BRATTLEBORO—On the eve of “crossover week,” the week on the legislative calendar when lawmakers decide whether bills will survive or be scuttled, members of the Windham County delegation gave their assessment of the session thus far.
At the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legislative Breakfast at the Brattleboro Retreat on March 19, local lawmakers gave updates about some of the legislation they’ve been working on.
Firearms and school safety
Firearms laws have taken center stage this session, as the Parkland, Florida, school shooting last month unleashed a torrent of activism by young people across the country.
“Until we start dealing with the underlying problems of mental health, and societal and family issues, not a whole lot is going to change,” said Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon. “When you see the condition that kids are coming to school [with] today, with emotional problems and the situations at home, you can see how that situation gets exacerbated. That’s taking up the bulk of our conversation.”
Hebert called the concept of school safety “very scary” for lawmakers to grapple with. However, Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, saw it as a priority that lawmakers could not duck as the session enters the homestretch.
“It’s time to do something,” Mrowicki said. “I welcome the opportunity to work with the governor on this and I think we’re going to get something done. Children should not have to worry about going to school.”
Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, who supports the gun control measures being discussed this legislative session, agreed. “This has got to stop,” Stuart said of the yearly toll of gun violence in the U.S. “We don’t need semi-automatic guns in our society.”
On March 24, the House voted 85-59 to approve a Senate bill which expands background checks to private firearms sales, prohibits those under 21 from buying firearms, bans high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, and bans “bump stocks,” a device that increases the firing rate of semi-automatic rifles.
The full Senate is scheduled to take up the House bill this week.
Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, who serves on the House Education Committee, called attention to a bill to change the way special-education services are funded and delivered. The proposed revision would change school district reimbursement to a block grant based on the total school population, and not just on the number of special-ed students in a district.
On March 23, the bill was passed unanimously by the House.
Long said her committee spent nearly the entire session working on this bill because “we wanted to do this right.”
“This is a very big change for school districts,” she said, adding that it will take time to implement but it would reduce bureaucracy and save money.
Long said one of the bigger changes in the special ed bill, besides funding, is allowing schools to use their entire staff to provide services, so districts aren’t as reliant on para-educators.
Stuart also called attention to a bill that would consolidate all the various state efforts focused on workforce development.
“We have a group of fragmented programs that don’t help young people and adults who want to get skills for jobs that are currently in Vermont,” she said. “One survey showed 4,000 jobs in high tech and manufacturing jobs, but nobody to do them.”
Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, has been busy with transportation issues and shepherding a $612 million transportation bill for fiscal year 2019 through the chamber.
Burke said the bill, which was approved on March 21, could provide a 3 percent increase in highway aid to Brattleboro.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, touted a bill that would help the Secretary of State’s Office and the Agency of Commerce create a single online portal to make it easier for new businesses to file their incorporation paperwork with the state.
“Right now, there are a lot of hoops,” she said.
Balint is also backing another bill to find “niche avenues” to bring people and business sectors to Vermont. One example she gave was attracting off-site workers involved in cryptocurrency or other financial technology.
At the same time, Balint supported legislation to level the playing field in the conflict between traditional bed-and-breakfast operations, and the growing online “AirBnB” market that has individuals renting out space in their dwellings at lower prices, as renters avoid paying the state rooms and meal tax.
“There will be an opportunity now for folks who are trying to compete with web platforms,” Balint said, adding that AirBnB users should be paying state taxes.
Both Burke and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke about sexual harassment and steps being taken to eliminate it.
Burke said she is the chair of a sexual harassment committee in the House, while Balint is in charge of the Senate’s counterpart.
Together, the goal is making the Statehouse “a safe workplace for everybody,” Burke said.
A report in Seven Days before the start of the current session quoted several current and former female lawmakers as saying, anonymously, they had experienced harassment inside the Statehouse.
White spoke about the growing trend of the use of private arbitration, rather than a court of law, to resolve disputes, particularly in the online world.
She said employees may unwittingly give up rights with agreements signed online, such as stipulating a small window of time for addressing sexual harassment complaints, the use of out-of-state venues for hearings, and being assigned arbitrators that work for the company.
White said a proposed bill “would say those unconscionable provisions cannot be enforced in Vermont.”