legislature will produce a balanced budget that meets the needs of Vermonters.
Thanks to all of you who have written with your input about what’s going on under the Golden Dome. I look forward to hearing from you in the weeks ahead.
Paid for by the Helen Head Campaign, Mary L. Gauthier, Treasurer 65 East Terrace, South Burlington, Vermont 05403