BRATTLEBORO—Over breakfast and coffee, legislators provided an update into the goings on under the golden dome to local business leaders.
The Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a legislative breakfast at the Brattleboro Retreat on March 14. Both Windham County senators attended the morning event. Seven of the county’s 11 representatives attended.
Legislators discussed the hot topics of this legislative session, such as marijuana legalization and sick-leave, as well as the work going on in their committees.
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, started by thanking everyone in the room for helping to send her to Montpelier.
“This is a job that really plays to my strengths and my skill sets,” she said.
Balint focused her statements on the economic development actions being taken in her committees: Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs; Institutions; and Judicial Rules.
This session, Balint said the committees are investigating a workforce housing bill. The bill would help local municipalities obtain funds for infrastructure upgrades related to new housing.
Peer-to-peer lending in Vermont’s entrepreneurial community made the list. First, Balint said, members of the legislature investigated if enough money flowed in the pipeline for entrepreneurs. Yes, there’s enough money available, she said. Entrepreneurs don’t know where to find it. The state will work harder on outreach, she said.
Sen. Jeanette While, D-Windham, also thanked the audience for supporting her. She joked that after 14 years, and the number of votes she had cast, that it was probably easy for people to be mad at her for one way she voted or another.
White serves on the Judiciary Committee and Government Operations Committee.
This session, the Judiciary has spent a lot of time updating legislation like the state’s adoption rules, alimony laws (last updated in the 1950s), and raising juror’s reimbursements from $30 a day to $50 (last updated in the 1970s).
The Judiciary Committee is working on a taxing regulations bill for marijuana. Members also worked on a privacy law governing what data, and how, law enforcement can cull and keep from cell phones.
Government Operations is also reviewing the creation of an ethics panel.
A big item White is working on is a few years out: an amendment to the Vermont Constitution designed to “guarantee privacy.”
Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said he’s spent the last six weeks trying to kill a bill he sponsored. The original bill attempted to remove a $6 a ton tax on waste haulers based in Vermont and who occasionally hauled waste from one state to another. Somehow, that $6 doubled into a $12 tax.
Hebert, who sits on the House Natural Resources and Energy committee, said he’s supporting the siting of a natural gas plant in Vernon.
“It would be a phenomenal economic development package for all of southern Vermont,” he said. The plant could potentially supply local businesses and schools with inexpensive natural gas.
Hebert mentioned S.230, a bill that would provide more say in the siting of renewable energy projects to local municipalities with energy plans.
Sometimes, legislators wander outside their silos, Hebert said. In his case that’s Act 46, the education governance bill, that in Hebert’s words “has caused great angst across the state.”
Hebert urged citizens to contact their legislators whenever they had a topic, bill, or concern they felt passionate about.
“You have to let us all know,” he said.
Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, serves on the House Education Committee.
Last year, Act 46 was the big bill for her committee. An aspect of that bill, “allowable growth” limits, has rolled over into this session. Allowable growth referred to the amount schools could increase their spending based on the previous year’s spending. The limits didn’t work as intended, she said. Lawmakers modified them for this year.
Regardless of what happens with the allowable limits, Long said, the Education Committee will continue to work on cost containment.
Long’s committee also put forward a pilot program about how to best provide special education to students.
The most notable chunk of education spending in Vermont is on special education services, she said. Meanwhile, 75 percent of instruction students receive comes from para-educators. She said that’s not appropriate.
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, came ready to fight on behalf of human services.
“And I’m ready to have that battle,” he said.
Human Services help people preserve their quality of life, he said. The Agency of Human Services is the state’s largest agency. especially money-wise.
There’s a narrative this election cycle to curb “out of control spending,” Mrowicki said. “What does that mean?”
Mrowicki noted a “to-do” in his committee recently over meals on wheels.
What some may call an unnecessary expense, Mrowicki views as money saving measure that keeps people out of nursing homes and pays back the generation that fed and housed the current generation.
For anyone else thinking that Vermont government mismanages its finances, Mrowicki would direct them toward the state’s AAA bond rating.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said that while she’s hopeful for the state’s fiscal health, she is also concerned that Vermont spends more than it takes in.
She praised all the committees’ work this year reviewing programs to see if what the programs the state sponsors deliver what is expected of them.
The bulk of the session for Sibilia and the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development focused on an independent contractor bill.
The bill, “and it was a fight,” Sibilia said, passed out of committee on March 11.
According to Sibilia, past legislation expanded the definition of an employee. This created more uncertainty for those who are self-employed around who pays for worker’s compensation.
Sibilia noted that the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone, which covers Bennington and Windham counties, is moving forward. A committee met over the summer, built a report, and made recommendations. One recommendation was to provide funds for Bennington County to build capacity.
A bill that Sibilia hopes passes out of committee would help towns underserved by high-speed broadband Internet.
Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, also serves on the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development. She said the group had removed some of the red tape governing the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA). The committee also helped rewrite rules for the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive program, which is designed to help employers attract or maintain jobs.
Stuart said her committee also took steps to create a “leg up” for veterans applying to Vermont economic development programs.
Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, read a letter from Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, who was out-of-town and could not attend.
In her letter, Burke listed the work of the House Committee on Transportation, on which she serves. The committee’s work has included finding ways to fund maintenance and infrastructure improvements, looking for funding mechanisms beyond the gas tax (which doesn’t provide enough money), and tightening up DUI laws and safety education for everyone using the roads.
Burke mentioned that the federal government finally approved a five-year transportation bill. This is good news for Vermont — no cancelled infrastructure projects.
Toleno didn’t say much, preferring to leave time for audience questions.
Chamber Executive Director and Selectboard Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor quizzed him about passing the mandatory sick leave bill which provides employees with earned paid sick leave.
Toleno asked everyone in the audience if they either offered or received mandatory sick time? Almost everyone raised their hands.
Then he asked, who felt that the benefit offered was a detriment to their companies and should be scrapped?
No one raised a hand.
Most employment sectors in Vermont have developed to offer paid sick time, he said. A few sectors, like food and retail, unfortunately have not.
This new law ensures everyone is playing by the same rules, he said.
In Toleno’s opinion, the law did a good job balancing the needs of employees with its costs to businesses. While the sick time is mandatory, it is also earned by the employee based on weeks and hours worked. The bill does not offer automatic sick time.